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Tips to tame fierce workplace electricity bills

A store can still be comfortable if it’s a degree or two colder in winter or warmer in summer, and it saves money – every degree of cooling in summer boosts energy use by 4 to 5 per cent.

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Myles Kesten has become something of a powerhouse in his business area, selling and repairing Apple products, but the power itself is getting pricey.

"My electricity bills seem to keep on growing," says Mr. Kesten, whose Mac-specialist stores in Toronto's Riverdale, Beaches and Bloor West neighbourhoods have thrived over the past two decades.

He's part of a worldwide conundrum. As new clean energy such as solar and wind power comes online to address climate change, energy costs have been going up, not only for households but for small businesses, too.

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It's not just that it's hard to contend with the cost of lighting, heating and additional power needs for his tech-based business.

"One big problem with inner-city, older retail space is getting landlords to switch to gas heating and air conditioning," Mr. Kesten says.

On Sept. 12, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne removed the 8-per-cent portion of Ontario's Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) from electricity bills. The move, expected to cost the provincial treasury some $1-billion a year, will save the average household $130 a year and should save the average small business in the province more.

There are also other incentive programs that reward companies with lower hydro prices if they shift power usage away from peak times.

For example, Ontario's industrial conservation initiative is being expanded to about 1,000 companies from 300. It benefits factories that can shift to off-peak hours for production more than retailers, who must remain open at peak times.

While prices in Ontario have been rising fast, in 2015 Hydro Quebec looked at average monthly electric bills, including taxes, across North America and factored in the U.S. exchange rate for American cities. It found that while Ontario prices are higher than those in Manitoba and Quebec, which have lots of cheap hydroelectric power, the province compares favourably with other provinces and U.S. states.

Last year the average monthly bill for small power users who consume about 10,000 kWh, compared to 1,000 kWh for residential consumers, was $ 1,587.78 in Toronto and $1,674.23 in Ottawa. It was $2,708.71 in San Francisco, $2,963.05 in New York and $1,569.04 in Detroit.

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Small businesses can do more to save on electricity, though.

Most utilities, including Mr. Kesten's own, Toronto Hydro, offer tips. Mr. Kesten says he's aware of many of the cost-saving measures, but he has to modify some of them to suit his particular business.

For example, Toronto Hydro's tips include changing store lighting to energy efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) lamps and bulbs or in some cases, new high efficiency T8 and T5 fluorescent tubes, replacing standard T12 ones.

CFL bulbs can provide the same lighting level and warmer, more comfortable lighting colours than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Newer fluorescent tubes don't hum and flicker the way the old ones do.

Mr. Kesten will need some persuading on this point. "Updating light bulbs to LED is a pain because they're so expensive and the light is worse," he says.

"Four years ago we outfitted a new store with 'efficient' LED lighting. I haven't changed any of those bulbs since, but I see no appreciable difference in those hydro bills."

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Toronto Hydro says it is launching a rebate program with up to $2,000 for small businesses that seek to make their lighting more energy efficient.

Other energy saving tips for small businesses include:

– Using recommended thermostat set points. A store can still be comfortable if it's a degree or two colder in winter or warmer in summer, and it saves money – every degree of cooling in summer boosts energy use by 4 to 5 per cent. Unless the landlord locks the thermostat, this is a measure that storekeepers or office managers can take on their own.

– Replace older equipment with Energy Star-rated units. This can apply not only to your office bar fridge and toaster oven, but to office equipment such as scanners and TV monitors.

– Plant trees. If you do own your property, it's amazing how much energy can be saved by planting trees to keep the sunlight from roasting the office or store through the windows. They'll make the property look better, too.

– Programmable thermostats. By having the heating and cooling switch on automatically at set times when they're needed most, a business can save between 10 to 70 per cent on heating and cooling costs. Other measures that work are more low tech – adding insulation and weather stripping and installing shades, awnings or window tinting. These measures might require an investment by the landlord, but one does not – keep the door shut as shoppers come and go.

Some energy tips are not particularly applicable to a tech-focused consumer business like Mr. Kesten's stores. For example, it's commonly recommended that businesses keep computers on standby, as in a typical office they're only at work about 10 per cent of the time.

"Running computer repair centres as we do, there's no way around burning up electricity," Mr. Kesten says. As well, the sleek new Apple products on display in his stores need to be turned on so they will attract customers.

"Plus there's video surveillance, music for the store and computer-based point-of-sale terminals. It all adds up for sure," Mr. Kesten says.

Equipment such as photocopiers can be turned off – a copier kept on day and night costs more than $150 in wasted electricity – but Mr. Kesten's 21st century business relies less and less on photocopies.

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