How to keep the cold from icing up profit

By Joyce Rosenberg Associated Press

This winter’s long cold snap has made people across the country miserable. Many small business owners are going to feel even worse when they see their heating bills.

The added expense of keeping businesses warm when the temperature takes a dive cuts into already thin cash flows. It’s not just the cost of natural gas and heating oil — electrical use can go up, too.

Business owners need to be sure they’re not losing money to drafty windows and doors, so this is the perfect time to look over a workplace and see how it can be made more energy-efficient.

Two key questions for an owner to consider: What can you do right now to save money, and how can you to lower your bills in the coming years?

The short term

A trip to the home improvement or hardware store can save you plenty on heating bills. And what you do now to lower heating costs will help you save on air conditioning when the weather turns warmer.

Many of the same things you’d do to make your house or apartment warmer apply to your workplace. Installing weather stripping and caulking around windows and doors are good ways to keep the cold air out and warm air in. Get some draft dodgers or door snakes, those skinny bean or pellet-filled bags people put on windowsills or on the floor to stop cold air from coming in.

Don’t forget that innocent-looking crack in the wall — there’s actually money escaping through it along with the heat. And check for drafts around window or wall air conditioning units, too.

The building’s heating system can probably use some attention too. Insulation wrapped around a water heater will help prevent heat loss, and a new air filter will let the furnace run more efficiently.

Longer term

Getting your company truly energy efficient will likely require a greater financial investment. That means replacing outdated equipment and, if you own your building, making structural changes to it.

The good news about office equipment is that manufacturers are continually making computers and printers cheaper to run. And any new manufacturing equipment or appliances you buy will most certainly save you on energy charges.

The government’s Energy Star program, which assigns energy efficiency ratings to equipment, aims to save money and conserve resources. There’s information about a variety of Energy Star-rated products, including office equipment, water coolers, lighting and heating and air conditioning at www.energystar.gov. The site also has information about windows and insulation.

Installing new windows and insulation obviously can be a big expense, but it can also go a long way toward saving you money and improving your workplace. There are also tax savings for any equipment purchase or building improvement.

The human elements

Spending money to make your business more energy efficient is a great start. But it also takes some vigilance.

Your computers won’t help you save money unless you set your monitors to go dark once they’ve been idle for a certain amount of time. Putting the PCs into sleep, standby or hibernate mode when everyone leaves at night is also essential.

Some habits are hard to break. So if your staff has a hard time remembering to shut off the lights, you might want to consider motion detectors to do it for them.

Finding help

The Internet has many resources for companies trying to save on energy. The Energy Star site has a do-it-yourself guide for finding and fixing spots where heat is escaping. Also try the U.S. Department of Energy site www.energysavers.gov. It has tips largely aimed at residences, but they’re easily applied to businesses.

Local utilities such as the Snohomish County PUD, www.snopud.com/, also have sites devoted to helping businesses save electricity.

Joyce Rosenberg writes about small business for the Associated Press.