Smithsonian Implements Sticky Solution to Aid Energy Conservation

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In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution replaced some 15,000 outdated lighting ballasts (devices that turn on fluorescent lights) in the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History in an effort to improve energy conservation. Of course, all the energy-efficient lighting ballasts in the world won't make much difference if people keep the lights on all the time.

That’s why Eric Hollinger—an archaeologist with the National Museum of Natural History and co-chair of the museum’s Greening Task Force—devised a simple, low-tech way to remind Smithsonian staffers to flip the switch.

It’s a decal, illustrated in the Smithsonian’s trademark blue and gold, reminding people to turn off the lights when they leave. It’s placed—no surprise—near the light switches in the museum and museum offices. Is it simple? Yes. A bit silly, even? Maybe. But the Smithsonian's greening experts have high hopes that, used in conjunction with energy-efficient lights, these decals could markedly augment energy savings throughout the institution.

After using 28,072,619 kilowatt hours of electricity at a cost of nearly $3.5 million in 2009, Hollinger’s greening task force began discussions with staff members regarding opportunities for conservation and sustainability within the museum. One recurring topic of conversation was the frequency with which staff members left the lights in their offices and hallways on when, well, nobody was home. “A lot of staff felt that people just weren’t as cognizant of it because they didn’t see the electricity bills. There wasn’t that personal connection to it,” said Hollinger.

Stickers such as those Hollinger has developed were ubiquitous in the museum during the years of the Carter administration, but due to renovations, repairs and repainted walls, they have since disappeared. So, Hollinger decided to start investigating the conservation potential in resurrecting the old stickers.

“People were saying, ‘well, it’s not worth it if I’m only leaving my office for 20 minutes,’” Hollinger said. “They were rationalizing not turning the lights off.” This laid the foundation with two preliminary points of research: first, learning exactly how much energy is spent by turning the museum’s lights on, which requires an initial surge of energy supplied by the ballasts. And second, calculating how much time lights would have to be turned off in order to make up the difference.

Hollinger discovered that thanks to the new energy-efficient lighting ballasts, turning off the lights for 5 minutes or more was more efficient than leaving them on. He also found a Canadian study in which decals similar to those he envisioned had been put up in an office space and had more than paid for themselves in energy savings within less than two months. Hollinger then started looking into the cost-efficiency of printing stickers for the museum. Enlisting the help of Chief of Exhibit Design Michael Lawrence at the National Museum of Natural History to create the design, Hollinger and Lawrence developed a sticker that would cost 12 cents apiece. According to Hollinger’s calculations, if used throughout the entire museum, the $700 investment would pay for itself in as little as two and a half weeks and would result in a 15 to 20 percent decrease in energy used in office spaces. With the endorsement of museum director Christian Samper, the stickers have been purchased and are being mounted.

While there has been a sharp dip in the electric bill since replacing the ballasts, it is difficult to tell how much energy has actually been saved due to the decals rather than the new, energy-efficient ballasts. But Nancy Bechtol, Director of the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability, thinks Hollinger is onto something; she has purchased the decals for the entire Smithsonian Institution. “I asked Eric, ‘Do you mind if we buy 25,000 of these?’” Bechtol recalled. Once the decals are put up throughout the Smithsonian museums and offices (some of which have older, less efficient ballasts), it should be possible to tell whether or not they make a difference.

In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution won a sustainability award from the U.S. General Services Administration for an energy-efficient chiller plant (a large, water-based cooling system) that provides air conditioning at a lower environmental impact (and cost) to the National Museum of American History. Part of a larger effort to increase energy savings throughout the Smithsonian, the project also included a hot water system upgrade and revamp of the chiller plant and ventilation systems at the Natural History Museum, in addition to replacing the lighting ballasts.

But while these large-scale initiatives may contribute substantially to sustainability in the Smithsonian, simple things can contribute to energy conservation—like turning off the lights.

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