County saved thousands in energy costs

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Your parents were right _ turning off the lights and controlling the heat will save money. And if you have several thousand lights and several buildings, the savings will add up, as Portage County commissioners have confirmed.

Three years ago, Portage County contracted with Control Services & Installation for an energy conservation project in the county administration building, county prosecutor's building, county courthouse in Ravenna and Kent municipal courthouse. CSI was the winner out of four firms that bid on the work. CSI had previously done work at several Kent school buildings.

CSI General Manager Jeffrey Carr recently gave the first annual report on the project, showing county facilities saved more than $175,000 in energy costs last year, or nearly twice as much as the guaranteed savings.

"We are hopeful we will continue to see some increases each year," Carr said. "We think that year two will show increased savings. My goal is $200,000 next year. I think it's possible."

It was the first such county building project in the state, using state energy legislation originally aimed at retrofitting public school buildings. Under expanded authorization, county buildings were allowed to borrow state money for the work. In Portage County's case, commissioners used general fund cash to pay for the work but still got the guaranteed savings.

The $998,000 contract was to change lights in the buildings to more energy efficient models, and computerize heating, cooling and ventilation controls in the buildings.

In exchange, the county gets a guarantee from CSI that the county will save 10 percent of the contract total each year over the life of the 10-year agreement. If savings are less than CSI's guarantee, the firm will pay the difference.

Commissioners are very pleased with the results of the project.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," Chuck Keiper said. "If the trend continues we'll be a million and three-quarters (dollars) ahead of where we would have been."

As nice as the savings are, commissioners said the project is valuable because of the intangibles, such as the temperature and lighting levels of the buildings.

"The comfort level of this (administration) building was entirely unpredictable," Keiper recalled. "You'd freeze in July and roast in January."

Employees had their own way of dealing with the vagaries of heating and cooling. Carr said he has seen buildings where workers used ice cubes on thermostats to make the heat kick on, or put paper towels dipped in hot water on thermostats to keep the air conditioning running. On his first trip through the county administration building, Carr found a thermostat someone had jammed with a pencil.

"That was the first time I'd seen that," he said.

Indoor air quality was an important issue for the county buildings where several hundred people work each day and several hundred more come in on business. The key to comfort is to make sure that all rooms have fresh air during the day, Carr said.

Chris Smeiles noted lights in the administration building hadn't been updated since they were installed in the former hospital building. The lenses were old and yellow, leaving hallways dim and office workers straining to see.

"Just about everywhere you went, we didn't meet OSHA (federal safety) regulations," Smeiles said.

The project included changing out some 4,000 fluorescent light fixture ballasts and more than 12,000 fluorescent bulbs. New solid state electronic ballasts only use half the power of the originals. New power burners were put on heating boilers. Heating and cooling equipment, including boiler controls, were automated and computerized, and new sensors and thermostats were installed to even out the comfort levels of the building, Carr said. Each month CSI performs preventive maintenance on the systems to keep them operating at peak efficiency.

Ironically, this year's mild winter hasn't helped hold down energy costs. The heating and cooling equipment runs better at temperature extremes. And it doesn't run at all in milder temperatures. "If we get a really wild winter next year, that's when it's better, believe it or not," Carr said.

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