Small Biz: Need to cut costs? Start with your energy bills

Small business owners know better than anyone that they have to reduce expenses during shaky economic times. But if you're looking around for costs to cut, you don't have to go straight to payroll. One painless place to look that might not be on your radar is energy savings. As energy prices rise, the savings you can net from a few simple changes become much more significant.

The key to saving energy at your small business is exactly the same as it is at home: Turn off what you're not using and find more economical alternatives. It's really that simple.

Here are some tips:

Turn off your equipment when it's not in use: Begin by turning off computers, monitors, printers, and copiers at night and over weekends and holidays. It's tempting to leave that computer running. The screen saver is on, so you're probably not thinking about the energy it's using overnight. But think of it this way: A computer left on all night is using over twice as much electricity as one that is turned on only during the working day. I know it's faster to not have to wait for the computer to boot up in the morning... But, come on. Go get a cup of coffee while you're waiting!

Get employees in line: Many employees are more liberal with energy usage at work than they are at home, so this is an area in which you might be able to find some decent savings with a few simple management directives. Many employees are probably thinking "green" at home, so encouraging them to do so at work is just smart, hands-on management.

Buy some new office gear: I'll admit that until recently, I never even thought of finding more energy efficient office equipment. I'd buy what I needed based upon the features, and never even consider electric usage. Now is my time (and yours) to become a bit more cost conscious in this area. Energy Star electronics and appliances are known for being more energy efficient, using about half the electricity of standard equipment. But Energy Star isn't just for the kitchen or the laundry room. Check for the electricity-saving seal on copiers, fax machines, printers, scanners, and computers.

Get some software to help out: For companies that have asked employees to shut off equipment at night, but haven't been successful in those efforts, there is power management software available for computer monitors. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) says that over $1 billion is wasted on electricity for monitors left on when they're not being used.

Take advantage of natural lighting in your office. If you've got big windows and the sun is shining, there's no need to turn on overhead lights. That sounds like a no-brainer, but have you ever paid attention to this issue? Notice how many of your co-workers are just in the habit of flipping on all the lights, no matter what free lighting is shining in from outside.

Office workers are also in the bad habit of turning on unnecessary lighting, and this is a huge energy sucker. Why have overhead lights on all over the office when you're only using the desk in one area? While this might seem like an obvious tip to some, there are certainly many professionals who turn on all the lights out of habit, and could benefit greatly from this simple suggestion.

Block drafts: If you pay for your own heat (or air conditioning), you may be interested in making your office space more efficient. Especially if you own the office space... then you'll be able to do a lot of things. Look for windows and doors that are letting in drafts, and use weather stripping, caulk or other sealants to keep the heat in and the cold out.

Control the temperature: Use window shades to help control the temperature in your office space, especially when the office is empty. Consider turning your thermostat up or down a few degrees (depending on the season) to make your heat or air conditioning kick in a little less often.

Save gas: Of course, business owners (especially those with sales fleets and transportation costs) should think about saving gas.Advise employees (and do the same yourself): Slow down a little and take some other gas-saving measures.

Were you surprised by any of these suggestions? Probably not. They're mostly just common sense things that many of us probably apply at home but forget about when we come to the office. Give a few of them a try and encourage your employees to do so as well. In a tighter economy, our companies can use all the cost-saving measures we can find, and these are really easy ideas to implement.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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