Vending Machines, Holy Water, and Sustainability Color Coding

Believe it or not, vending machines date back to the first century AD. That was when a Greek engineer developed a machine that would dispense holy water whenever a coin was deposited into the machine. A clever little system, the coin fell upon a pan that opened a lever, allowing a small amount of water blessed by a religious leader to flow out.

Today, vending machines dispense just about everything imaginable, including gum, drinks, sandwiches, and electronics. At one time, an American insurance company even sold life insurance at airport vending machines. But now, it is not necessarily what vending machines are selling but the ways they operate that is getting notice and contributing to what is now being referred to as a “culture of sustainability.”

Most vending machines, specifically refrigerated systems, waste loads of electricity each year. It is estimated that a conventional vending machine uses 3,000 to 4,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. This is about a third of all the electricity the average U.S. household uses in a year’s time. A large vending machine, and one that is placed outside in a warm, sunny climate, can use even more power.

While some newer and more advanced vending machines do have power-saving modes, which turn down compressors, fans, and lights if the system has not been used for long periods of time, many do not. Instead, they work 24 hours per day, seven days per week, whether needed or not.

Many commercial office buildings may have scores of vending machines throughout their facilities. Surprisingly, many building owners, developers, and managers are totally unaware of how much energy these systems use and, even more importantly, how much could be saved if they were turned off (or put into a power save mode where possible) at the end of each day or on weekends when not needed. This applies to those vending machines that store colas or items that do not need to be refrigerated. It does not refer to machines that store food items that might spoil or melt.

Usually building owners and managers first become aware of how much electricity these machines use when they adopt what we call a “sustainability color-coding system.” Similar to other color-coding systems found in medical locations and commonly used in the professional cleaning industry, these systems are typically used to designate that certain tools and equipment be turned off on weekends or when not in use for prolonged periods of time. A sustainability color-coding system is designed to identify many “plug load” items such as light switches, desk lamps, fans and space heaters, monitors, printers, power strips, and thermostats that can be turned down or turned off when not needed—including vending machines.

There are many reasons facilities employ color-coding systems: to protect health, prevent mistakes, and overcome language barriers, to name a few. When it comes to sustainability, these systems help us focus on things, including the energy needs of vending machines, which many of us had never thought of before. One step at a time, they are helping us use natural resources more responsibly and efficiently, which has the added benefit of reducing costs…always a win-win scenario.