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Dashboards, Color Codes, and Custodians: BSCs on the Frontline of Sustainability

Written by  Stephen P. Ashkin

Most Saturday evenings, the local public television station in Chicago broadcasts a classic movie. On Saturday, July 6, 2013, the movie was the original 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. An unusually sophisticated movie even by today’s standards, The Thomas Crown Affair, does have one scene that might get a giggle or two today. As McQueen is walking through his sumptuous office, he stops at a computer monitor the size of a 1950s television attached to a room-sized computer. He does this to get an update on his company’s finances. Of course, one microchip would now take the place of all that computer equipment.

What is key here, however, is that McQueen is accessing an early version of a computer dashboard system—a system that collates information and presents it in a format that typically requires training to interpret. The earliest dashboards most often were designed specifically for business executives, such as the role McQueen plays. The information provided was invariably current financial data presented in block numbers that often had to be printed and deciphered in order to be understood.

Jump ahead 55 years and there are many types of dashboards providing considerably more than just financial information. Further, many of these systems are cloud-based, so that the information is not stored internally but by a remote service, and the format is graphic—pie charts, bar charts, gauges, trend charts—designed to provide information in “snapshot” form that is easy to understand by just about anyone.

One of the most common types of dashboards now in use, and the type many building service contractors are most likely to encounter working with their clients, are called sustainability dashboards. These dashboards are designed to measure, monitor, and report on the key performance indicators (KPIs) for a facility. KPIs include such metrics as:

• Energy consumption and related costs
• Waste and recycling data
• Water usage in the facility and related costs
• Transportation costs (such as fuel used for company vehicles)
• Use of consumables such as paper products and ink cartridges
• Cleaning chemicals and similar supplies

Beyond just reporting, sustainability dashboards allow facility managers—often working with BSCs—to set goals and track progress. This is when the true benefits of a sustainability dashboard are realized. Not only are facilities able to monitor, measure, and then reduce consumption and increase efficiency, they are invariably able to save money as well.

Putting a Dashboard System to Work

When first working with a sustainability dashboard, most users start by manually entering the data that can be called “low-hanging fruit.” This is easy-to-access information that is readily available from utility company bills, such as gas and electricity usage, water and fuel consumption, how much the facility is being charged for these resources, and the metrics used to calculate these charges. While this can take a little time, most dashboard systems have attempted to make the process as quick, easy, and intuitive as possible. And depending on the type of dashboard system, the information may also be downloaded directly from the utility company into the dashboard.

Inputting enough information over a long enough period of time is crucial to successfully using sustainability dashboards. For example, data on electricity consumption should go back at least two years—longer if possible. This gives building owners and managers a much more solid reference point from which to establish a benchmark—where things are today based on current and past records—and from which to evaluate future trends and progress.

Some sustainability dashboard systems are also designed so that different facilities can be compared. This data comparison can prove to be especially helpful if, for instance, one location appears to be using far less energy than another. It allows building owners and managers to determine why this might be happening and how similar strategies might be implemented in another location.

Color Coding for Sustainability

Let’s assume a dashboard system is being used for data comparison of two similar facilities operated in similar ways, in similar climates, with about the same number of people using the facility. Let’s further assume that the unit charges for electricity in the two facilities are about the same and are calculated using the same metrics. However, the dashboard system points out a fairly big discrepancy: in one facility, the annual power bill is $100,000; in the other, it is just $75,000. What could explain the $25,000 difference?

While it may not be the only reason for the difference, a key factor may be that custodial workers, working with building owners and managers, have implemented a sustainability color-coding system in the facility. Color coding, in which different colors are used to indicate different things, is not new in the professional cleaning industry. Pads used to strip, scrub, and polish hard-surface floors have been color coded for decades. In recent years, microfiber mops, cleaning cloths, and a variety of other tools have been color coded, typically based on where or how they are used.

A sustainability color-coding system looks a bit different. Instead of colors applied to cleaning tools and equipment, small, unobtrusive colored dots are placed throughout a facility on power sources, such as light switches and power outlets, as well as power-using devices, such as computers, copiers, and the like. Each of the different colors is designated to mean something different. For example, colors can be used to represent the times when certain devices should have their power turned off:

• Red dots indicate lights and electrical devices that should be turned off on weekends and at the end of the business day.
• Green dots designate power sources and equipment that is to be left on only while building users are present.
• Yellow dots indicate that the cleaning worker should contact a facility manager or appropriate person before turning a power source or system off.
• Blue dots indicate a power source or equipment that is to be left on at all times or might be on a timer that will automatically turn the system off at a specific time.

Cleaning Workers and Sustainability

When a sustainability color-coding system is first considered in a facility, one of the initial issues to be addressed is determining how to implement it. Who will be entrusted to make sure the system is designed accurately and put into practice?

Over time, most managers realize that custodial workers are their champions here, and the reasons are quite simple. Cleaning workers are typically far more intimate with a facility than anyone else. They often know where every power source is located and how equipment is positioned in every area of the facility. Further, they generally know what electrical systems and devices can be shut down or turned off during nonworking hours with little or no implications for the facility or building users.

What this means is that we are beginning to see the emergence of one more reason why cleaning workers are so valuable to the facilities they clean and maintain. Not only do they clean for occupant health and facility appearance, but now they also help facilities conserve valuable resources and use them more efficiently, which almost always translates into a cost savings for building owners.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which offers a cloud-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure, report and improve their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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