From the energy you use in your home to the water that rejuvenates your lawn and garden to the way you clean your clothes, businesses are finding ways to help you be green. By Judy Dahl
When Madison attorneys John and Rebecca Scheller heard about WPPI Energy’s GreenMax Home initiative, they jumped at the chance to apply. They were eager for the opportunity to meet their family’s needs while being stewards of the environment.
Through the program, WPPI offered partial funding and consultation for building a net zero energy home in its service area. A net zero energy home is one with the potential to produce as much energy as it uses, through energy-efficient construction techniques and the use of renewable energy systems.
“We’ve worked closely with homeowners and their builders to incorporate efficiency in the designs,” says Jake Oelke, assistant vice president of energy services at WPPI Energy, which is now on its third GreenMax project. “For instance, on one project we developed several computer models to determine the optimal window sizes and quantities.”
The Schellers chose a lot in the Stoughton area, and with Shaw Building & Design, Inc., designed their home and submitted a proposal to WPPI, which chose it from among the bids submitted. The family moved into their home in late 2009, and as of this spring it was generating more energy than it consumed—35 percent more in May—with the excess returning to the local power grid.
Among its sustainable features, the home boasts two pole-mounted photovoltaic solar panels and two geothermal heat pumps that extract heat from the earth for heating, cooling and hot water. “But, surprisingly, most features are within the reach of the standard home builder or owner,” says Oelke.
Builders use ordinary materials and building practices to construct the homes, with great attention to energy-saving details such as tight construction of the building shell. “We want to demonstrate that anyone can take steps to make their home more efficient; it’s not just about technology, it’s about lifestyle decisions,” Oelke says. “All of the families we’ve worked with have been outstanding. They’re true believers in sustainability and they open their homes for tours and help educate builders and homeowners on how to replicate the process.”
The third GreenMax Home project, now under way in Upper Michigan, adds an additional sustainable element by renovating an existing home and reusing materials rather than building new. “It involves upgrades to the building shell, retrofitting the heating and cooling system to geothermic heat pump technology and installing a small-scale wind turbine,” says Oelke.
GreenMax is just one of many energy-saving initiatives WPPI Energy has undertaken. “As a nonprofit, we’re trying to keep costs under control for our members, which are 51 community-owned electrical utilities,” says Oelke. “They share resources and own generation facilities to provide reliable, affordable electricity to more than 195,000 homes and businesses in Wisconsin, Upper Michigan and Iowa. Energy efficiency is a natural fit for them.”
About three years ago WPPI’s board approved a plan to roughly double its investment in helping member utilities manage energy and reduce waste. “My department alone has 20 people working one-on-one with our customers to identify opportunities to be more efficient and advance their energy-saving projects, whether it’s improvements to their buildings and operations or their technologies,” says Oelke.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, utilities will be required to supply at least ten percent of electricity purchased by retail customers from renewable resources by 2015. WPPI Energy had sufficient resources in place to meet these requirements six years early, in 2009.
Energy efficiency and conservation efforts like these help keep costs down as energy rates rise. They can defer the need to construct expensive new power plants, reduce carbon footprints and limit future compliance costs if greenhouse gas regulations are enacted.
WISE USE OF WATER
Water rates are rising too, as our growing community puts increasing strain on our groundwater supplies. So the less we use in irrigating landscapes, whether it’s your backyard, a company’s grounds or a golf course, the more money we’ll save—not to mention helping the earth.
“All the irrigation product manufacturers have come up with smart products that will save water,” notes Carl Dowse, irrigation manager at The Bruce Company. “They saw the need over the last decade with the water shortages in certain areas of the country, like the irrigation ban in Georgia a couple of years ago. People realized, if we don’t save water, we won’t be able to water anything.”
The Bruce Company started offering smart irrigation products about eight years ago. “The LEED certification program had come into play and water rates were going up, and we thought it would be the right thing for us to do,” Dowse says.
One of the biggest recent innovations is the weather-based sensor for irrigation systems. The Bruce Company has carried Hunter Industries’ Solar Sync sensor for about 18 months now. “It lets you water based on the weather at your site,” explains Dowse.
Solar Sync measures sunlight radiation and the temperature and adjusts irrigation systems accordingly. “It remembers the conditions for the past 14 days, and when I install it I tell it I’m in the Midwest, as opposed to the Southwest where you’d need more water,” says Dowse. “It shuts off if it rains and keeps the system off until the sensor dries out. It’s elevated above the ground and is made of a fiber material that dries at about the same rate soil does.
“For many years we installed what were called fully automatic irrigation systems. You’d set the days and times sprinklers should run, and you should have adjusted the controls weekly based on the weather,” Dowse adds. “But after most people programmed their systems, they never changed them. And now they don’t have to. Since late last year we’re including the Solar Sync on every system. It’s that important. It helps the user save water and thus money.”
The Bruce Company uses Solar Sync on its grounds. “We estimate it saves us about 30 percent in water and dollars, so it’ll have a payback period of about two years, if you look at its costs and the labor to install it,” Dowse says.
The irrigation industry is constantly evolving, he notes. “The landscape irrigation industry really develops from the agricultural industry. They’re really trying to save water as aquifers are being drawn down, like in the San Joaquin Valley in California where they’re running out of water,” he says.
“You used to see big sprinklers watering fruit crops, but now they use micro-irrigation drip systems, which put water right down to the root zone very slowly so there’s no evaporation,” he continues. “A spray-type sprinkler might be 65 percent efficient, but these are 90 percent or better.”
The Bruce Company uses drip systems for shrubs and vegetable gardens. “We even use them for large potted plants like St. Mary’s Hospital has in the middle of the sidewalk,” says Dowse.
He predicts soil moisture sensors will be the next big thing, and he’s ordered one from a manufacturer to test on a Bruce Company site. “You put sensors in the ground where the roots of a lawn or planting are, and the system waters only to the point the plant needs it,” he says. “They’re starting to become more available at lower costs. Four or five years ago they were extremely expensive and unreliable; it took lots of labor to adjust them.
“We’re blessed in Wisconsin to have plenty of water now,” he adds. “As we grow and usage picks up, we’ll have to use it wisely or we won’t have any to use.”
Best Cleaners uses water wisely in its dry-cleaning business. “It requires a considerable amount of water to keep our cleaning and drying machine cool, so we have a refrigerated system that recycles water in and out of the machine instead of using city water, which most dry cleaners do, and then it goes down the drain,” says owner John Whitley. “Recycling cuts our water usage significantly; that’s partly why we were awarded the Wisconsin Business Friend of the Environment Award in 2005.”
He’s always aspired to run an environmentally friendly business. “I’ve worked in the dry-cleaning industry since 1974, so I started Best Cleaners in 1996 with a fair amount of experience in just about every process and quality standard. I was able to take the best things I’d found and use them in our operations,” he says.
Much of the dry-cleaning industry uses perchloroethylene, or perc, as a cleaning solvent, which the EPA has said is a probable carcinogen, but Best Cleaners uses no petroleum-based products. In 2002 the organization switched to GreenEarth, a nontoxic, odorless, silicone-based solvent.
“The technology became commercially viable in about 2000, and I researched it and found it solved a lot of the problems I was seeing in the industry,” says Whitley. “I had a lot of breathing problems when I was using perc—it’s very pungent—but I haven’t used an inhaler since switching to GreenEarth.
“Most people working for me are family members or friends, and I don’t want to
subject them to something that could cause cancer,” he adds. “Apartments located above dry cleaners have had problems with birth defects, and the residues perc leaves in clothes can go into people’s homes.”
The GreenEarth solvent is more expensive. “It means you have to be careful how you use it, and not waste it,” says Whitley. “But you don’t have to abide by the regulations you do when using perc. Other dry cleaners produce a hazardous waste that they have to dispose of through a licensed waste hauler.”
Prior to switching, Best Cleaners produced two thousand pounds of hazardous waste a year. “That probably would have doubled by now as our business has increased,” Whitley notes. “Now I don’t produce one drop.”
It irks Whitley that some businesses call themselves green when they’re not. “It’s not just dry cleaners,” he clarifies. “A business may be greener than the guy next door, but that doesn’t mean it’s really green. Some dry cleaners that use petroleum-based solvents—which still put emissions into the air and produce hazardous waste—say they’re green, but they’re not. It’s greener than perc, but that’s all.”
Best Cleaners has a site in Middleton but does all its cleaning at its Raymond Road location. “It’s part of our energy conservation to do all our work in one place. It’s more efficient,” says Whitley.
His delivery truck is a diesel-fueled Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that gets 25 miles per gallon. He estimates that’s two to three times better than a comparable gas-fueled truck. “We’ll probably buy a hybrid or electric vehicle when we need a new one,” he says.
Whitley’s grandchildren are a primary motivator to be green. “It’s their environment; that’s the reason we do this,” he says. “And one of nice things about being in Madison is that, if you say you’re going to do green things, the people support you.”
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