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Color-Coding System Helps Save Energy

November 14, 2012 By Stephen Ashkin

Stephen Ashkin

Believe it or not, vending machines date back to the first century AD. That was when a Greek engineer developed a machine that would dispense holy water whenever a coin was deposited into the machine. A clever little system, the coin fell upon a pan that opened a lever, allowing a small amount of water blessed by a religious leader to flow out.

Today, vending machines dispense just about everything imaginable, including gum, drinks, sandwiches, and electronics. At one time, an American insurance company even sold life insurance at airport vending machines. But now, it is not necessarily what vending machines are selling but the ways they operate that is getting notice and contributing to what is now being referred to as a “culture of sustainability.”

Most vending machines, specifically refrigerated systems, waste loads of electricity each year. It is estimated that a conventional vending machine uses 3,000 to 4,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. This is about a third of all the electricity the average US household uses in a year’s time. A large vending machine, and one that is placed outside in a warm, sunny climate, can use even more power.

While some newer and more advanced vending machines do have power-saving modes, which turn down compressors, fans, and lights if the system has not been used for long periods of time, many do not (as of 2012, new refrigerated vending machines are required to use no more than 1,800 kWh per year. However, because vending machines can have a relatively long life span and are relatively inexpensive to repair, transfer to more energy-efficient systems may take years). Instead, they work 24 hours per day, seven days per week, whether needed or not.

Many commercial office buildings may have scores of vending machines throughout their facilities. Surprisingly, many building owners, developers, and managers are totally unaware of how much energy these systems use and, even more importantly, how much could be saved if they were turned off (or put into a power save mode where possible) at the end of each day or on weekends when not needed. This applies to those vending machines that store colas or items that do not need to be refrigerated.  It does not refer to machines that store food items that might spoil or melt.

Usually building owners and managers first become aware of how much electricity these machines use when they adopt what we call a “sustainability color-coding system.” Similar to other color-coding systems found in medical locations and commonly used in the professional cleaning industry, these systems are typically used to designate that certain tools, equipment, or practices be used in specific areas of a facility. A sustainability color-coding system is designed to identify certain “plug load” items such as light switches, desk lamps, fans and space heaters, monitors, printers, power strips, and thermostats that can be turned down or turned off when not needed—including vending machines.

As to which colors to use, there are no rules. Managers and custodial workers can determine this. The important thing is for the coding to be easy to understand and communicated to the relevant people. An example system for a commercial office building would include the following:

  • A red dot placed on lights, equipment, and power sources would indicate items that should be turned off at the end of each workday and on weekends.
  • A green dot would indicate those items that should be left on.
  • A yellow dot on a power source or piece of equipment would signify that building management or a designated person should be notified these systems are on.
  • A blue dot could indicate an item, such as a vending machine, should be turned off only on weekends.

To simplify the process of turning power sources and power-using equipment on and off, several energy-using devices, such as computers and monitors, may be plugged into the same power strip. This way, if a red dot is placed on the power strip, turning off this power strip can turn the power off to several computers at once, making the process fast and easy.

There are many reasons facilities employ color-coding systems: to protect health, prevent mistakes, and overcome language barriers, to name a few. When it comes to sustainability, these systems help us focus on things, including the energy needs of vending machines, which many of us had never thought of before. One step at a time, they are helping us use natural resources more responsibly and efficiently, which has the added benefit of reducing costs…always a win-win scenario.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of  The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.



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