Winterizing Your Business

September 28, 2010

Between the price of oil and the nation’s current financial slowdown, many business owners are shivering – and not with cold – at the thought of winter heating bills. Howard Gruenspecht, acting chief of the federal Energy Information Administration, has stated that people should brace for higher heating bills "across the board," no matter what fuel is used or which region of the country.

"Heating bills in winter weather are inevitable, but they can be reduced," says Stephen Lamb, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago. "Now, more than ever, business owners need to winterize their buildings to keep their heating costs as low as possible."

According to Lamb, business owners who own their office space can save money by performing basic maintenance. "Businesses that rent or lease space should work with their landlord to improve energy efficiency," he adds. "In addition to cost savings, maintenance measures can enhance the health, comfort and safety of workers by improving indoor air quality."

Regular Maintenance Is Key

MCA Chicago and its member contractors recommend various steps for winterizing a business.

Be sure to schedule regular HVAC system cleanings and checkups by a qualified contractor, including regular maintenance for furnaces or boilers. Not properly maintaining an HVAC system can accelerate wear on the equipment, increase fuel bills as much as 10 to 15 percent because of inefficient equipment operation, and endanger the lives of occupants if carbon monoxide seeps in unchecked.

For maximum furnace efficiency, air filters should be replaced on a monthly basis during the winter season. For forced-air systems, air ducts should be vacuumed to remove dust and debris that would otherwise circulate back into the office environment.

If the furnace has a humidifier, it must be serviced to maintain the proper level of humidity. If indoor air is too dry, it can cause irritation or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and throat, causing discomfort and impairment of the body’s natural protection against airborne microbes – particularly important during the winter cold and flu season.

"Business owners should consider implementing a yearly maintenance contract for their HVAC systems," says Lamb. "Make sure your HVAC contractor will work with you to establish a schedule of seasonal tune-ups, rather than just respond to emergencies. Emergencies are what you’re trying to prevent."

Not only will a maintenance contract save energy, but it will also reduce the risk of sick building syndrome resulting from poorly functioning HVAC systems. A report from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration stated that 20 to 30 percent of office buildings may have problems relating to indoor air quality. If these problems bring about employee illnesses, business owners can suffer from productivity losses due to lost time, and may face financial liability for medical expenses.

If a heating system was purchased before 1990, an owner should consider a high-efficiency replacement to cut down on fuel costs. A programmable thermostat, which allows a person to program a lower temperature setting during off-hours, is an energy-saving investment that can save 10 percent or more on heating bills.

Check For Leaks

Air leakage is responsible for significant energy loss in a building and can produce cold spots. Check caulking and weather stripping around windows for cracks and gaps. If energy-efficient window replacements are not in the budget, consider low-emittance window coating. This process leaves a special film on the glass to prevent heat from escaping and reduces the load on the heating system.

Air ducts and joints should be sealed and insulated in unconditioned parts of an office such as crawl spaces and areas above a suspended ceiling. Nearly 30 percent of heat can be lost through conduction in uninsulated or poorly insulated and unsealed ducts. A reliable contractor should be consulted to inspect ductwork and install insulation if needed.