Energy generally represents about 6 to 18 percent of total operating costs for U.S. dry cleaners, but experts speculate that rising energy prices have resulted in utility bills as high as 25 percent of total operating costs. Large amounts of natural gas are needed to run the boilers used for water heating and steam production; the majority of the electric load comes from space heating and cooling, lighting, dry-cleaning machines, and reciprocating equipment such as air compressors. In addition, according to a 2004 study (PDF) prepared for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, certain systems use chilled water to reduce waste heat from pipes and to cool the pipes themselves, and most cleaners have cooling towers or chilled water systems on the premises (Table 1).
To better manage a building’s energy costs, it helps to understand how you are charged for those costs. Most utilities charge commercial buildings for natural gas based on the amount of energy delivered. Electricity, on the other hand, can be charged based on two measures: demand and consumption. The consumption component of the bill is based on the amount of electricity, in kilowatt-hours (kWh), that the building uses each month. The demand component is measured in kilowatts—many electric utilities structure billing rates based on the average demand of a facility, in 15-minute increments, during a billing period. Demand charges can range from a few dollars to upwards of $20 per kilowatt-month. If the electric bill for your facility includes demand charges, work to reduce your demand whenever possible.
In a 2009 study prepared for Sempra Utilities and Southern California Edison, “Comparison of Electricity and Natural Gas Use of Five Garment Care Technologies” (PDF), estimates of median 15-minute demand levels for leading garment-care technologies show that professional wet cleaning (PWC) is, by far, the most energy-efficient technique. The savings possible by changing from one of the less-efficient techniques to PWC can be as high as 75 percent (Table 2). Contact your utility for the monthly figures of your energy use; some utilities will also assist with bill analysis.
Energy costs are among the few expenses that can be decreased without negatively affecting product quality or staffing needs. By implementing energy-efficient operations and maintenance strategies and adding features to increase the efficiency of existing equipment, you can achieve substantial energy savings while improving the indoor environment of your facility. Cutting energy costs can give a competitive edge, especially for midrange dry cleaners (those that are neither discount nor high-end and that do not compete on price or exclusivity). Adopting an energy-saving agenda also attracts eco-conscious consumers who are often willing to pay more for products and services that they perceive as environmentally sound.
The best way to start saving energy in your facility is with strategies that are easy to implement, those that are free, or those that cost very little.
An on-site energy audit shows how much energy your facility consumes and reveals problems that, when corrected, could save you significant amounts of money. An audit is highly recommended as the first step toward implementing an efficiency program, and many utilities offer the service free or at a discount. Audits generally consist of a walk-through inspection of a facility’s physical characteristics. Auditors commonly check the temperatures of air-conditioning systems, refrigerators, and water heaters; inspect weather stripping and caulking around doors and windows; check thermostat calibration; and inspect air filters and duct systems. In some cases, diagnostic equipment is used to further investigate potential savings opportunities in a facility’s building shell, boiler, and reciprocating equipment. Once the audit is complete, the auditor will make specific recommendations for improving the efficiency of your facility, prioritized by level of cost-effectiveness in order of greatest to least.
The quickest and easiest way to implement load reductions is to ensure that equipment is turned off when it’s not needed. By simply turning equipment off when it’s not in use, facilities can achieve energy savings of up to 25 percent.
Lighting. Encouraging employees to turn off lights on their way out—one idea is to put up signs in break rooms and bathrooms—can save 8 to 20 percent of the energy spent on lighting. Alternatively, equipment such as occupancy sensors and photosensor controls adjust indoor lighting based on natural light levels. These features ensure that lighting levels are appropriately maintained, and they don’t require staff training. Timers installed on outdoor signage and window displays also reduce costs.
Office equipment. Turn off printers, computers, fax machines, and coffeemakers each night, over holiday breaks, and when not in use. And employing sleep mode settings on computer monitors can save as much as $75 per desktop system annually.
Boilers. Optimizing steam production and distribution can improve site efficiency and performance significantly. Research suggests that losses from steam systems make up approximately 35 percent of all identified potential energy savings in a dry cleaning facility. Consider installing timers to shut down boilers when not in use.
Some equipment cannot be turned off entirely, but turning it down to minimum levels when possible can save energy.
HVAC systems. Using a programmable thermostat properly to control temperature can save up to $150 in energy costs per year. Other low-cost strategies to cut heating and cooling costs include installing ceiling fans to circulate air, taking weatherization steps such as sealing gaps around doors and windows to minimize air infiltration, and installing insulation on water pipes to reduce heat loss.
Boilers. Boilers can account for 20 to 60 percent of total energy costs. Recommended efficiency improvements include installing controls such as vent (or flue) dampers that prevent chimney losses by closing off a boiler’s vent when the boiler isn’t firing, timers that allow boilers to be sequenced according to variations in the heating load, and variable speed drives on boiler fans and circulation pumps.
Proper equipment maintenance increases overall efficiency, extends the useful life of equipment, and prevents the need for early and costly replacement. In a 2007 survey issued by American Drycleaner, 61.5 percent of respondents reported that they had “performed maintenance to ensure the efficient operation of existing equipment.” If you’re not sure where to start, Chapter 9 (PDF) of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Federal Energy Management Program’s O&M manual offers maintenance checklists for a number of equipment types, including several that are particularly pertinent to dry cleaners.
Boilers. The amount of natural gas a facility consumes is highly dependent on the condition of boilers and steam-delivery systems, making boiler maintenance especially important. By repairing leaking steam traps and insulating pipe work to reduce heat loss, you can achieve energy savings of between 10 and 30 percent. Incorporate inspections of piping, joints, drain valves, and flexible hoses into regular maintenance routines.
Chillers. Chiller systems used to cool water to transfer heat away from dry-cleaning machines consume a considerable amount of electricity. A poorly maintained system can have annual operating costs that are 2 to 3 percent higher than they should be. Basic maintenance steps include sealing refrigerant leaks, maintaining appropriate compressor pressure levels, and optimizing temperature setpoints.
Air compressors. If your facility uses a compressed air system, make sure that hoses and valves aren’t leaking. A poorly maintained system can waste between 25 and 35 percent of its air due to leaks alone. In addition, intake vents, air filters, and heat exchangers that are cleaned regularly will increase both equipment life and productivity.
Replacing old, inefficient equipment maximizes the energy-saving (and therefore the cost-saving) potential of your facility. The best time to consider replacement is when existing equipment is over 10 years old.
Lighting. Lighting upgrades require the lowest investment for the returns they yield. Replace T12 fluorescent lamps and magnetic ballasts with fixtures that use T8 lamps and electronic ballasts; replace incandescent lamps with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); install motion sensors in frequently unoccupied areas such as restrooms, storage areas, and break rooms; and upgrade exit signs to light-emitting diode (LED) models.
Wet cleaning. Although an estimated 70 percent of dry cleaners use cleaning solvents based in perchloroethylene (PCE), there is a current trend toward “greener” alternatives. In terms of energy efficiency, wet-cleaning systems use just 9.3 kWh per 100 pounds of garments, compared with 26.6 kWh for PCE machines (see Table 1). Computer-controlled washers and dryers, horizontal cleaning drums, high-speed moisture extraction, moisture sensors, and the elimination of cooling systems are all features that enhance the efficiency of wet-cleaning systems.
Boilers. Energy Star–rated boilers use about 6 percent less energy than standard models. Installing such options as condensing models could reduce heating costs by one-third. Made of noncorrosive stainless steel, condensing boilers have the added benefit of reduced maintenance costs.
Steam traps. Steam traps are automatic valves that release condensed steam from the boiler while preventing the loss of live steam. A steam trap with a valve stuck half-open for half a year can result in an annual fuel cost of over $4,000. Tools such as ultrasonic leak detectors can effectively detect faulty traps. The tool isolates sound frequencies, compares the frequencies to those of a properly functioning steam trap, and shows analysis to users via a digital display.
Heat recovery. Heat recovery is increasing in popularity among dry cleaners. Heat-recovery systems capture exhaust heat and transfer the heat to incoming boiler feed water, reducing the amount of energy needed to heat water.
Hot water systems. If your water heater uses natural gas, consider switching to a high-efficiency version. Ultra-efficient and condensing natural gas models are available that are 18 to 36 percent more efficient than conventional gas water heaters.
If you have an electric water heater, consider a heat-pump system. Especially in areas with a moderate to warm climate, a heat-pump system can do the same job as standard electric water heaters but use half the electricity. What’s more, the heat pump transfers heat from your building’s interior into the water tank, thereby reducing the load on your air-conditioning system.