Improving energy use in veterinary clinics

Need for more energy-efficient businesses continues to grow
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The recent launch of a government initiative to diversify energy sources in the United States and staggering gas prices point to the growing need for veterinarians to incorporate energy-saving practices into their clinics.

In early 2006, President Bush announced the Advanced Energy Initiative, which will work to break the United States' dependence on foreign sources of energy. A sound energy policy is vital to national security and protecting the environment, according to the initiative. The initiative provides for a 22 percent increase in funding for clean-energy research at the Department of Energy. One of the goals is to diversify how the country powers its businesses by performing more research on wind and solar energy.

High gas prices are another reason why there is a growing need to save energy. Over the past four years, prices for natural gas increased from nearly $3 per thousand cubic feet in early 2002 to more than $8 per thousand cubic feet recently, with a pronounced price spike after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to the initiative.

As part of an industry where approximately 32 percent of the U.S. professionals are practice owners, according to AVMA membership data, many veterinarians are in a unique position to incorporate energy-saving practices into their clinics.

Setting the energy-savings bar

When Dr. Nan Boss set out to build her small animal clinic, Best Friends Veterinary Center, she knew she wanted to use as many energy-saving designs and materials as she could within her budget.

"Our goal was to create a building that would be energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and both comfortable and healthy," Dr. Boss said.

Glass block windows in the dog kennel

Located in Grafton, Wis., the clinic features several electric light-saving designs. "Thirty to forty cents of every dollar spent on energy in the average business goes to lighting," she said. To make the most use of daylight, some rooms in the clinic feature floor-to-ceiling windows, and the dog kennel has glass block windows. Many rooms have dual lights, so half of them can be turned off when not needed. Also, high-quality, full-spectrum bulbs are used in most parts of the clinic.

The clinic's $100,000, state-of-the-art heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system is also energy-efficient. Dr. Boss was able to secure an energy conservation grant through a Wisconsin state program, which helped her offset the cost.

In addition to the lighting and HVAC system, Dr. Boss paid special attention to use of environment-friendly materials. The clinic's outdoor siding is made of cement board, a synthetic product, which came with a 50-year guarantee, meaning she won't soon have to spend money or use materials to repaint or replace it. The benches in the waiting rooms and examination rooms are made entirely of recycled products, and the sheet-vinyl floors throughout the clinic contain about 40 percent recycled vinyl.

One of Dr. Boss' ongoing projects is designing the landscape surrounding the clinic. By using natural landscaping, such as prairie grasses and wildflowers, she hopes to cut down on water usage and mowing, which requires gas.

Tools for veterinarians

Despite the increased need to minimize energy use, some practice-owning veterinarians might not know how or what energy-efficient techniques to incorporate. "Most veterinarians who build hospitals are not familiar with the building industry or with the wide range of environmentally sound products that are out there nowadays," Dr. Boss said.

The AVMA Committee on Environmental Issues has set out to educate veterinarians on how to save energy in their practices, with a special focus on Energy Star, a program the Environmental Protection Agency launched in 1992. "It is a ... program that is strictly free and voluntary that aids businesses in developing environmentally friendly and energy-efficient practices in their businesses, while saving money in the long run," said Dr. Amy Krauss, a CEI member who represents the American Animal Hospital Association. "Practitioners can become Energy Star partners and have available to them a range of technical services on how to do this. Most practice owners do not know it is available."

In response, the CEI has hosted a block of sessions at several AVMA Annual Conventions on building ecofriendly practices (see JAVMA, Sept. 15, 2005).

Overhangs provide shade and reduce air-conditioning costs

Energy Star can benefit practice-owning veterinarians in several ways. The program works with manufacturers to help their products obtain higher energy efficiency and, once the product achieves that efficiency, the manufacturer can use the Energy Star logo on the product. The logo assures consumers they're buying a product that is more energy-efficient, said Jerry Lawson, national manager of Energy Star for Small Business.

"There's a very good chance that an Energy Star product will not cost any more than any other product," Lawson added. He said if there is a price difference, Energy Star staff could help calculate the return on investment by figuring in the energy savings over a period of time.

Some examples of Energy Star-certified products are fax machines, computers, refrigerators, light fixtures, and heating and cooling systems. There are no medical products that are certified by the program, Lawson said.

In addition to labeling products, Energy Star provides free technical support and information to business owners and operators on energy efficiency through a toll-free hotline, (888) STAR-YES. For quick pointers on how to incorporate energy-efficient practices into a veterinary clinic, see "Simple energy-saving techniques" on page 1171.

Additionally, for veterinarians who are interested in energy-saving practices for new-building construction, Energy Star offers a design section on its Web site. To access the section, visit, click on Business Improvement, then Tools & Resources, and then New Building Design.

Energy Star also offers a communications kit and promotional items to help practice owners educate their staff and clients about their efforts in conserving the environment.

Dr. Boss has worked to promote her environment-friendly clinic to clients. One of the hallways in the clinic features a bulletin board with photographs and descriptions of the environmental design elements of the building. So far, she has received an encouraging response from her clients.

"I had a lot of people asking me what materials we used," Dr. Boss said. "It's a nice marketing thing. It doesn't necessarily cost you that much more money, but it's a nice thing that tells the clients what you're all about."

Simple energy-saving techniques

Jerry Lawson, national manager of Energy Star for Small Business, recommended several energy-saving practices that veterinarians could incorporate into their clinics.

  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps wherever appropriate.
  • Install occupant sensors—or motion sensors—in low-traffic locations such as storage rooms and restrooms.
  • Install light-emitting diode exit signs. One Energy Star-qualified sign alone can save about $10 annually on electricity costs and can last up to 10 years without a lamp replacement.
  • Obtain a maintenance contract on the clinic's heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system. The contract might cost $100 a year, Lawson said, but there are numerous benefits to making sure the system runs efficiently.
  • Install a programmable thermostat to automate the clinic's HVAC system. "If you close at 6 p.m. every day, you don't need to be running your heating or air conditioning until 6 p.m.; you can let it phase out automatically," Lawson suggested.