Energy is one of the largest overheads for care home operators, and the cost will only continue to increase with forecasts of rising utility bills. Care homes place high demand on energy, using lighting, heating for both space and water, kitchen appliances, laundry and technology to meet residents’ often demanding and varying needs.
Use of company vehicles has additional carbon impacts and the homecare sector faces the issue of staff getting to clients. These can all have substantial financial consequences. In addition, there are market pressures, as potential residents and their families increasingly expect to see more environmentally-friendly accommodation.
Furthermore, care homes present something of a dilemma to the energy manager. Whilst identifying sources of high energy use (and high carbon emissions) is quite easy, reducing consumption is fraught with potential risks to the wellbeing of residents.
Coupled with the increasing financial burden of energy consumption, there are growing legislative and regulatory demands to reduce the carbon footprint of the care sector, and providers may find themselves needing to meet two relatively new pieces of legislation.
First, there is the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS). This requires large entities (those with more than 250 staff in the UK or who satisfy financial criteria) to audit their significant energy streams and provide achievable recommendations for cost savings opportunities (or face fines from the Environment Agency of circa £50,000).
New for April 2019, most of these large entities will also be impacted by Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR). This means they will need to report their annual carbon footprint and energy consumption and, going forward, demonstrate that they are actively reducing this.
To help with these requirements, Carbon Footprint has found that implementing a mix of behavioural and technological measures can yield energy and carbon savings of up to 20%, with return on investment in less than three years.
Typical energy distribution profile of a care home
Getting to grips with energy cost
Demand for energy in care environments means that cutting consumption/utilising renewable technologies is the only way carbon emissions can be significantly reduced. However, this obviously needs to be done with care, to ensure there is no loss of comfort or service, and that risks to residents’ wellbeing aren’t increased.
Switching energy suppliers and using brokering services can alleviate some cost hikes in the shorter term; however, reducing consumption at source is the most sustainable means of tackling this – particularly in light of issues such as security of supply and affordability of care.
There are large operational savings that can be made in reducing your carbon footprint and this can be passed onto residents, to help minimise fees and assure people that their residence is as sustainable as possible.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) are vitally important and any changes to these systems must be carefully considered to avoid any increased risk of infections in the home.
Heating of both water and rooms can total around 40% of a care home’s energy consumption. This is often down to the requirements of residents in terms of bathing and rooms being warm, as well as the amount of laundry that needs to be done.
However, there are various free and low-cost solutions that can reduce both energy costs and carbon footprint. Consider the following and make changes if needed:
- Are the minimum set temperatures too high?
- What would the optimum temperature be, and can this be seasonally adjusted? Some care homes have a Building Management System (BMS) that can be programmed to do this automatically.
- Do you have thermostatic radiator valves? These can be used to adjust the temperature by controlling the flow of hot water to the radiator. Make sure these are set at appropriate levels, i.e. put radiators on the ‘frost’ setting in spaces that don’t need to be heated at all times.
- Ensure residents do not have access to HVAC controls (and that staff are trained on their use).
- Are appliances being used efficiently, e.g. are tumble dryers being used for full-loads?
- Ensure all heating equipment is serviced at least annually, and that boilers and piping are insulated effectively.
- The age of the boiler has a significant impact on energy consumption. While boiler replacement can be costly, the paybacks can be worthwhile.
- Consider an alternative heating system. Biomass heating systems create energy by burning organic materials and can provide significant cost and carbon reductions. Ground source heat pumps are another alternative; these harness natural heat from underground.
- Is your building effectively insulated? Focus on windows (look at their glazing and how well they are fitted), loft hatches and loft insulation, poorly fitting doors, electrical fittings on ceilings and walls and ceiling-to-wall joists. You should also consider draught-proofing.
- Could you install a BMS if you don’t have one already?
Lighting is another critical part of a care home’s energy consumption profile. Again, there are some easy solutions to reducing the use of lights and some that require a little more expenditure but should give you a quick return on investment. The following measures should help to reduce the lighting load:
- Maximise natural daylight; this is called daylight harvesting. Make sure windows and skylights are cleaned regularly to allow the most light in and ensure walls are bright and clean.
- Where artificial lighting is necessary, ensure it is cleaned regularly.
- Consider using ‘switch off’ stickers next to light switches to encourage people to turn lights off when they are not required.
- Switch all lighting to LED. This can consume up to 90% less energy than traditional lighting. LED lights are also brighter, which means fewer lights are required. Return on investment for switching like-for-like lamps is usually a maximum of three years.
- Conduct a lighting survey that considers budget (will a phased approach be best?), the different requirements in different spaces, and potential disruption to residents.
- Automatic lighting controls, such as passive infra-red, should be considered in areas of low or intermittent occupancy. Daylight sensors should be used externally to avoid having security lights on when it is bright outside.
Consideration should be given to the energy rating of all electrical equipment before it is purchased. Energy performance is clearly labelled on appliances and choosing equipment with better energy ratings will make a difference to your carbon footprint.
Computers, monitors and printers should be shut down when they aren’t being used, instead of being left on standby.
Getting on the road
Energy consumption from transport can be a considerable cost and significantly affect your overall carbon footprint. Operational maintenance teams, minibuses, and field-based care workers all contribute to this.
It is worth developing a travel policy that provides environmental guidance. This should give employees tips on how to reduce fuel consumption, such as journey planning, vehicle maintenance, efficient driving techniques, and vehicle technology. This could also be supplemented with driver training. The policy should encourage, where possible, alternatives to traditional car use, like having meetings over Skype, car sharing and using public transport.
Implementing your strategy
To make sustainable, long-lasting change, communication and staff awareness are key. It’s a good idea to make sustainability and energy part of staff development and any training programmes you run to ensure staff consider sustainability part of their role.
You can also monitor and measure your energy and read your meters to get a more accurate picture of your energy consumption. Use sub-metering or install half-hourly meters where appropriate, which can be analysed over a day and can help to identify unexplained energy consumption.
Once you have collected this data, you can annually assess your carbon footprint. Publicise the results and put together an action plan to reduce your footprint. This should be communicated fully to all staff and residents and you should make them aware of how they can participate.
Set up steering groups to help affect change, with clearly defined roles and responsibility and top-level commitment and presence. You could also use incentive schemes for energy reduction suggestions, set up league tables between different sites and consult the people using your services, and their families, for ideas. This is likely to get more people on board with your plans and help them to see the significance of small changes.
You could also consider an Environmental Management System like ISO 14001; this manages all your environmental impacts in one place. ISO 50001, an Energy Management System, could also be considered, which can be a route to ESOS compliance for larger organisations.
Getting to grips with the energy strategy of a care home might seem an onerous task; however, the key is to start something, even if it isn’t as all-encompassing as you might wish it to become. You must do what legislation requires of you – but also use this as an opportunity to improve your site and the environment for your residents.
Small steps and achievements on the way, such as energy brokering to reduce tariffs and switching to LED lighting, will quickly show that cost-saving results can be readily achieved with little to no capital outlay.
As well as your management team, you should involve your residents – you may be very pleasantly surprised at their interest and knowledge, and this can help to create a community that is collectively committed to low carbon.
Are you making changes to your service to become more environmentally-friendly? What more can be done to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint? Share your thoughts and provide feedback below.