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Meter beaters

Nearly guaranteed: You can make a big dent in your monthly farm electricity bill.

So says Fred Daniels, program manager for Franklin Energy, an energy efficiency consulting company headquartered in Wisconsin. Franklin Energy works with utility companies and energy agencies throughout the country, advising farmers on ways to reduce the juice powering their shops, barns, offices, and homes.

Your biggest savings can come in lighting and heating, says Daniels. Here are six specific tips from him.

1. Replace your incandescent bulbs with compact florescent lamps (CFLs). CFLs are the curlicue bulbs that go into regular light fixtures, and they are available anywhere you can buy lightbulbs. “It's probably the biggest thing most farms can do to save energy,” Daniels says. A 23-watt CFL will give the same light output as a 100-watt incandescent, and they should go in your house, barn, shop, or anywhere you use low- intensity light for close-up work or reading. “Some people may still have a negative perception about them, but I think the manufacturers have made many good upgrades. I can assure you that in my house, every bulb is a CFL,” says Daniels.

Payback: You can generally find a CFL for about $3 a bulb. If you use it four hours a day and your electric rate is 10¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh), it will pay for itself in about four months, says Daniels. That's a savings of $10 to $12 a year per bulb. A CFL is estimated to last seven to 10 years, or 12 to 15 times as long as an incandescent. Don't forget that in a livestock building, bulbs should be in a sealed and gasketed fixture – the screw-on, jelly-jar type. It's code in most areas.

2. Replace your long T-12 fluorescent tubes with the newer electronic ballast tubes. The new tubes are called T-8 tubes. (T-5s work well in shops and warehouses.) The numbers refer to the tube diameter; the T-8 is 1 inch. The old technology is from the 1970s, and the new tubes use about half as much energy. “The old ones use magnetic ballast, while the newer versions are electronic ballast, and that makes the difference,” says Daniels. “They don't hum, they don't flicker, and there is at least a 20% overall energy savings compared to the T-12. Use them in shops and livestock barns, anyplace you are mounting area lighting 15 feet or more above the floor.”

Payback: If you use one four hours per day at 10¢ per kWh, this will pay for itself in two to three years, says Daniels. It costs about $167 in electricity a year to power the old fixtures with six tubes. The newer T-8 or T-5 will take about half the juice. You will have to buy new fixtures for the new tubes, and they cost $225. But Daniels has seen them with a $100 rebate, making this a payback of one and one-half years.

3. Replace tanks with low-energy livestock waterers. Many of the big tanks have a 1,500-watt heating element, and they can use $100 of electricity per month in cold weather. “Replace the big tank with a small energy-efficient hydrant waterer with a smaller heating element to keep it thawed,” Daniels suggests. “It's a smaller volume of water, and if the livestock are drinking regularly, it won't freeze and may use no energy at all.”

Payback: Most of the heating units in a smaller waterer are 250 watts or less, and the maximum it will cost is about $18 a month (at 10¢ per kWh). It'll probably be closer to $10 a month, Daniels estimates. “Typically it will be three to five years for full payback. The waterer itself will cost $500 to $1,000, but there may be additional expense in installing water and electrical lines,” he says.

4. Convert your high-pressure irrigation systems to low pressure. Irrigation lines 20-plus years ago were usually designed to operate at 100 psi water pressure. Nozzles from that era are old and may be corroded or plugged, so if you change them out, go to low-pressure nozzles. They usually operate at 45 psi to 60 psi, depending on the length of the run and topography of the field. The new nozzles will likely give you better water distribution and reduce the horsepower requirement on the pump by as much as 25%.

Payback: To renozzle a 1,320-foot system might cost about $5,000, says Daniels. With an electric pumping system, the low pressure could save $1,300 to as much as $2,500 in a year, depending on the amount of use. Complete payback might take two to four years. “My savings are based on electricity, but some places use diesel or propane to power the engine,” Daniels says. “If you use diesel, the savings could be even higher and the payback quicker.”

One additional juice saver with an electric pump irrigation system is to install a variable-speed controller, Daniels says. Older units usually are on full power all the time, no matter the length of the run or whether the corner arm is closed. The variable-speed controller throttles back when less power is needed.

Oregon Dairy Saves $1,100 per Month

Louis Kazemier got his money's worth while attending a clean energy conference in Oregon a few years ago. He learned about a way to have an energy audit done at his Rickreall Dairy (1,850 cows) that would lead to him changing out all the light fixtures in his barns and office facilities.

The old metal halide and T-12 fluorescent lamps were replaced with T-8 and T-5 fixtures with electronic ballasts. The new lights generate more light per watt, run cooler, and use less energy. They also are less noisy, Kazemier reports, which is good for cows and people.

The light project cost over $100,000 on this big dairy, but 25% of that was covered by a federal grant under the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP). To learn more, visit Kazemier also qualified for a state grant for lighting upgrades.

In addition to the better lighting quality, the new lights are now saving Kazemier at least $1,100 per month in utility bills, he reports. 

5. Put a timer on your engine block heaters. Many of these heater units are turned on the entire time the tractor is sitting, heating the engine block for more reliable starting. A simple timer switch in the line will turn it on an hour or two before you need to start the machine. Of course, this only works if you know the set time every day you need to start it.

Payback: Timers for this purpose usually cost $45 to $50. If the heater is on all the time, Daniels estimates the monthly electricity cost at $80 to $100. With the timer and one or two hours per day of operation, you could cut the electricity bill to $10 to $15. In the right circumstances, that's a one- or two-month payoff. You might find other applications around your farm where a timer would save juice.

Want to Go After A Few More Bucks?

Here are three more tips from Fred Daniels. They might not save thousands of dollars, but they will make you a true energy miser.

• Size your air compressor correctly. “If all you need is to pump up a couple of tires, you don't need a 300-gallon compressor,” Daniels says.

• Insulate hot water lines. Buy the foam line covers and do it yourself. It won't save a lot, but it is very inexpensive. Don't wrap your hot water heater in an insulation blanket; that will likely void the warranty.

• Save heat in a greenhouse. Put an infrared-rated insulated poly film on greenhouse covers. It will help keep heat inside in cold weather, and let it out in hot. You also can buy thermal blankets for inside the greenhouse to put up at night and hold in heat. About 80% of the energy cost in a greenhouse is for heating it, and these blankets can save 50% of the heating load. 

6. Put thermostatic controls on ventilation fans. On many livestock barns, more fans need to kick in as inside temperature rises: a few at 68°F., some at 72°F., more at 75°F. If you are there often and can do this perfectly by hand, then a thermostat won't save anything. Most people can't do it perfectly, and a thermostat makes it happen as needed. This can save energy, plus it can add to animal comfort and performance.

Payback: Thermostats to do this will generally cost $150 installed. Savings can be as much as 15%, depending on how good you are at manual control. Thermostats could pay off in four to five years, maybe quicker, says Daniels. 

Learn more

Contact your local utility supplier. Most offer help with energy conservation practices.

Frank Daniels |

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