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The Label of a Healthy Community: Why Now Is the Time for Hospitals to Pursue the Energy Star Label

By Megan Headley

In facility management, you’ve likely seen your share of light bulbs and building products carrying the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star label. You know Energy Star as a voluntary program that shows that certain products meet stringent requirements for energy efficiency. But few hospital facility managers think of Energy Star as a label that their building can use to demonstrate the administration’s commitment to reducing energy use and being part of a green, healthy community.

“Most hospitals aren’t really generally aware of Energy Star,” finds Ben Whitsett, senior vice president with Ridgecrest Energy Advisors in Houston. Ridgecrest has worked with a number of hospitals striving to reach this label. According to Whitsett, “If you talk to commercial building owners and managers, they’ve been trying to get Energy Star for their buildings for years now, and it’s very competitive. But hospitals, well, if you need to go to the hospital you don’t check their Energy Star rating before you jump in an ambulance. Hospitals are only just starting to come around.”

Many are starting to come around because this label of efficiency is just one more competitive advantage to tout in this age of Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems scores.

And as Jerry Moyer, director of plant operations at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, points out, in this day and age it’s not enough to simply be energy-efficient. “We all can say that we are energy-efficient, but can we prove it? For any director or manager to have his or her facility earn Energy Star certification for building and plants is like winning the lottery, but you work much harder. It also allows the patients, visitors and staff and the world know that we are doing our part in reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Winning a Lot for Very Little Cost

EPA calls its Energy Star label a “budget-tested and planet-approved strategy for achieving the triple bottom line.” Commercial projects earn the label by benchmarking their energy use in EPA’s Portfolio Manager online tool for measuring and tracking energy and water use. For hospitals, that means looking at energy use per square foot and then taking into account factors such as number of hospital beds, number of employees and climates. Hospitals are then ranked nationwide. A score of 75 or higher indicates that the building is intended to perform among the top 25 percent of similar buildings nationwide.

According to Whitsett, few hospitals are really making an effort to go after the Energy Star label. “As a matter of fact, only about 13 or 14 in the state of Texas have ever been rated and last year there were only seven or eight,” he says. He adds, “Each year you have to recertify and submit your information and get approval to hold your certification because it’s an annual [requirement].”

However, Energy Star is a way not just to save money but to differentiate a building from competitors with objective, government-backed benchmarks. What’s more, the top-ranked hospital in 2011 invested very little capital to earn that differentiating label.

St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, Texas, worked with Ridgecrest to improve its energy efficiency, and it consequently became the top-ranked hospital in the 2011 Energy Star National Building Competition, an annual contest designed to encourage reductions in energy use.

Built in 2005, the six-year-old St. Mark’s was fairly efficient compared with much of the building stock across the country, making it that much more surprising to the facility management team when a few small tweaks made dramatic improvements in efficiency.

“The biggest [improvement] was going through and readjusting how the computer system controlled the building,” explains Mel Burgess, director of facilities for St. Mark’s. According to Burgess, “All of the heating and air conditioning is computer based.”

“It was a new hospital … when we first talked to them, so they really didn’t think there was much opportunity to reduce energy consumption,” Whitsett recalls. “But since we offered to do an analysis at our expense, they said ‘sure, if there is some way to cut energy-related costs, let’s do it.’”

“Ridgecrest came in and helped us figure out where we could reset the [control] parameters to still do the same job but much more efficiently,” Burgess says. “There was very little expenditure on our part.”

In this case, improvements were primarily operational and procedural, and most of it could be automated within the control system that they already had, Whitsett says. “They had a very nice system, but what you find in most buildings, not just hospitals, is that they’re set up pretty much all the same, in that each building is different … You can find ways to fine-tune the systems so that they not only provide comfortable and safe space conditions for hospitals but also save a lot of energy in doing so.”

While operations took the lion’s share of the improvements, replacing inefficient boilers was the final step that helped the building achieve the Energy Star label, a designation toward which Ridgecrest pushed the medical center.

“They knew nothing about Energy Star,” Whitsett says. However, Ridgecrest runs projects through EPA’s Portfolio Manager as a matter of course. For buildings that are close to the achievement, the company might push harder to earn the widely recognized label.

The medical center’s management was quick to jump aboard, since there were little upfront costs and guaranteed savings, Burgess says. Now the company also is able to advertise a commitment to an all-around healthy community.

As Burgess says, “The Energy Star is a high label to achieve, and getting it means you have made some tremendous cuts in your energy consumption.”

Within Reach

Mercy Philadelphia Hospital was another facility that didn’t have Energy Star in mind until after its energy plan had already brought the rating within reach.

“We had no idea that we would be applying for the Energy Star-certified building status,” Moyer says, noting that the hospital was working toward energy efficiency for its own benefit at first. “We spent most of 2008 and 2009 developing and implementing a plan to reduce energy usage.”

Over the years those projects have included nighttime HVAC setbacks and set points in all occupied and unoccupied areas of the facility; reducing steam pressure to the facility from 100 to 60 pounds; installing insulation on heat exchangers and piping where needed; using a vacuum pipe system with recycled water at only 1.0 gpm; replacing all T-12 lamps and lighting fixtures with T-8 lamps and electronic ballasts or LEDs; and installing day-night sensors.

“It was an article I read about Energy Star-labeled buildings that sparked my interest [in the certification]. In 2010, we applied for Energy Star certification and realized how well we had been doing, as we ended up earning an Energy Star rating of 90. We went on to earn a rating of 99 and then 100 in the following years,” Moyer adds.

According to Moyer, anyone aiming for an Energy Star level of efficiency would have to have an energy plan in place.

“One of the first things to do is to become an Energy Star partner under building and plants,” he explains. “Once you become a partner you will be able to utilize all the tools that Energy Star offers.”

The next step, Moyer says, is to establish an energy conservation team. Mercy’s team is made up of members of the facility department who meet monthly to discuss new areas where they can reduce energy usage. As with St. Mark’s, many of these areas are simply procedural.

By way of example, Moyer shares, “Our energy conservation team uses the phrase ‘turn it off, turn it off, turn it off.’ The team’s goal is to look every day for ways to reduce energy usage. Our energy conservation team has purchased green T-shirts with the slogan ‘turn it off, turn it off, turn it off’ on the back. These are worn every Friday to remind colleagues to look for ways to reduce and/or save energy,” he says.

Not One-Size-Fits-All

For some hospitals, reaching the 75th percentile is a matter of minor tweaks. For others, it’s a much loftier goal that will require a significant investment.

“The biggest challenge for the hospital industry right now, quite frankly, is spending money on everything,” Whitsett says. “Costs are rising to provide quality healthcare and stay competitive with other new hospitals popping up in the area, so facility managers obviously are being asked to do more with less than they had five or 10 years ago. That’s been a challenge.”

It remains a barrier to earning the Energy Star achievement, Whitsett says, because of a perception in the marketplace that achieving Energy Star means spending money. To some degree, he adds, that is true. It does require certification from a professional engineer before an application to become Energy Star-certified can be submitted. And most facility managers have taken on commonsense measures such as encouraging people to turn lights off and not crank thermostats down to 68 in the winter and up to 75 in the summer, meaning that only bigger-ticket items may remain for putting a dent in the utility bills.

However, as Whitsett says, “Any facility can set up a Portfolio Manager account and determine what its number is, if you’ve got at least a year’s worth of utility data.”

Taking a look at the data and putting the goal within reach can be just the push your facility needs to reach for the Star.

For more information about Energy Star for healthcare facilities, visit www.energystar.gov.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer with 10 years of experience writing about the built environment. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.

Date: 
March 20, 2014

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