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Going eco-Independent 

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In 2003, the Independent moved into the old United Brethren Church building, whose original construction occurred between 1912 and 1917. Over nine decades, the 13,000-square-foot church at 235 S. Nevada Ave. had also been a police training school, a drug counseling center and the Smokebrush Theater.

By 2006, we felt it was time to explore making the building, and our operation, more energy-efficient. Our first step was organizing a volunteer "Green Team" of seven employees. Next, we interviewed consultants and retained environmental engineer Kurt Eckert to help conduct a thorough examination of our building.

Major findings

• We had already installed energy-efficient lighting, and our brick, stone and concrete building — measured by size or number of employees — consumed less than half the energy of a typical modern office high-rise. But the walls did leak heat and air. Not just through cracks, but directly through the walls themselves. Well-insulated walls have an efficiency rating of R-20 to R-30, while a single-pane glass window rating is R-1. Our porous outside walls have an insulation value of just R-4.

• Most of the building's windows and doors were in poor condition, and our boiler lacked meaningful controls.

• The south-facing roof would be excellent for solar panels, but there wasn't enough consistent breeze to power even a small wind turbine.

• Since warm air rises, the high ceilings created different temperatures throughout the building. In the summer, it was often uncomfortably hot in offices located in the old choir loft, while in the winter it was too cool (OK, downright cold) in some lower-level offices.

• There were about 300 feet of uninsulated steam and condensate pipes, making some offices so warm in winter that windows were cracked on the coldest days.

• We often left on our 35 computers, four copiers and other electronic equipment even when not in use.

Action plan

• We wanted to install energy-efficient windows and to add significant insulation, especially to our roof. But since our walls were so porous, a team of volunteer employees and friends, under the guidance of paid pros, instead weatherized more than 125 windows and doors and insulated pipes. That helped reduce energy use and made our space much more comfortable.

• We upgraded controls to our gas heating system and placed portable electric heaters to warm locations where people worked. We also beefed up our evaporative cooling system and placed small air conditioners in a half-dozen strategic areas.

• We added a recycling center for everything from paper to compost to batteries. Now, by volume and weight, more than 60 percent of our waste is recycled.

• We invested about $40,000 in solar panels. If, as we predicted, energy prices would soar, this investment (helped by tax credits) would have paid for itself in about 18 years. (Since electric rates are now much lower than anticipated, our payback period stands at about 29 years.) If energy prices rise and/or solar panels fall in price, we can one day efficiently triple our solar panels.

• We set up all computers on energy-saving programs, and created company-wide protocols on when to turn off equipment.

Results

In 2008, we purchased 12 percent less natural gas and 16.6 percent less electricity. About three-quarters of our electrical savings came from power generated via our solar panels. But that's not entirely comparing apples to apples. In our baseline years, we averaged about 30 people working in our building. In 2008, there were 35. In addition, we rented our 4,500-square-foot basement to a nonprofit that in 2008 added a computer training center. Also, temperatures fluctuate by year, and according to data from Eckert, 2008 was slightly more temperate than preceding years.

We are in the midst of a five-year plan to add smart controls and more energy-efficient appliances. In 2009, we're installing an energy-efficient copier, eliminating paper faxes (and receiving them via e-mail), and weatherizing 25 more windows and doors. We are also investigating how to reduce water use by upgrading and/or eliminating some of our 25 toilets and sinks.

jweiss@csindy.com

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