OVERLAND PARK, KS -- Bahram Akradi, CEO of Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, recently shared an anecdote in Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Star Tribune about a woman who stopped him during the height of the recent recession to reveal why her family was quitting its membership.
It wasn’t because of the economy, she told him, but that the pool temperature was too cold for her children to swim. Akradi subsequently found out the club had been reducing its pool temperatures in an effort to save money. He immediately ordered that the temperatures in all Life Time pools be raised to a more comfortable level.
With utility costs rising across the board, and the economy still in the doldrums, it’s logical that club owners are looking for ways to save money. But there are many ways to reduce utility costs without risking members’ comfort.
Many of the easiest ways to save don’t even require an initial financial investment, says Bruce Buckbee, the former owner of a chain of large Boston fitness clubs and now managing partner of Leisure Green, a Plymouth, MA-based sustainability consultancy that specializes in the leisure industry.
For example, when Buckbee worked with Town Sports International (TSI), New York, to help rein in its utility costs, they contracted an energy broker to bid out the chain’s electricity needs.
“There are 23 states where electricity is deregulated,” Buckbee says. “That means you don’t have to buy your electricity from the local utility company. You can bid it out through an energy broker and get competitive rates from many different suppliers. Any club can do it, and it costs nothing.”
TSI, which operates around 160 clubs in eight states—all deregulated—saved more than $1.5 million for the year in energy costs.
In terms of other ways to save, Buckbee says a lot of it is common sense.
Two of the simplest things you can do is to make sure your scheduled maintenances are up to date and to keep up energy-saving procedures at the close of business, such as turning out all the lights and computers, turning off the steam and adjusting the thermostat.
“It’s just the typical stuff your mother and father told you to do when you were a kid, but these are very common-sense things that can yield you maybe 3 to 5 percent energy savings over the course of a year,” Buckbee says.
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If you are willing and able to spend money, automating a lot of these things can represent an even greater savings, says Bruce Carter of Optimal Design Systems International, Weston, FL.
“A lot of clubs are going with energy management systems (EMS),” Carter says. “These are computerized systems that are tied into the mechanicals and are based on the history of use, so it learns when to shut on and off the lights and air or heat. So for example, if there’s no one in a group exercise room, you don’t cool it down as much.”
Buckbee estimates that EMS equipment can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of the club and the complexity of the equipment purchased, but he says it can pay you back in an average of two years.
Lighting, which comprises about 40 percent of the energy needs of most clubs, is a key place to save, Carter says.
“Look into energy-saving ballasts [which regulate the flow of energy] and occupancy sensors,” he says. “The sensors can turn the lights on when someone enters a space and turn them off after a period of time. Switching to the compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs instead of the incandescent bulbs is also quick and easy—and the CFL bulbs can save about 25 percent energy.”
If you’re considering any energy-saving upgrades, from bulbs to EMS, both Buckbee and Carter say your first step should be to get in touch with your local utility company because it may subsidize some of the cost.
“Many utility companies will contribute anywhere from a third to half of the costs—and coupled with the energy reduction for the club, you could be looking at a 12- to 36-month return on investment,” Buckbee says. “It’s easier for them to encourage their customers to be energy efficient than it is for them to build more power plants.”
Members expect room temperatures to be kept comfortable, so cooling—and occasionally heating—costs can be another major consideration.
Whether a club is a renovation or a new build, Carter says one of the first things he does is install one of the more energy-efficient HVAC units. Using insulated and tinted glass and well-insulated walls also is helpful in retaining the desired indoor temperatures.
There are retro-fitting solutions for temperature control, too.
“Foam insulation is one of the better ways to get high energy efficiency, and it’s easy to do retroactively because it can be injected in without having to open up a wall,” Carter says. “It’s also an easy fix to just add sunshades on a club’s windows, which can reduce the amount of heat that gets in.”
Elevated airspeeds can offset a lot of the need for cooling, so installing fans is another good way to save on utility costs. Installing and operating a large, energy-efficient ceiling fan means you can bump up the thermostat by a few degrees, and the amount you save on cooling will more than offset the energy used to operate the fan.
“As a rule of thumb, we say that every degree you raise a thermostat represents a 3 percent reduction in energy that can be achieved,” says Alex Reed of Big Ass Fans, Lexington, KY. “Our fans are inexpensive to operate because they use really low horsepower motors relative to the amount of air they move. So for example, one of our 8-foot Isis fans moves as much as nine small ceiling fans but only uses a third of the energy.”