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Big and small ways to save on energy and utility costs

Posted May 13 2010 2:27pm

By Wendy Johnson

So when's the last time you asked your operations VP--or even your front-line maintenance and facilities staff--for their money- and energy-saving ideas? These guys, and gals, know the innards of your facility better than anyone, and are perfectly positioned to know where you're wasting money.

Back when I was a reporter covering the hospital environment of care beat, I interviewed one facilities operations director who described how his Texas hospital saved more than $1 million by implementing some of the common-sense, low-cost ideas that bubbled up from his crew. One tip alone helped save nearly $500,000 in energy costs--simply by making minor adjustments to the chilled water flow rates and the steam temperature.

There were considerably more lofty ideas batted around at a "green" hospitals pow-wow this week in Baltimore, where 800 healthcare industry professionals gathered to share best practices for tackling their toughest environmental challenges.

Interestingly, a study was unveiled at this event that examined how hospitals can save up to 60 percent of their utility use, mainly by making changes to how they heat and cool water.

More than half of the energy a hospital uses goes to heating spaces or hot water. "Heating as the predominant energy load became the largest target of opportunity for energy reduction, specifically re-heat energy," the researchers wrote.

In fact, heating costs represent a hospital's biggest opportunity for energy reduction, specifically 're-heat' energy. Re-heat energy, they explain, involves cooling outside air to a common low temperature. This over-cooled air gets re-distributed throughout the building and is re-heated to a more comfortable temperature.

Yes, you read that right. First the air is cooled, then heated. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the inefficiencies in that equation! No wonder why hospitals use nearly three times more energy than a similar-sized commercial building. (Of course, most commercial buildings don't operate on the same intense 24-hour schedule, or have to conform to the same strict building code regulations.)

The executive summary of the report is an interesting read. And while it talks about building redesigns, hiring architects and other expensive endeavors, I can't help but think of that Texas hospital saving so much money by implementing small fixes--all because a manager asked his rank-and-file workers for their ideas and opinions. Imagine that.

Wendy Johnson is the publisher of FierceHealthcare and a longtime healthcare journalist. She can be reached at

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