7 ways healthcare facilities can boost energy efficiency

Health care facilities consume large amounts of energy and produce high levels of waste. Eight percent of carbon emissions in the United States come from healthcare. From heart monitors to CT scanners to lifesaving equipment kept at full power 24 hours a day so they can be used at a moment’s notice, administrators often worry that they cannot save on utilities and lower their environmental impact without affecting patient care. The good news—it can be done.

Research shows that in the mid-2000s, hospital energy costs rose by 56 percent.

Auditing your healthcare facility and hiring an energy manager has proven to be well worth the investment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every dollar saved on energy output equals a $10 increase in revenue for medical office buildings and a $20 increase in revenue for hospitals.

Weed Army Community Hospital at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is one of the best examples of a healthcare facility that has made the leap toward lower utility bills and sustainability. Using solar power and other renewable energy systems, the 215,000-square-foot facility is on its way to becoming one of country’s only net-zero hospitals. A 2.4 megawatt solar photovoltaic array and solar thermal array now take care of most of the hot water the hospital requires each day. Rebates with local utility companies secured the hospital more than $2 million in savings to offset the initial cost of the projects.

Overall, energy use at Weed Army Community Hospital has decreased by 33.2 percent. Greenhouse emissions have decreased by 1,403 metric tons per year below the baseline.

So what steps can you take to lower your utility bills, lower carbon emissions and make your healthcare facility more energy efficient? Start with the following seven suggestions:

  1. Set energy use goals and hire a professional responsible for keeping tabs. A 2015 survey revealed that less than half of health facilities in the United States have energy use targets that are monitored by a professional. Only 29 percent had a sustainability manager to oversee utilities and energy output. Hiring an energy manager is key to meeting your goals. The money saved through his or her expertise will easily cover the investment.
  2. Keep up with the new, more sustainable equipment models being produced by manufacturers. The latest designs in MRI and CT scanners are lighter, smaller and use up to 50 percent less energy than previous models. They also require less shielding for the patient because radiation output is minimized. The new CT scanners operate 75 percent faster than their predecessors, increasing the efficiency of hospital staff and lowering the energy cost per patient per scan. 
  3. Search for “leaking” electricity. Before investing in new machinery, have the medical equipment already on site audited for energy use. It may be that major equipment needs an upgrade, but it may be that minor equipment plugged in all day is consuming energy even when turned off. For clinics and laboratories only open during normal business hours, this means much of your equipment is idling 16 hours a day. Energy efficient power strips can stop drawing energy when the equipment is not in use.
  4. Take a look at your laundry services. ENERGY STAR-labeled washing machines use 63 percent less energy and half the water of conventional washing machines. Your staff can also be trained on when cold-water rinses are appropriate, as hot rinse settings use twice as much energy.
  5. Redesign waste management. Hospitals in the United States produce 6,600 tons of waste a day. Fifty front-of-house trashcans at a busy hospital can produce 40,000 bags-to-the-dumpster a year. A study by the Commonweath Fund revealed that rethinking how you manage waste results in a five-year savings average of 40 cents per patient day. You may need to monitor for misuse of red medical waste bags, as it costs 13 times more to dispose of medical waste than regular waste. For public trash bins, Wi-Fi enabled cans with smart sensors can compact trash as it accumulates then signal a central computer when it is ready to be emptied. This prevents the bins from overflowing during peak use and prevents staff from using their time and resources to empty a can that is only half full.
  6. Upgrade computers and other office equipment. ENERGY STAR-qualified office products like printers, monitors, scanners, mailing machines and water coolers consume 30 to 75 percent less energy than standard models. Flat-screen computer monitors also use considerably less energy. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center installed a computer program to monitor power settings for 25,000 PCs across its on-site network, enabling administrators to put them in a sleep mode at night. A grant from the local utility company covered 30 percent of the project’s costs, and the hospital cut 50 percent of the power used by PCs.
  7. Consider renewable sources of energy. Like Weed Army Community Hospital turned to solar power to cut its energy use by a third, Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin uses waste biogas created in the La Crosse County landfill to create electricity and heat that fully powers one of its multiple building healthcare campuses. A geothermal heat pump system heats and cools one hospital, and a biomass boiler at the main hospital’s campus takes care of 38 percent of the system’s energy needs. Solar panels power the underground parking garage, and a solar hot water unit offsets 85 percent of the Child Care Center’s hot water needs. Gundersen became the first health system in the nation to attain complete energy independence in 2014.

Last December, during the United Nation’s Conference on Climate Change, health system representatives from around the world gathered in Paris to announce a series of commitments to reduce carbon emissions. More than 50 major health systems, hospitals, and health organizations representing over 8,200 hospitals and health centers in 16 countries from every continent joined the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge and pledged to reduce their own carbon footprint and pursue economic solutions to protect public health from climate change.

In South Korea, the Yonsei University Health System pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020. Several Swedish health systems, including the Region Skåne, are set to become fossil fuel free. The Sustainable Development Unit of the NHS and Public Health England pledged to reducing their carbon emissions by at least 34 percent.

 The key to joining the progress toward energy efficiency in healthcare is clear—the help of a resource efficiency manager. Contacting a renewable energy engineering firm is the first step in finding the professionals you need. Audit your current energy output; make a plan for upgrades, retrofits and changes; and then find the right specialist to help you monitor and meet your goals. This strategy is changing the face of spending and sustainability in the healthcare industry, one building and campus at a time.

Article originally posted on Al.com.