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NHS can learn from supermarkets, and save millions on energy costs

The NHS is one of the biggest hvacr users in the UK, but if it were to use the lessons of the big supermarkets it could save hundreds of millions of pounds in energy costs, says RDM’s Ken Groves.

Hospitals and healthcare facilities depend on a lot of energy-hungry plant and equipment to keep them running. However, buildings often date back to Victorian times, or were built in an era when energy efficiency was not a priority.

With the cost of energy rising dramatically,  there is a risk of costs escalating out of control and overwhelming NHS budgets, with an obvious potential impact on patient care.

Estimates vary as to the level of energy wastage in the sector, but 25-50 per cent is actually at the conservative end of the spectrum. A 25 per cent cut in this waste would yield savings of hundreds of millions of pounds.

There are substantial opportunities to save energy in the running of hospital buildings, even with relatively old and inefficient facilities.  With the proper approach and relatively small investment, it is possible to reduce power consumption, improve the quality of the healthcare environment for staff and patients – and at the same time significantly reduce running costs.

The key is to identify where there energy is wasted, through effective monitoring, and then solve it by intelligent control. It is the approach RDM has pioneered in relation to supermarkets, which for commercial reasons have made controlling energy use a priority. Hospitals could learn much from adopting this approach.

One of the main stumbling blocks to getting control of energy usage is the haphazard way hospital building services develop over time. There may be many different systems, subject to independent monitoring and control strategies. Given this, it is hard to deal with the building as a single entity, which is the ideal approach.

So the answer would to wrap a single, intelligent control system around all of the existing plant. This enables managers and engineers to have a window on the entire estate, and control all elements - air conditioning, heating, refrigeration, ventilation and so on – from a single point. This approach can embrace old and new buildings, and all levels of plant.

A basic challenge in relation to hvacr equipment is to ensure it is only used when needed, and delivers the correct environment required by patients and staff.

The starting point is to identify plant that is not operating to design specification, and to optimum performance, either as a result of poor maintenance and servicing or, in the case of rac plant, due to under- or over-charging of refrigerant.

Simply making sure a hospital’s cooling and heating systems are not fighting one another can save huge amounts of wasted energy. But use of variable speed drives would also ensure that equipment delivers the exact amount of cooling, heating or ventilation required, rather than ‘coarse’ control systems which  either turn the system full on, or off.

By considering the operation of a building as a whole, healthcare managers can use control systems to identify these expensive mismatches and eliminate waste. The Display Energy Certificate process introduced last year (under the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive) will at least serve to highlight those buildings and equipment that are in particular need of attention, and provide a clear focus for action.

At the most basic level, hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved from hospitals’ operating costs by addressing the little things. There are myriad examples, but to name a few:

  • PCs and photocopiers on standby consuming power when there’s no-one in the office.
  • So often, the last person to leave forgets to switch off the lights in the office, so they’re left on all night.
  • Lights left on all day, even though the sun is shining through the windows.

A Data Manager can switch off electrical items rather than leave them on standby overnight. Payback times for the Data Manager depends on the specific application, but payback under 12 months is not unrealistic.

Automatic light switching is another area where supermarkets have taken a lead. Many retail sites operate three shifts: trading, stocking, empty, whereas many healthcare establishments are always-on 100 per cent all of the time.

A variable switching system could be applied to hospitals for daytime, evening and night, with a manual override to ensure the lights are powered on when needed, but switched off again when not.

Another important area where hospitals can learn from major retailers is in monitoring for planned maintenance. As noted, any disruption which affects patient care has to be avoided, so effective monitoring of building services plant and electrical systems enables maintenance issues to be identified before they result in breakdown.

Any units which divert from pre-set norms would be instantly identified. They can then be examined remotely for the cause of the problem, and the likelihood of failure predicted, with specialist deciding if or when an engineer should visit.

This is both energy reducing and cost saving for a supermarket, at risk of losing valuable food stock in the event of a refrigeration breakdown. But when applied to blood or tissue storage units in a hospital, for instance, it would also protect valuable and potentially irreplaceable assets.

The essential ingredient in an effective strategy is transparency. You must ensure that what is actually happening in the buildings and facilities is made visible.

Today’s approach of monitoring, control and remote management is already delivering substantial cost savings and reduced energy usage for major retailers. It is a short step to applying this approach in a clinical setting.

So the question is: why haven’t hospitals got to grips with the energy issue in the same way as the supermarket sector?

For a start, some of the obstacles are outside managers’ control, such as political initiatives and organisational changes in the move from central control to Trust and Foundation status, which have served to muddy the focus on such fundamental housekeeping. There is of course also the overriding imperative to provide clinical services without interruption.

Retail businesses, on the other hand, have a much more stable and predictable set of drivers, and can therefore more easily adapt to change.

Having said that, we should not forget that every pound saved on hospital running costs is a pound that can be spent on improving patient care. In the public sector, that should be a powerful driver.