Shocking Energy Costs and How To Reduce Them At Your Stable

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Have you ever gotten your electric bill and nearly fainted at the shock? That can happen when cold weather and shorter days start increasing the demand on your lights, heaters and electricity use.

Whether you board, train, or breed horses as a business, soaring energy costs can burn a hole in your profits. That was the problem Cindy and Michael Italiaander faced at Fox Crossing Equestrian Center in Morris, Connecticut. Soon after opening their boarding and lesson operation in 2008, they began getting electric bills of $1,500 a month—nearly twice the estimate provided by the property’s previous owners.

Getting control of these costs can seem daunting, but many energy-saving measures are simple and relatively inexpensive. The trick is figuring out which steps will give your operation the biggest savings at the most affordable cost, and for that you need an energy audit.

Getting Started

You can do a simple energy audit yourself, but many utility companies offer expert help in the form of programs that provide energy audits for commercial and residential customers. There are even some programs tailored to farms. These programs bring in experts to help you figure out where energy is wasted in your operation, how you can reduce that waste, which energy-efficient equipment can help, and what rebate programs are available for your business.

In some cases, the audit is free; in others, the charge can be offset by rebates and discounts on the purchase of energy-efficient equipment. Utility companies that don’t offer audits can usually refer you to someone that does. State and regional Resource Conservation and Development Councils (RCDCs) are another resource.

The first step in the audit is to inventory your energy use, and for that you’ll need to gather 12 months of electric and fuel bills. With that information in hand, an auditor can visit your farm to help figure out where you use the most energy in your operation. The idea is to look at the energy use in different categories, estimate the impact of each category on total energy costs, and determine what measures can boost efficiency at a justifiable cost. The amount of energy used by specific equipment and the number of hours a day that equipment is used are factors in the equation.

Compared to dairy and some other types of farms, “Horse farms typically are not big energy users,” said Rick Peterson of Northeast Agriculture Technology Corporation, an Ithaca, New York, consulting firm that does dozens of energy audits at agricultural operations each year. Peterson lists five primary areas where an auditor might look for savings on a horse farm, starting with…

1. Lighting

“Many horse farms still use low-efficiency incandescent lighting,” Peterson said. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) can work very well in livestock facilities, he said, and just unscrewing the incandescent bulb and screwing in a CFL can cut energy use per lamp by as much as 75%. However, CFLs can’t meet every lighting need.

The Italiaanders arranged an energy audit through a program offered by their electric provider, CL&P. It focused extensively on the existing lighting—older (T-12) fluorescent strip lights in the barn’s front aisle, incandescent bulbs in the back aisle, and halide lamps in the indoor ring. The aging halides were dim and cast a bluish light. At the auditor’s recommendation, the Italiaanders replaced them with high-bay T-8 fluorescents. T-8s, which are one-inch diameter tubes, are considered the most efficient lamps available and work with high-efficiency ballasts. The high-bay fixtures (designed for open, high-ceiling areas) have four bulbs each, backed by aluminum reflectors. “They provide vastly more light while using half the wattage,” said Michael.

The incandescent bulbs in the back aisle were inadequate, leaving the aisle shrouded in gloom. Compact fluorescents were not a good option here—they didn’t cast enough light, either. Instead, the Italiaanders installed new low-bay T-8 fixtures, which are designed for areas with ceiling heights of less than 20 feet. The lamps, protected by watertight plastic enclosures, produce minimal shadows and reflections, making it easier to work on horses in the aisle. “They use 30% less wattage while providing much more light,” Michael said. “We also rewired the aisle in a double-switched configuration, so that we can turn on just every other light in the row, for more savings.”

While the Italiaanders chose to keep the existing fluorescent lights in the front barn aisle, Peterson said that it can make sense to replace old T-12 fluorescents with energy-efficient electronic ballasts and high efficiency T-8 lamps. “The T-8 fixtures will save 20% of the energy used by T-12 fixtures, while producing about the same amount of light,” he said.

Your audit should also look at how lights are used, because you’re wasting energy if lights stay on when they’re not needed. Use timers or photocells to turn lights off during daylight hours, or install motion detectors to automatically switch lights on when someone enters an area and turn them off when there’s no activity.

2. Livestock Waterers

Lighting isn’t the only energy hog on a horse farm. “Many horse farms use heated automatic livestock waterers,” Peterson noted. “Some are poorly insulated and require a fairly high wattage to keep water from freezing.” New, high-efficiency waterers are better insulated and require far less energy, he says. Even better are energy-free waterers, which have no heating element—they’re highly insulated and have automatic covers to keep water inside from freezing.

It also pays to maintain heated waterers, making sure that covers close properly to keep heat from escaping. Keep the thermostat set around 35°F—just high enough to keep the water from icing over.

3. Ventilation Fans

Most horse barns rely primarily on natural ventilation, but a large facility may have a mechanical ventilation system that uses fans to exhaust stale air and to circulate air within the structure. “In an audit, we would take a close look at the fans being used and recommend high-efficiency fans if the existing fans are of a poor, low-efficiency design,” sids Peterson. “Energy-efficient fans could deliver as much as twice the amount of air per watt of electric energy used, reducing energy use for ventilation by up to 50%.” It’s also important to clean and maintain ventilation fans, so that they’ll operate efficiently.

4. Heating

While few barns are heated, most use some form of heat in cold weather. You may have heat lamps in wash stalls or foaling stalls, for example. If so, an audit can help determine if replacing those lamps would save you money: “New, energy-efficient 175-watt heat lamps perform nearly as well as the old 250-watt heat lamps, reducing energy use by 30%,” Peterson advised.

The radiant heaters that are sometimes used in tack rooms, offices and bathrooms are another potential area of energy waste. Many radiant heaters are not controlled, Peterson said. That means a 1,200-watt heater will pull 1,200 watts of energy whenever it is turned on. Heaters with solid-state controls provide heat at pre-set levels and use much less energy. Be sure heaters are off when the tack room or other area isn’t in use, for safety as well as for energy savings.

5. Hot Water

A stable’s hot water heater should be a high-efficiency unit, Peterson said. The Italiaanders kept their existing water heater, a relatively efficient oil-fired model. But many stables rely on electric units for convenience, and some of these can be big energy users.

“Because the ambient air is cooler in a horse barn than in a home, an insulation jacket should be used on an electric water heater to reduce heat loss,” Peterson noted.

An audit may suggest other simple ways to save, such as fixing dripping hot water faucets and lowering the water-heater thermostat (110°F is plenty warm enough for most barn needs).

If your operation uses a lot of warm water, you may want to investigate a solar thermal water heating system, Peterson suggests. Such systems, in which sunlight is used to directly heat water, are relatively low-cost and can significantly reduce the amount you spend to heat water.

Adding It Up

An energy audit may turn up low-cost and no-cost measures that yield significant savings, such as turning down the thermostat on your hot water heater. For measures like installing new efficient lighting or other equipment, you’ll need to weigh the up-front cost against the projected savings—and the cost may not be justified for some measures. The Italiaanders investigated a solar photovoltaic system (a technology that converts the energy of sunlight into electricity); it would have supplied enough power for all the farm’s needs, but it would have cost $300,000 to set up. “Even with 40% of the cost covered by incentives, that was not in the picture,” said Michael.

How long should it take to recoup the cost of efficient equipment through energy savings? That depends on the energy use of the facility, said Amelia Gulkis of EnSave (www.ensave.com), a Vermont-based company that conducts energy audits nationally.

“Facilities with less energy use overall will generally see longer payback periods,” she said. A reasonable payback period might be anywhere from a few months to ten years, with most technologies paying for themselves within two to five years.

“Of course, the facility owner is the one who ultimately decides what length of payback is reasonable. If equipment needs replacement anyway, or if there are other benefits to the new equipment besides energy savings (such as reduced noise or maintenance costs), the owner might not mind a longer payback period,” she added.

The Italiaanders received discounts on the lighting fixtures they installed through the utility company audit program they used, but they paid the full cost of installation. That cost was higher than projected because, once the work began, the electricians discovered problems with the facility’s 1970s-era wiring. “This was a fire hazard, so we’re very glad that the problems were found and fixed,” Cindy says.

While it can be difficult to take the step of installing new equipment, the Italiaanders said the satisfaction and benefits have been worth it. “We’re young with the facility, so we don’t know yet how much we can save. If we can get the bills down to $800, we’ll be very happy,” Michael said.

Meanwhile, he added, “It’s a win-win situation—we’re saving money, and clients are happy because the light levels are so much better.”