4 Steps to Actually Cut Plug Loads

Weighing in at about a third of all energy costs in the typical commercial building, plug loads make significantly more of the typical electric bill than most people give them credit for. Any building team making an effort to cut down on energy bills should consider a plan to reduce plug loads.

That being said, most building teams have been through efforts to cut plug loads that seem to have little or no effect, especially over the long term. To make this happen, you need to do more than send out a friendly email once a year. For that, you have to roll up your sleeves and make energy a daily part of your tenants’ use of the space. Follow these 4 steps for an actual effect on plug loads.

1. Engage Stakeholders

Before beginning any energy reduction project, it is important for all stakeholders to understand how much energy is being used currently and how their actions affect that. With plug loads more so than with other variables, there are a lot of stakeholders. Virtually everyone in the building has some small effect on plug loads. This means that a push to cut plug loads calls for different communications strategies than other energy savings efforts.

Data visualizations are particularly helpful for communicating with employees in a building who wouldn’t otherwise engage with energy data. If you can get a graph in front of those employees that shows how their consumption compares to the previous day or week – or better yet, to other groups of employees – you can get serious buy in that can then be translated into action. Submetering and real-time data are particularly helpful at this stage.


2. Provide Actionable Steps

In our experience, people will usually work with you on energy saving projects as long as you don’t ask them to think too hard. After all, the employees working in your building have their own work to think about. So make it easy for them: Provide a list of simple, actionable steps that they can reasonably follow.

The items on that list will depend on the setting. In a standard office, it should include standards, like unplugging laptops, shutting down computers and monitors, and turning off lights at the end of the day. In a more complicated setting, like a high-intensity lab, there may be different priorities.


3. Consider Incentives

Once you’ve provided employees and tenants with the steps that they should take to cut down on plug loads, incentives are a good way of encouraging them to follow through. Under a gross lease, every kWh saved is money in your pocket, so it’s worth shelling out a few bucks now to create good habits among your tenants over the long term. (Under a net lease, your tenants are the ones saving money, though you might still benefit from extra LEED points or a higher Energy Star score. This could be a good opportunity for a joint project.)

Because the effort that each employee needs to expend for a plug load campaign to work is low, incentives don’t need to be fancy. A few pizzas or cases of beer go a long way. Avoid the temptation to provide gift cards or other cash incentives – the costs add up too quickly and most people would prefer eating $3 of pizza with their coworkers to a $5 gift card anyway. Also, consider pitting different teams or tenants against each other. People will often work harder to beat each other than they will to reach an arbitrary goal, and at the end, you will only have to provide the incentive to the winning team.


4. Always Trade Up

A very significant portion of the plug load comes from devices that are never turned off or for which usage patterns don’t vary much, like refrigerators and dishwashers. These appliances cost a lot up front, so replacing them while they’re still working is usually the wrong financial decision. When they are ready to be replaced, though, it’s time to trade up to a more efficient model.

Energy Star requires most appliances to provide a standardized estimate of their monthly energy cost. As a result, it’s relatively easy to multiply that out by the expected lifetime of the appliance and add that to its upfront costs to get total expected costs. This is a better metric for making comparisons than either upfront cost or monthly cost alone. Often, but not always, efficient appliances will have higher upfront costs but lower total expected costs.