Canadian small businesses slash energy and costs with free online eco-calculator

A free Web-based energy conservation calculator originally designed for residential users is helping small Canadian businesses save big bucks.

Like many calculators available on the Web, the EcoAction Calculator developed by Earth Day Canada, helps users estimate heating, cooling, electricity and fuel consumption as well as environmental impact.

But this .Net Framework 2.0-based tool provides users with an added capability.

It encourages them to conserve by demonstrating just how much money they can save by following simple and measurable strategies.

The calculator is part of Earth Day Canada’s campaign to help households and municipalities across the country reduce their ecological footprint. However, developers of the calculator said adoption of the tool has been faster than expected and appears to have spilled over in to the small business sector as well.

“So many people have been contacted us. A lot said they had no idea they could save so much by doing very little,” according to Jed Goldberg, president got Earth Day Canada.

The group did not provide specific numbers but said it has participants in more than 25 communities across Ontario.

The program will be expanded to include other provinces and territories within this year, according to Rini Gahir, senior product manager for development tools at Microsoft Canada.

“Because the tool is free and very easy to use, the calculator is proving popular with small businesses or consultants looking to find some extra savings and go green as well,” Gahir said.

One such consultant is Leonard Machler, an independent bio-chemistry research analyst based in Toronto.

He began using the calculator last year to keep track of his lifestyle. The calculator also helped him halve his green house gas (GHG) emissions – from five tons to just around 2.5 tons a year – and save money in the process.

“I was able to save hundred of dollars in one year. An organization can use this tool to cut its energy expenses by the thousands of dollars,” he said.

While most calculators focus on measuring waste or toxic material such as garbage, waste water or GHG, the Earth Day Canada calculator also helps users estimate how much they can save by adjusting habits such as: water usage, electricity consumption, driving; garbage generation and even shopping, Machler said

For example, the calculator asks a user what sort of transportation he or she uses or how far the user drives each day.

The tool will then provide the user with several transportation alternatives to commit to such as driving less, car pooling, cycling or taking public transport.

The calculator also shows the estimated fuel consumption and GHG emission of each choice. Using these numbers, the user can then figure out how much saving each of the alternatives can provide.

Realizing how much he was spending on transportation convinced Machler to stick with public transit and fly less as well.

The research analyst also switched from Toronto Hydro to Bullfrog, a green electricity provider that generates power from carbon-free sources such as wind and low-impact water power sources. Ecological impact was further reduced by making minor thermostat adjustments, using a clothesline rather than the dryer and packing lunch.

The tips provided by the calculator can be adapted to serve many SMBs, Machler said.

For example, operators with fleet vehicles can use the calculator to map out routes or delivery schedule changes in order to maximize vehicle use.

Offices can significantly reduce energy by adjusting heater settings a few degrees lower in winter and keeping air conditioning settings a few degree higher in the summer. Programming these systems to work less during non-peak hours will also produce significant savings.

“The amount of savings will depend on the extent of the practice modification that a business adopts,” said Machler.

He foresees many small organizations taking advantage of the free calculator in the near future especially with the spiraling cost of energy.

“A lot of small businesses operate on very limited margins. Every area where you can realize savings is vital because it can produce a cumulative affect.”

The previous version of the calculator was ill-suited for heavy Internet traffic, according to Earth Day’s Goldberg.

“It was basically a hodge-podge whatever free software we could cobble together.”

The system also placed a heavy demand of Earth Day’s IT staff because each minor change to the site required their attention.

Trioro Inc, a Toronto-based Internet technology agency helped the organization build a new site based on Microsoft’s .Net Frame Work 2.0 using Visual Studio 2005 developer software and AJAX.

The new system now stores visitor log-in information and related calculator data in a SQL Server database.

“We now have a more robust system to take care of the heavy traffic and crushing bandwidth demand,” said Goldberg.

In addition, programmers are no longer needed whenever Earth Day needs to make minor changes to the site to alter its look or to add some content. Many of these changes can now be accomplished with an easier-to-navigate user interface.

The calculator is also able to aggregate various types of data to provide sophisticated reports, which for instance can segregate results by postal code.

This, Goldberg said, would be ideal for municipal governments that might be running conservation programs.

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