It is a given that businesses that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week are going to constantly draw power from the grid. Finding ways to cut down on the energy needed to run the business makes financial sense, and it also benefits the environment. Today’s technology is making it easier, more affordable and more convenient for business owners to swap out traditional lighting and fixtures to energy-efficient models. From LED lights to low-flow toilets, truckstop and travel plaza operators are making investments that produce both short- and long-term savings.
To see immediate energy savings, Michael Lawshe of Paragon Solutions suggests operators install LED lighting in their fuel canopies. “If you’re not doing that now, you’re nuts because the payback is usually less than two years,” he said. In areas where operators have a low cost per kilowatt, payback can take longer, and areas with the best payback are those where operators are paying 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt.
Dave Shoemaker of Shoemaker's Travel Plaza said LED lighting was one of the best investments he made during a recent rebuild of his location. He uses it on his truck and car canopies as well as in his coolers. “They really brighten up the product in the cooler,” he said.
Lawshe said there are typically retrofit kits available that let operators swap out fluorescent bulbs in coolers with LED. “It is typically a 2.5-year payback,” he said.
Don Demko of Eco Travel Plaza has invested in LED lighting outside of the store, both on his canopies and on some signage. Demko said one sign went to a 1-amp draw from a 12-amp draw after switching it to LED.
While LED lighting leads to greater savings and produce a bright, brilliant light, it isn’t necessarily appropriate in all areas of a truckstop or travel plaza, Lawshe explained.
“A lot of people think the simple answer is to put LED everywhere. While that will save money, it isn’t always the best answer,” Lawshe said. “Often times inside a store within the travel centers, you’re trying to create different moods. You don’t want the harsh LED in a restaurant, but you might want it in a produce section or somewhere you want the bright brilliance.”
Inside the store, Demko turned to T-8 lighting instead of LED. “The cost is so much less and the energy savings are still high, so it works better than using much higher-cost LED with more energy savings,” he explained.
A growing number of locations are relying on natural light, which often produces a better light and cuts costs. “The sun is the benchmark that we use to measure light. That number is 100. A lot of these light fixtures might only be a 70 or 75,” Lawshe said. “Instead of enclosing the box and then lighting it up, why don’t we let God light it up?”
Locations can use windows, solar tubes or skylights to increase the amount of natural light. Those options do come with some challenges, such as heat loss and water leakage, Lawshe explained. “That being said, we’ve done it and done it successfully,” he added.
To maximize natural light, Shoemaker installed a lot of windows and then placed light sensors on interior lights. “When the sun comes out, the lights go off,” he said, adding that he also uses sensors on outdoor lighting so he doesn’t have to worry about employees turning on or shutting off the lights.
Cutting down on water consumption can also save operators money. How much depends on the cost of water in the area. “We had a Las Vegas customer that looked at reclaiming the water in a carwash. They saved 1.8 million gallons of water a year in a single-bay carwash. The payback was so fast—1.2 years—it was amazing.”
Shoemaker said one of his best investments was low-flow toilets, but he said operators need to buy the right toilets. “The first ones we had in our new building were a true headache. Then we switched to Sloan power flush. I could do a commercial for them. They save water and actually work all of the time—sometimes too good,” he said.
Energy Management Systems
Energy management systems, which program lighting, HVAC systems, refrigeration and more, help companies avoid energy spikes, which can drive costs higher. “It is basically a smart box that controls things that are as simple as timers or switches or thermostats and takes it out of the employees’ hands," Lawshe said, adding that the systems can ensure that no two compressors come on at the same time, keeping costs down. “EMS will save you 15 to 30 percent in your overall energy.”
Shoemaker invested in computer-controlled heat and air conditioning, which keeps the employees from adjusting the thermostat. “Also all of our heat and air are from heat pumps. It is impressive that even when it is in the single digits outside, they still generate heat,” he added.
Shoemaker also invested in a variable speed hood in the kitchen, which is designed to come on slowly and ramp up as needed. “The more you cook, the faster it runs,” Shoemaker explained.
However, because the grills and fryers are always on, Shoemaker said he hasn’t seen the hood shut down. He added, “The one in the back of the kitchen—the prep area—works well because the stove and oven do get shut off and so the exhaust fans actually will quit running, and anything that saves from sucking hot or cold treated air out of the building is a good thing.”
While solar panels might seem like a good investment, Lawshe advised operators to crunch the numbers carefully as the payback can take ten years or more. “They do generate energy, but they’re very expensive. The financial payback isn’t always there quickly,” he said, adding that with government grants the payback can drop down to five years. “You have to look at the incentives and then do the math.”
Operators may see a faster payback period with strategically placed solar panels, such as those used to power pole lights. “If you have an old truckstop and the lighting is terrible, you can drop a pole, add a solar panel on top and you don’t have to put conduit in and run it out to a pole. There is a time and a place for solar panels,” Lawshe said.
Demko said he has seen significant savings—$1,000 a month— from adding 35kW solar panels to his business. He was able to fund the project through grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Solar. The panels generate significant electricity, which Demko sells back to the grid.
Shoemaker said he is looking forward to a more inexpensive solar panel. “I think when they get the cost down, that will certainly be something to look at,” he said.
Know Before You Go
While energy-efficient products can save money, Lawshe said operators shouldn’t invest in technology arbitrarily. “Do an audit and research where the return is,” he said, adding that vendors can often conduct an energy audit. “The challenge is that if they’re just a lighting guy, they’ll focus on lighting. It might make sense to use a broad-based consultant.”
The right consultant can give operators a “playbook” that outlines investments and return, Lawshe said. “It will tell you, ‘If I spend this $100,000, I will get a payback in one year.’”
While operators will face an initial investment in new energy-efficient technologies, they may be able to take advantage of grants that help defray the costs.
“The first place I would go is www.dsireusa.org. There are processes and paperwork involved, but if you take the time, you can do it,” Lawshe said, adding that in some cases lighting distributors or specialty consultants will complete the paperwork on their customers’ behalf. “Oftentimes that is the best way to go because they already know the people and the process and they have done it before,” Lawshe said.
Shoemaker applied for and received a grant from Blue Skyways for the L.E.D. lighting on his canopies. His wife, Karen, wrote the application.
Sometimes calculating the exact return on investment on energy-efficient technology can be difficult.
“It is hard for us to quantify our overall savings from any one source except solar since we also added energy efficient HVAC units, LED lighting in the coolers, new coolers, etc. We also added new equipment, i.e. grab and go, food warmers, etc., which consume energy we didn’t use before,” Demko said.
Lawshe said there are several small, one-off projects that can contribute to energy savings, such as using concrete instead of asphalt, installing a white roof or insulating the slabs walk-in coolers sit on.
“If you’re not insulating your floor, the energy—the cold—is flowing out. Put your hand down on your floor in front of your cooler and feel the temperature. If it is cold, that energy is coming from your cooler and you’re paying for that,” Lawshe said.
Locations going green can obtain LEED Certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The voluntary, market-driven program provides third-party verification of green buildings. For commercial buildings a project must satisfy all LEED prerequisites and earn a minimum of 40 points on a 110-point LEED rating system scale.
However, Lawshe warned operators seeking certification that there are certain hoops they have to jump through and the certification costs can range from $50,000 to $75,000 dollars.
“Anytime you have a quasi government entity guiding this, you have this big conglomerate and there is silliness involved,” Lawshe said.
For example, operators can get points for installing bicycle racks. “Putting bicycle racks in a truckstop makes no sense, but you can get a point for it,” Lawshe said.
Shoemaker said he found that the payback isn’t worth the expense of obtaining LEED Certification. “It is not a bad idea, but you can spend your money in different areas with better results,” he said.
Learn more about LEED certification.
Resources For Going Green
National Association of State Energy Officials
Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency
Photo Credit: Eco Travel Plaza
This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazine. Stop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.
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