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Consultants: Should you spend in order to save on something like energy costs?

Business is tough these days, and if the last thing you have time to think about is making sustainability part of your operation, there are increasing numbers of consultants who know where to start. A good consultant should be able to look at your situation objectively and identify and implement the solution to the problem more quickly and efficiently than you or your staff could.

Business is tough these days, and if the last thing you have time to think about is making sustainability part of your operation, there are increasing numbers of consultants who know where to start. A good consultant should be able to look at your situation objectively and identify and implement the solution to the problem more quickly and efficiently than you or your staff could. When you are close to a situation, there is often a tendency to favor a predetermined solution rather than a creative one, so the objective point of view and special expertise of a consultant experienced with sustainability issues would likely pay for itself quickly.

Before hiring a consultant, you should clarify your expectations. Determine what needs to be accomplished, whether it is a report or a new system, and establish a timeframe. Decide if you need to assemble a project committee to identify and screen potential consultants, and figure out who will be the lead contact and who will make decisions when they are required. In most situations, you would put together an RFP (request for a proposal) outlining this information, then select a firm or consultant that you decide will best meet your needs and budget.

A big step toward sustainability can be achieved by reducing waste, which means not only material waste, but also wasted energy. Hiring a consultant to investigate potential ways to save energy could save you a lot on your overhead costs, as Robin Kent of consulting engineers Tangram Technology Ltd. (Hitchin, England; www.tangram.co.uk) made clear in the valuable tips for saving energy he gave to attendees at the Sustain ’08 plastics business summit last November in Chicago.

Even though an estimated 35% of manufacturing costs is tied up in overhead, with 6% being direct energy, Kent estimates that only 10% of our efforts go into controlling energy use. Instead of trying to reduce the cost of energy through reducing the cost per kWh, Kent advises reducing the amount of energy used by smart energy management for a permanent fix. And energy reduction isn’t only about the lighting. Kent estimates that two-thirds of the energy a facility consumes is used in polymer processing, with another 11% for chillers and 10% for compressors.

How do you start analyzing your energy use? Kent recommends developing a site energy map, counting the number of lights, motors, and heaters, and measuring and recording by sub-area or machine, if possible. After you’ve compiled the data into a report, distribute it among employees and make energy saving a priority, getting the whole company involved.

Investing in energy-efficient machinery is a good idea, and often the return on the extra cost will happen sooner rather than later. The easiest way to conserve energy in equipment is simply to turn off machines and ancillaries when they aren’t being used. Linking downstream equipment to main machinery can help stop them from operating when the machines aren’t in use.

Variable-frequency drives on fans and pumps can slow things down to save energy, and starting up and shutting down machines in the right sequence can reduce the maximum demand to avoid high peaks. Insulation isn’t just to prevent heat losses from hot surfaces; in addition to insulating barrels, insulating cold surfaces like chilled water piping can prevent parasitic heat gain.

One of the biggest energy wasters comes from using compressed air, with Kent estimating that 40% of generated compressed air is lost in leaks. An ultrasonic tester is a great investment to find these leaks in a noisy factory setting. Also, lowering the pressure from 100-115 psi to whatever minimum pressure is needed will save a lot over time.

If you feel prepared to tackle some changes on your own, we wish you the best with your research and problem solving. But if you can’t spare the staff time to come up with a solution on your own, a credible, objective resource to supplement your staff expertise might be just what you need. We’ll keep giving you tips and resources to help achieve your sustainability goals, but a good consultant can find a plan specific to your operation to start you on your way.—[email protected]

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