Making Green Work

Earth-friendly purchasing can be a ‘feel-good’ tactic, but making it pay solid dividends is essential

By Renee L. Shroades  

In the past several years, the demand for products that are healthier for both building occupants and the environment has skyrocketed.

“Green has become a big issue,” says Peggy Caruso, assistant director of maintenance and operations at Katy (Texas) School District. “People are taking a closer look at green and environmentally friendly products.”

With a growing array of options, maintenance and engineering managers must specify green requirements while also meeting budget and performance requirements. Managers also take into consideration additional ongoing priorities, which can change from one purchase decision to the next. The process is complex and getting more so every day.

Ensure Value

While many managers would like to buy more environmentally friendly products, they also are looking for products that minimize costs.

“We can’t go with something green if it is going to cost a lot more or not going to hold up,” says Jim Watts, district architect for San Diego Public Schools (SDPS).

End users tend to believe that green products cost more or won’t perform as well as their less-green counterparts. But, in some cases, reality is the contrary to that perception, says J. William Naish, SDPS’s energy program coordinator.

“Often, they stand up better and might not even cost more,” Naish says. While more people are considering green products, others still won’t consider them because of cost and durability concerns.

“As soon as you talk about green products, they quit listening sometimes,” he says.

Says Watts, “One of the biggest challenges is that some of these products might not have a track record as long as their traditional counterparts,” adding that SDPS tends to make fairly conservative purchasing decisions. “We don’t have money to go back and fix something if we specify a bad product. I like to see that something has been used at least a couple years before we decide to implement it.”

Occasionally, the maintenance department will try a recently introduced product that on a small scale. Sometimes, the experiment works well, and sometimes, it doesn’t, as was the case when the department installed dimming ballasts with a daylight-harvesting feature in 200 classrooms.

“Unfortunately, all the ballasts went bad in about a month and a half,” Naish says. “When the manufacturer went bankrupt, there was no recourse for us except to replace all the ballasts.”

To avoid such dilemmas, Caruso says she turns to organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and similar resources for guidance. She won’t specify products based only on manufacturer claims.

“I’m not necessarily willing to try something out that hasn’t already been tried and tested,” she says. So, when she began considering paints, which the district often buy in large quantities, she turned to independent agencies that could provide comparison information on the volatile-organic-compound content of various brands.

As green products continue to expand to a wider assortment of building technologies — among them, plumbing fixtures and roofing and lighting products — managers are seeking a wider selection of environmentally preferred products.

“There is certainly a raised consciousness among people who maintain facilities, and green products are becoming more mainstream,” Watts says. Not long ago, many of today’s green products were much more exotic and only a very small group of people were interested in them.

Now, advances in green technology are allowing organizations to reconsider their purchasing options. For example, for the first time, managers at SDPS are specifying carpeting for their facilities.

“Until recently, we tried to put in as little carpet as possible in our schools,” Naish says. While many occupants prefer carpeting, the district specified resilient flooring because of concerns over indoor air quality.

Carpet must be well maintained, he says, “and we didn’t have the resources to do it.”

After dealing with several problems associated with maintaining the schools’ petroleum-based flooring, managers decided to take a closer look at carpet options. Managers found a cost-effective carpet with a high recycled content that is easy to maintain. It has a thick pad and small nap, and the district anticipates the carpet will have a life cycle of 15-20 years.

“Our environmental-health people said they would support the carpet because it doesn’t harbor mold spores,” Naish says. “It also happens that this carpet also is recyclable. The manufacturer will take it up when it’s done.”

Tougher Regulations

As environmental awareness grows, regulatory organizations are toughening their rules regarding the disposal of hazardous waste. Managers specifying products need to stay abreast of these changes.

“Three years ago, we did a district relamping project where we replaced 100,000 florescent lamps with ultra-low- mercury florescent tubes,” Naish says. SDPS bought the tubes because, at the time, organizations could dispose of them directly in the trash because of low-mercury content.

“We paid a little extra for those, but we thought that cost was offset by the benefit of not having to handle the lamps separately,” Naish says. The disposal savings the district counted on disappeared when, earlier this year, California updated its hazardous-waste regulations to bar organizations from disposing of any mercury into landfills.

“Clearly, the tubes we’re now using have a lot less mercury in them, so that is a good thing, but we ended up not being able to avoid the extra disposal costs,” Naish says.

Occupant expectations, safety and comfort are important factors in considering green product options. In many organizations, they are more important than holding down costs, Naish says. Once organization-wide standards are set, it is important that all specifiers stick to them.

Says Naish, “Regardless if we’re specifying products for a small maintenance jog or we’re building a new school, everyone is working off the same page.”

Green Guidance

Managers can turn to a host of organizations for guidance on specifying environmentally friendly products and technology:

Green Seal. An independent, non-profit organization that sets environmental standards for products and awards a seal of approval to products that meet their standards. www.greenseal.org

Environmental Protection Agency Environmentally Preferable Pur-chasing Program. A program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that assists in the purchase of environmentally preferable products and services. www.epa.gov/epp

EPA Guide to Purchasing Green. The guide includes information on green power products, the benefits of green power purchasing, and ways to capture the benefits of green power purchasing. www.epa.gov/greenpower/buygreenpower/ guide.htm

Northeast Recycling Council’s Green Purchasing Resources for Businesses. The group provides information on buying green products and services. www.nerc.org/GreenPurchasing/greenpurchasingresources.html

Health Care Without Harm. The group works with hospitals to reduce environmental impact through purchasing decisions, implementing environmentally preferable purchasing policies, and setting purchasing goals. www.noharm.org/us/greenpurchasing/issue

Center for a New American Dream’s Institutional Purchasing Program. The program helps governments, colleges and universities, and private companies incorporate environmental and human health considerations into their purchasing decisions. www.newdream.org/procure

— Renee L. Shroades

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  posted on 9/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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