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The Embracing of the ‘Green’
As organizations nationwide show greater interest in “green” buildings, the demand for and availability of environmentally friendly products is on the rise. The knowledge that maintenance and engineering managers bring to the specification and purchase process also is growing.
To support managers’ efforts, programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system for existing buildings (LEED-EB) give managers resources to evaluate operations and improve the environmental performance of buildings and components.
Heeding the Call
A growing number of states have mandated the use of environmentally friendly products by government agencies, so it is no surprise that these organizations have taken the lead in the green movement.
“Because the general public is more aware of green products and the benefits they (provide in) running a sustainable operation, there is a lot of support in our community to take a sustainable approach to maintenance and operations,” says Ron Sutton, maintenance manager for the city of Eugene, Ore. State laws now require public entities, including municipalities and school districts, to buy products that meet environmentally friendly criteria.
“Paper products are a good example,” Sutton says. “They have to contain a certain percentage of post-consumer waste.” The impetus to go green is does not come just from lawmakers.
“There is definitely an increased pressure to go green,” says Gary Patton, energy coordinator of Sarasota County, Fla., adding that Sarasota's board of commissioners and the county employees expect non-toxic, environmentally friendly products in county buildings.
A New Mindset
During the specification process, managers traditionally evaluate and have chosen products based largely on their performance and cost. In recent years, however, these parameters have expanded to include a product’s impact on human health and the environment. To use these standards, managers need to understand the characteristics and contents of green products and the health and environmental issues associated with each one.
For example, managers specifying paints should know a product’s volatile organic compound (VOC) content. Managers specifying building materials might want to avoid arsenic-treated wood.
Making the transition from traditional products to green products can be challenging, but the practice becomes easier as managers incorporate an environmentally friendly philosophy into their department’s daily operations.
“For us, implementing green products has become more of a way of doing business rather than an exception to the rule,” Sutton says. His organization recently evaluated its maintenance operations and identified ways it can improve its green efforts. The department investigated its practices after his organization’s energy analyst returned from a LEED-EB training program last year.
“When she came back, we started talking about how we can apply the LEED-EB criteria to our overall maintenance operation,” Sutton says. “From those discussions, we came up with a program for evaluating our maintenance practices and procedures, not just on an individual building basis, but on an organization-wide basis.
“It’s easy to look at your maintenance operations and how you can improve and be totally overwhelmed,” he says. To tackle the challenge systematically, his department considered each LEED-EB prerequisite individually and developed a timeline to meet each criterion.
“Something like changing to different cleaning chemicals can happen right away, whereas something like changing a smoking ordinance, which requires us to go through city council, takes more time,” he says.
Today's green-product market offers maintenance managers numerous ways to minimize the environmental impacts of products.
“We look at just about everything we do in order to eliminate products that don’t work well for the environment,” Sutton says. “In HVAC, we phased out the use of refrigerants that are harmful to the environment. We look for the most ozone-friendly refrigerants available. We also have our HVAC technicians certified for the safe handling and recycling of used refrigerant.”
Managers also should consider the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), which measures the seasonal or annual efficiency of air conditioners and heat pumps. The ratio takes into account the variations in temperature that can occur within a season and is the average number of Btu of cooling delivered for every watt-hour of electricity used by the heat pump over a cooling season. The higher the SEER, the more efficiently the system will perform.
Patton's organization specifies high-efficiency HVAC equipment with a SEER of 13 or higher. The only existing items in his facilities that still use chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants are water coolers and ice machines.
A growing number of managers also are considering lighting systems in their efforts to minimize environmental impact. Besides hiring certified contractors to properly dispose of lamps and ballasts, Sutton's department developed an energy-efficiency program that calls for eliminating incandescent lamps, switching from T12 to T8 fluorescent lighting, and buying low-mercury lamps and non-mercury-containing batteries.
When buying recycling services, managers should evaluate their overall recycling efforts and ensure that their department is properly disposing of environmentally hazardous products, such as computer electronics, batteries, and paints and coatings.
“We systematically go through our paints and recycle any paints that are past their useful life,” Sutton says.
For many facilities, the environmental-impact effort extends to recycled materials. The paper restroom products Sutton specifies must be chlorine free and contain 40-100 percent recycled contents, and the trash liners must have 45-90 percent consumer waste.
But as with any specification process, quality plays a central role.
“We make sure what we're purchasing is a good product,” he says, adding that he looks at the life-cycle costs of the product more than the initial cost. “I want to know not only the up-front costs, but also the long-term costs.”
Sutton says he is willing to pay more to buy a product if other factors — such as less required maintenance or a longer performance life — lower its life-cycle cost. For example, he looks for chlorine-free flooring that requires few chemicals to maintain, and he looks for floor finishes that don't require frequent stripping and reapplying.
“We also don’t want to have to use strong detergents to strip floors,” he says.
Is Greener Better?
Since their arrival, green products have changed significantly, both in performance and price. Sorting through the array of products and the varying, and sometimes conflicting, claims from manufacturers used to be more difficult.
“When green became popular, there were many companies misrepresenting their products as environmentally conscious or energy efficient,” Patton says. “Now, with third-party certification, it is easy to determine the benefits of the products.”
Says Sutton, “Originally, products that were green weren’t always the most effective even though the manufacturer wanted you to believe that they were. I think that's changing. It's making it easier for us to make the decision to use green products when they're good products and they do what we need them to do.”
When possible, Sutton gets samples of products he is interested in buying and asks his maintenance crews to try them and provide feedback.
“If our crews don’t like it, they’re not going to use it,” he says. He often looks for the seal from Green Seal when specifying certain cleaning chemicals his department uses. Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that identifies products that cause less toxic pollution and waste, conserve resources and habitats, and minimize global warming and ozone depletion.
The price of green products often was higher than that for their non-green counterparts, has steered some organizations away from specifying greed products in the past. Patton says that in many cases, prices for both kinds of products are about the same.
“The copy paper and paper towels that contain recycled content perform as well as virgin products,” he says. “The price is decreasing as recycled materials becomes more widely used. Also, our energy-efficient compact fluorescent LED exit lights and T8 fluorescent fixtures with electronic ballasts perform as promised and provide a return on investment in about one year.”
In most cases, prices for green products are decreasing and their performance is increasing. As a result, their manufacturers don't have to push as hard to make their case as they did 10 years ago. More often, managers are willing to give them a fair hearing.
Says Sutton, “If they’re valid products and they work well, we’re happy to take a look at them.”
Greenbuild International Conference & Expo
Hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Greenbuild focuses on the latest advances in green building design, construction project financing and building management. Educational programs highlight benchmarks of sustainability on such issues as water use, energy, materials, indoor environmental quality, biophelia, and health and productivity. Other conference highlights include more than 400 exhibitors, LEED workshops, and green building tours.
The conference will be held Nov. 10-12, 2004, in Portland, Ore. For more information, visit online or call (202) 828-7422.