PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Lisa Munniksma
August 10, 2016

Reducing costs in any area of life or business is a bit like playing a detective. You know the crime—energy use and costs that are too high—and you probably have some clues as to whodunit. Following a few hot leads, filling in the missing links and then catching the bad guys … err, determining the areas of energy efficiency you should focus on … requires a time investment that will eventually pay off.

If you have an eye on off-grid living or are interested in bringing renewable energy to your farm in the form of solar, wind or biomass, energy-efficiency research is the place to start. If you can first make your farm efficient in its energy use, you can invest in a smaller renewable-energy system, saving additional money and hassle.

The amount of energy used on a small-scale farm can be overwhelming, and the areas in which you use energy can also be surprising. Your farm’s needs and resources are different than your neighbors’, but fuel, lighting and greenhouse operations are three major energy-hogging areas where most small-scale farmers can investigate energy efficiency.

1. Lighting

“In many smaller operations, lighting is a large part of the energy budget,” says Thomas Manning, project engineer with the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University. “There are often possibilities for significant cost reductions by replacing bulbs and fixtures with LEDs and high-efficiency fluorescent lighting.”

Especially if your buildings were designed more than a decade ago, you probably have more energy-efficient lighting options now. According to Daniel Ciolkosz, academic program coordinator of Penn State University’s Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems online masters program, there are a number of ways you can save on your farm’s lighting bill with a few adjustments:

  • Change out incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs to reduce energy use by 60 to 70 percent.
  • Replace larger, T12 fluorescent bulbs with thinner T8 or T5 bulbs to save 10 to 25 percent.
  • Put high-pressure sodium, metal halide or LED bulbs in place of mercury vapor lights. (Mercury vapor lights are not as efficient as other bulb types, cast a green hue and are slow to start up; they’re very dim when you first flip the switch.)
  • Install high-efficiency light fixtures in place of older models.
  • Use motion sensors, timers and solar controls so lights aren’t accidentally left on when the area isn’t in use.
  • Install lights where you really need them. Over your workbench, for example, you need bright lights. If you don’t have them, you’ll run lights in every other area of your shop or garage just to light this small space.
  • Keep your lights dusted, too: clouded-over bulbs and fixtures let less light pass than clean ones.

2. Fuel

Fuel efficiency is an energy-conscious concept that applies to off-farm life, as well as contributing directly to farm costs.

“Whenever a small-farm operation is moving products to and from the farm, transportation fuels are likely to be a substantial expense,” Manning says. “Considering gas mileage when purchasing new vehicles, buying vehicles that are the appropriate size for the operation, performing regular maintenance, and planning deliveries and pickups with energy use in mind are all strategies that can reduce fuel expenses.”

You probably already look at gas mileage when considering vehicle purchases. Getting a vehicle that’s the right size for what you need is a trickier thing to calculate. Research the towing capacity and hitch-rating for any truck or SUV you’d like to use for hauling a trailer. Likewise, determine the size of tractor attachments you have or need as you consider the horsepower and size of your next tractor.

Engines are most energy efficient when they are properly tuned; filters and injectors are clean; and bearings and belts are in good repair. According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture, dirty fans can be up to 40 percent less efficient. If you’re unable to or unsure of how to maintain your vehicles’ engines yourself, partner with a reliable mechanic who can.

Don’t forget about the tires. Far from the engine, maintaining tire pressure helps maintain fuel efficiency. Having tire pressure that’s 4 pounds per square inch lower than recommended adds 8 percent to your fuel consumption, according to Penn State Extension.

3. Greenhouses

Greenhouses, hoop houses and high tunnels all take advantage of free energy from the sun. Greenhouses are set apart from the other season extenders as having an additional heat source. Manning says you can reduce greenhouse energy costs by maintaining the structure, installing improved insulation and designing efficient heating systems.

If your greenhouse has plastic sides, patch holes and tears right away. For one thing, if the wind catches a loose flap of plastic, a small tear will quickly turn into a large one. For another, hot air is escaping through every pinhole. According to Ciolkosz, the areas where the metal posts touch the greenhouse walls also allow heat to leak out via thermal conductivity. Insulate the metal to stop this flow. Also insulate doors, fans that are not in use during the winter and where the greenhouse walls meet the ground.

Shade cloth that you pull over the greenhouse in the summer to reduce the summer sun can also act as a blanket for the greenhouse on cold nights. Ciolkosz estimates you can reduce heating costs by 30 to 40 percent just by using this thermal screen.

Just like keeping an engine clean, also clean greenhouse ventilation fans. As much as 20 percent of a fan’s energy cost can be reduced with regular dusting, Ciolkosz calculates. Keep an eye on belts and oil in the fan’s engine, too, to keep it running smoothly.

Of course, the lighting and greenhouse-ventilation fans can be upgraded to high-efficiency models for more energy savings, as well.

Get Audited

A surefire way to get to the bottom of an energy-consumption mystery is with an on-farm energy audit. EnSave, an energy and environmental services company, estimates energy audits can identify ways for farms to improve energy efficiency by 10 to 35 percent.

During an energy audit, you will talk with an on-farm energy specialist about your utility bills; your equipment types, usage and maintenance; your fuel consumption; and more. A specialist will visit your farm and identify areas where you could improve energy efficiency, including how much you can expect to spend and to save in the process.

Various nonprofit organizations and energy-consultant companies offer energy audits. You can find one in your area with an internet search or by talking with your cooperative extension agent.
The USDA National Resources Conservation Service also offers energy self assessments online at www.ruralenergy.wisc.edu/conservation, though these tools are more directed at large- and commercial-scale farmers and are not as comprehensive as having an energy audit from an outside consultant.

Use these three areas as a starting point for your energy-efficiency investigation, but before you make any changes, consider your upfront costs versus your expected savings over time. You’ll find that some energy-hogging suspects outrank others.

“There are so many different types of direct-market farms that there is no single area of energy use that offers the greatest opportunities for energy improvements,” Manning says.

Put on your detective cap, and find your farm’s most-wanted energy bandits!

This article originally ran in the July/August 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.

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