According to some reports, hospitals and other medical facilities use more energy than any other type of facility except one—fast-food restaurants. These studies estimate that healthcare facilities account for more than 8 percent of all energy consumed in commercial buildings even though they occupy less than 4 percent of all commercial floor space in the United States.
And with the costs for energy and most natural resources—specifically water—escalating each year, individual medical and care facilities are increasingly pressured to help reduce their environmental footprint and cut costs. If they don’t, “we will have healthy people living on an increasingly sick planet,” says sustainable healthcare design expert Robin Guenther.
But, for both large and small medical and care facilities, finding ways to reduce the use of water, fuel, and other resources can be a much bigger task than anticipated. Some hospitals, for instance, are loaded with all types of “energy-sucking” devices and systems, from televisions and MRI scanners to large, costly, and often inefficient HVAC systems.
Getting on top of this situation and finding ways to reduce energy and water consumption as well as a medical facility’s overall environmental footprint can sound daunting, and, to be honest, it may be more difficult than making similar reductions in a school or office building. But ignoring the problem is not an option. Immediate action is necessary. Often, the first step is simply to find out how much water, energy, and other natural resources the facility is currently using.
Many types of facilities are turning to sustainability “dashboards” to help track, measure, and monitor consumption, sustainability, and the use of natural resources. By providing a current measurement, the facility can establish a benchmark for future progress in reducing consumption of natural resources and costs.
Some of the more popular dashboards are Web-based systems and can be used on any computer or similar device that has an Internet connection. Using a Web-based system also usually means there is no special software or hardware to purchase, making the service economical as well.
These sustainability tools are called dashboards because many are designed to mimic an automobile’s control center. They provide information on a variety of items, often called metrics or indicators, and present it in a graphical, quick, and easy-to-understand format, just as we are accustomed to seeing in our cars. Some of the metrics presented and analyzed include:
- Energy consumption, including electricity and natural gas
- Water consumption
- Waste removal and recycling volumes and costs
- Fuel consumption for healthcare vehicles
- Consumables, which include such items as cleaning and paper products, ink cartridges, and toner
The use of dashboards in facilities is not a new concept. They have proved their value as providers of quick, easy-to-understand information since the 1980s. At that time, these systems were used in business to provide such vital information as up-to-the-minute sales figures, profit and income reports, and cash flow analysis. It has been in just the past few years that they have been used to measure and monitor consumption and, in so doing, help promote sustainability and reduce costs.
Usually, the first step in using a dashboard system is gathering the “low-hanging fruit.” This includes easy-to-collect records such as water bills and power bills for electricity and natural gas, which indicate both consumption and costs.
This information is now commonly accessible online and can often be downloaded directly into the dashboard system; if not, it can be entered manually. Some systems make it easy to do this. It is important to gather information for at least a year to establish a reliable benchmark against which to measure future progress. Then, users must update the system each month to see if steps toward reducing consumption and decreasing related costs are advancing.
To better explain how a dashboard system can work, let’s put one to use in the following example. A large care facility adopted a color-coding system to indicate what electrical devices—lights, computers, copiers, etc.—were to be left on or turned off at the end of the day. The selected colors and their meanings were as follows:
- A red dot indicated lights, electrical devices, and power sources that should be turned off at the end of the workday or when the facility was not being used.
- A green dot indicated power outlets that were to be left on at all times.
- A yellow dot required that a manager or a designated person be asked if the power outlet was to be turned on or off.
After the program was in place for a few months and working smoothly, managers turned to the dashboard system to see if their use of electricity and related costs had been reduced. Not only were these reductions realized, but in so doing a “culture of sustainability” had also evolved. This is when managers, building users, and even vendors became more conscious of using electricity and natural resources. They even suggested other ways the facility could reduce not only electricity consumption but the use of water, fuel, and other items as well.
Creating this culture of sustainability can be one of the chief long-term benefits of a dashboard system. Building users begin to “think sustainable,” and it becomes a crucial part of everyday building operations for everyone using the facility. This is when the true savings come in and facilities such as care facilities can take significant steps to reduce consumption, the use of natural resources, and their environmental footprint.
Stephen P. Ashkin is President of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, LLC, creators of an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.