In hurricane- and earthquake-prone areas, disaster planners always tell residents and business owners to have a plan in case Mother Nature knocks the power out.

But this summer, it may not be Mother Nature but power shortages and price spikes that remind building service contractors that having extra flashlights is a good idea.

Already, in California, businesses have been hit by rolling blackouts — and it looks to get worse this summer. While other states may not be as vulnerable to blackouts as California, contractors across the country still must brace themselves for higher utility bills, and do what they can to help their customers cope.

A brief history of deregulation
Much of California’s woes can be traced to the deregulation of its power utilities. Under the deregulation law, the three big utilities — Southern California Edison (SoCal Edison), San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) sold their generating plants to various outside investors, then agreed to buy electricity through competitive bids. In theory, consumers would have a greater choice of producers from which to choose. Some cities, most notably Los Angeles, Anaheim and Sacramento, own their power systems and therefore were exempt from deregulation.

Electric rates were capped and utilities were not allowed to pass on costs to consumers until March 31, 2002, or until the utilities paid off past investments, whichever came first.

This rate freeze made the utilities exceedingly vulnerable to wholesale price spikes. by the power plants’ new owners. SoCal Edison and PG&E faced rising costs and no ability to recover them. PG&E, in fact, recently applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

SDG&E, on the other hand, wiped out its debt and started passing costs to customers. Those customers saw their prices skyrocket from 2.7 cents per kilowatt hour to 52 cents by May 2000. By the end of August, the legislature imposed price caps.

Under deregulation, the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) was created to ensure system reliability. Cal-ISO monitored the power grid, with the authority to purchase electricity on the spot market to make up for any perceived shortfall. If Cal-ISO couldn’t make up the deficit, power alerts or rolling blackouts could be called.

But spot power is expensive — $1.50 per kilowatt hour or more in times of peak demand, and sometimes, it’s just not available. Many California business owners, residents and newspapers accuse the power producers of deliberately holding back electricity from the regular market in order to sell it to Cal-ISO at much higher prices than a normal sale would bring. The state Senate is investigating.

Rolling blackouts began in March of 2001, well before the summer heat.

The state finally stepped in, declaring deregulation a failure, agreeing to raise power rates and even shelling out billions of dollars in what some call a bail out of the utilities, but what others deem necessary for California to keep its lights on at all.

Why the shortage?
Deregulation itself is only a small factor in California’s larger power shortage issue. Simply put, there isn’t enough generating power in California to meet demand.

Two logical solutions to the supply shortage are building new power plants and importing power from other states. But while several plants are currently being built, they take years to complete; a 500-megawatt plant might be the first of the new crop to come on line, in July. Other Western states say they are unable to export power to California; they hardly have enough for themselves.

As the summer heats up, and as Californians crank up their air conditioners, analysts figure, there may be a 1,000-megawatt gap between supply and demand on the hottest days. That means more power emergencies, sky-high prices on the spot market, calls for conservation and rolling blackouts.

And many experts suggest this problem won’t be limited to the West Coast — if the weather turns hot, New York City expects a shortfall of 300 megawatts, risking price spikes and rolling blackouts.

In many areas of the country, the risk isn’t so much from lack of power as from high prices.

“We haven’t heard a lot about rolling blackouts in the Midwest,” says Mark Herbick, president of Capital Cleaning Services, a Chicago-based contractor with operations in five states. “The generating infrastructure is ample compared to what’s on the West Coast.”

Recent power outages, says Herbick, have been due to bad weather, line maintenance and the like.

But even BSCs in the Midwest and other, power-rich places still face high electricity and natural gas prices, and say their customers still are interested in cutting their power costs.

The PABSCO solution
There isn’t a lot BSCs can do to build more power plants, fix out-of-service generators or convince power companies to give them a break, so the focus for contractors needs to be on conservation, for both themselves and their customers.

“BSCs aren’t specifically affected, but it’s having a devastating effect on our customers,” says Richard Dotts, president of Diversified Maintenance Services, South Pasadena, Calif. “For our manufacturing clients, electrical consumption is vital. They can’t prepare for rolling blackouts; it catches them blind.”

Some manufacturing plants have shifted production to nights, or even to out-of-state plants, but that’s not always feasible, especially for smaller manufacturers.

Eventually, Dotts predicts, some clients might move production out of California, taking some BSC customers with them.

Contractors should take on a consultative role with their customers, says Bob Ghossain, CEO of Custom Service Systems, Riverside, Calif.

“BSCs need to go to the customer, before the problem exists, and say, ‘Why not start some conservation tips now?’” he explains.

“If the building maintenance industry helps owners save money on their electric bill, they become more valued business partners,” adds Pete Conaty, owner of Conaty and Associates, a Sacramento, Calif.-based lobbying firm representing the Pacific Association of Building Service Contractors (PABSCO).

To that end, PABSCO is working with other industry groups for a common solution. At the behest of Gov. Gray Davis’ office, PABSCO, along with the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA) and other groups, are developing industry-wide standards for saving energy. This new initiative is called the Commercial Real Estate Partners for Energy Conservation.

And these initiatives, though written for California businesses, should help BSCs in other areas control their electricity usage as well. Also, many of these tips can be used by BSCs in their own facilities.

One of the biggest thrusts of the program is lighting management. Facility managers should install energy-efficient lighting, and janitors should shut off all unnecessary lights when they come across them.

“Any recent office building [in California] is required to have two sets of lights in each office, half on each switch,” Ghossain explains. “You should only have one set on when you’re in the office.”

Some facilities also have installed motion sensors, so lights turn on only when there’s someone in the room.

“Some of our customers have power-management systems that will shut down the lights in certain parts of the building at given times,” adds Capital’s Herbick.

One major unexpected drain on a building’s power supply is space heaters and other individual climate-control devices. The SEIU/BOMA/ PABSCO plan suggests building owners and tenants ban the devices. Janitors could look out for them, too.

Computers, also, can draw power even if they’re in standby mode. Ghossain suggests office workers shut down computers at night, rather than simply putting them to sleep. While janitors shouldn’t shut down their clients’ computers without permission, they can note if they see any left on after-hours.

Shifting the load
Contractors can try to alter their own shifts so they put less of a strain on the power grid. Dotts suggests cleaning Sunday through Thursday nights, instead of Monday through Friday, since there is less demand for electricity on the weekend. Customers in many buildings don’t come in until Monday, so they shouldn’t notice a difference.

Or, cleaners could come in later in the evening, or even early in the morning, when general demand for power goes down.

“You need to reduce and shift the load from peak times, which are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Conaty explains. “As the day heats up, the air conditioning comes on, and we have a real danger of the grid going out.”

However, in states where electric rates are high but conservation isn’t such a priority, Ghossain suggests shifting janitors to work earlier so they can pick up trash, clean little-used and empty spaces, and perform other out-of-the-way work during business hours. That way, they can “share” the light and air conditioning, instead of keeping those systems on later.

That won’t work in California, though, because electricity can’t be stored, says Conaty. Eliminating night cleaning in order to share lights might save a few pennies on the electric bill, but you can’t save those kilowatts and use them the next day. Running a vacuum at peak time strains the grid regardless of how much energy was conserved the day before.

But Jim McClure, president of ABM Janitorial Services, San Francisco, disputes this.

“Running one vacuum in an office building — the power pull is minimal,” he says.

In fact, he says many clients — in California and elsewhere — have been looking for additional daytime services.

Team cleaning is another often-cited way to save power, says Ghossain. With team cleaning, janitors all work in a specific area, focusing on different tasks. When they’re done with that area, they can shut off the light and move on to a new space.

Unfortunately, some labor unions see any attempts to institute team cleaning as a potential reduction in work hours. The key to avoiding this, says McClure, is to keep the union informed and involved in the decision to shift to team cleaning.

Some power conservationists suggest switching from vacuum cleaners to non-electric sweepers, but for most BSCs, that isn’t an option.

“Our contracts specify a certain level of service,” explains Ruben Garcia, owner of Empire Maintenance Co., Inc., Alhambra, Calif. “If you have to vacuum, you have to vacuum.”

ABM has been examining battery-powered vacuums, which don’t draw power from the grid, and also seem quieter for daytime operations.

Surviving the darkness
If conservation efforts aren’t enough contractors might find themselves in the middle of a blackout.

Rolling blackouts aren’t announced; Cal-ISO says announcements will give criminals a heads-up on where burglar alarms, security systems and lights will be out of service.

“Treat blackouts like an earthquake, and have a good plan in place,” says Garcia.

Janitors may be shielded from rolling blackouts since they perform most of their work at night, when stress on the grid is likely to be low. But back-office workers at BSCs’ headquarters are as susceptible to rolling blackouts as anyone else. The greatest threat, say contractors, is to the computers.

In fact, Ghossain’s office was hit by a rolling blackout while he was away at an industry show. Since buildings are required to have emergency lights, his office staff wasn’t in total darkness. But hours of work could have been lost. And if the power came back on suddenly, there could have been a damaging surge.

Luckily, Ghossain’s computers are equipped with uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), so workers had enough time to save their work and shut down safely.

Since ABM Janitorial serves 38 states, a rolling blackout at its San Francisco headquarters could affect other locations without the safeguards McClure is taking to preserve the data.“Our [information technology] division is in-house, and they’re spending time backing up the data,” adds McClure.

If you don’t have a UPS or other emergency measures in place, make sure to save your work often, and unplug your computers and other sensitive equipment if the power fails.

Plan ahead
There is, of course, the chance that a blackout may hit janitors at work or on their way to work, especially if they clean during the day. If your janitors are working during a blackout, make sure you have a procedure.

“We have trained our people in case they have a light shortage,” says Garcia. “First of all, don’t panic. Notify your supervisor. If there’s any light, pick up trash, dust and supply restrooms. Then, we’ll notify customers the next day that we couldn’t get all of the work done.”

Also, try to find out how long the outage will last, suggests Dotts, to determine whether workers should wait it out or go home. With weather- or equipment-related blackouts, it may be as simple as calling your power utility on a cellular phone; with rolling blackouts, it’s not as easy.

Cal-ISO orders the blackouts, but each utility figures out its own blackout schedule. In March, blackouts lasted one, two or four hours. Cal-ISO suggests contacting your utility to find out their plans.

Cleaning for Conservation
Janitors can turn out lights, watch for space heaters and work when air conditioning isn’t necessary to save energy, but specific cleaning tips also can help customers cut their electric bills. Here are some tips:

Clean refrigerator coils every three months, and defrost freezers when the frost builds to .25 inches. Dusty coils and frost buildup both cause the units to work harder, says Tara Anderson of the San Francisco Chronicle:.

In-house laundries should wash linens and clothing in the coolest water appropriate for the job (sometimes, however, hot water is needed to disinfect). Also, use only the amount of detergent recommended; oversudsing makes the machine work harder, Anderson points out.

Clean dryer exhaust vents and heating and cooling ducts regularly as well, says Anderson. While BSCs can vacuum vents and surrounding areas without problems, contractors without air-duct-cleaning experience should contact an HVAC professional for more thorough cleaning.

Make sure to dust off light bulbs and fixtures, too. The National Association of Lighting Management Companies (NALMCO) found that regularly cleaning lighting fixtures can reduce lighting costs by up to 10 percent.

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