County commissioners are shopping for cheaper utility bills.
Sometimes to save money, you've got to spend money -- $283,000 to be exact.
That's what Douglas County officials figure they'll have to pay for an energy conservation package that will moderate the rate shock from the electric bill for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. In an average month, it costs taxpayers $11,000 to light, heat and cool the 18-year-old building that houses the courts, jail and police and sheriff's departments.
Bill Bell, the county's director of maintenance since 1986, recalls his reaction the first time he got a look at the center's electric bill.
``When I first came on board here, I thought it was a mistake,'' Bell said, adding that he even called KPL, the local electric utility, to double-check the amount.
``This building's kind of a dinosaur as far as energy consumption goes,'' he said.
The historical perspective
When the center was built in 1976, it made sense to install all-electric mechanical systems. At the time, before deregulation of the natural gas industry and during a gas shortage scare, electricity was touted as the low-cost energy source.
Today, said Mike Hertling, director of administration at Kansas Public Service, the Lawrence natural gas utility, it's about three times as expensive to heat with electricity than natural gas.
When they meet at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the Douglas County Courthouse, commissioners will discuss awarding a contract for an energy conservation program that would cut the center's utility costs beginning Jan. 1.
They already have included $283,000 in their 1995 budget to pay for the program, which Bell estimates would save the county at least $40,000 a year. That means taxpayers would recoup their investment in about 5 1/2 years.
The shopping list
Here's what the package is likely to include:
- Retrofitting all 668 of the center's ceiling light fixtures and about 200 more in the old courthouse with reflectors to magnify the light generated from fewer and more efficient fluorescent tubes.
Lighting accounts for about 40 percent of the center's energy consumption, Bell said. He estimates that the new fixtures and tubes will save the county as much as $28,000 a year in lighting costs.
- Installation of a state-of-the-art computerized energy management system. A computer now regulates the temperature, reducing energy consumption when the building isn't in use, but Bell said the new system will have security applications and will be able to run lights.
- Replacement of the 500-gallon electric hot water heater with an 80-gallon gas-heated unit that will be supplemented by a 200-gallon holding tank.
- Installation of shower heads that will reduce water usage in the jail showers and law enforcement locker rooms by nearly one-half.
- Installation of high-efficiency motors on the air handlers that move heated and cooled air through the building's duct work.
The long-term view
Bell said county officials and the consultants they've been using explored the option of converting the building's heating system to natural gas but found it was not cost-effective.
Michel' Philipp, spokeswoman for Western Resources, KPL's parent company, said the electric utility applauds efforts like Douglas County's. The utility even gives advice to large and small customers about cutting energy costs and sometimes offers economic development incentives, such as special rates, to large customers who build electric-powered facilities.
Brian Burke, assistant director of the Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Center in the Kansas University School of Architecture, said another reason large buildings still are being equipped with all-electric mechanical systems is that they tend to cost less up front, lowering the capital investment taxpayers must make.
``When you build something, everybody looks at initial cost. They don't look at what it's going to cost over the life of the building ... especially when it comes to public organizations -- the city, county and the schools,'' Burke said.
Commission Chairman Louie McElhaney said that after the experience with the center, the commission wasn't going to overlook long-term operating costs again.
Asked whether the commission might approve conventional all-electric mechanical systems for a new jail, which is expected to be the next building the county constructs, McElhaney said: ``That's not likely. That's not likely at all.''