Working from home is only better for the planet if your office has switched the lights off

The climate column: If we're not using hundreds of thousands of office buildings, why isn't the demand for electricity falling? This is what your office manager might have forgotten

Donnachadh McCarthy
Thursday 09 April 2020 08:55 BST
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If your workplace has not turned off all its heating, cooling and electrical equipment since lockdown, its carbon emissions may actually have doubled since.

I have been watching the UK’s electricity daily demand since the Covid-19 disruption started, and while transport emissions have dropped, there has been no dramatic fall in demand for electricity. Indeed, the nighttime baseload usual minimum of 20 gigawatts has remained almost unchanged. This indicates that there has been no major effort to switch off the equipment that operates at night in many organisations.

That has to change. Having audited hundreds of businesses for energy efficiency, there are a few obvious considerations that should be being made by the premises manager in your organisation, to check what needs to be off during the Covid-19 disruption. Some of these suggestions will also apply to organisations where there are still some core staff working, but where the majority of the building occupants are now working from home or have been furloughed.

I was once asked to eco-audit a large government office with 200 staff. Despite being brand new, with a plethora of energy efficiency measures, their bills were nearly triple what was predicted.

What I discovered was that all of the heating and hot water systems were running 24/7 for the entire building, despite it only operating during office hours, as there was always an emergency crew of two people on duty.

The lesson for today is simple: turn off the parts of the building that are unused. If you have a skeleton staff scattered across a building, try and get them to work in just a few spaces and then turn the systems off in the under used spaces.

As the danger of a winter deep frost is now over, there is very little risk of pipes being frozen if the central heating systems are now turned off for the summer, rather than left on frost-protection. If your heating system is on a timer, check that this is over-ridden and is turned off completely.

In many buildings, hot water for sinks are often supplied by separate electric water heaters for each bathroom or by a central large electric-immersion heater. Don’t forget to turn these off if they are not being used.

I once eco-audited an organisation in Scotland that found they had 15 electric water heaters running 24/7, hidden away in each bathroom behind the fascia boarding under the sink. Each of these was using about 3,000 watts. And remember, too, to turn off hot water drink taps and hot drinks machines at the mains.

The same applies to any air conditioning or air handling systems. I have come across many facility managers who have not a clue about how their air handling systems works, or where its controls are located. There is absolutely no need for air handling systems to be operating when the offices are closed.

Refrigeration is another thing that many people may forget to turn off during coronavirus. If there is a fridge in each office kitchen, which is only used for a bottle of milk for hot drinks and to keep staff packed lunches cool, then ensure the milk is taken out and turn the fridges off for the duration. They will restart fine when you return.

This also applies to any freezers or fridges in catering departments. If they are empty of perishable food, then turn them off. If there are four half-empty freezers, fill up two of them and turn the others off. Keeping empty refrigeration running 24/7 during Covid-19 makes no sense at all.

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If the building is partially open, see if you can rationalise the number of fridges: keep only one fridge for milk for staff still at work. Likewise, for drinks cooler cabinets and water coolers, whether bottled or mains operated, there is no point in having them running 24/7 so that you can have a cold drink the second you arrive back at at the office after the worst of Covid-19 has passed.

Ensure all your office or classroom lights etc have been turned off. The school across the road from me has closed but left the lights on upstairs. Check that all other unnecessary lights are off, especially if they work on a light sensor or timer (this includes hallways, storerooms, print rooms and IT rooms). It is also important to have all bathroom lights off, as they are often connected to extractor fans. Having these run 24/7 for months would be criminally wasteful.

External architectural, window display & advertising lighting should all be off, except those needed for security; although ideally, these should be sensor-activated anyway, rather than on all night.

And so we come to various electronic equipment. Turn off all PCs, printers, shredders, TVs, electronic whiteboards, sound-systems, projectors etc. off at the wall.

One final thing that can be turned off is the water to the urinals in all unused bathrooms for the duration.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown if we do not heed the warnings from experts about impending catastrophes, humanity can pay a staggering price. By ensuring that at least our empty workspaces are not churning out wasted pointless CO2 during the disruption, can be our first small step to resolving that we are refusing pointblank to going back to business as usual in a fossil-fuelled economy that is generating a climate genocide for future generations.

A carbon negative economy now has got to be our new reality.

Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental auditor, campaigner and is the author of ‘The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy was Hijacked’

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