NEW YORK -- The government's energy outlook released this week offers little relief to small business owners hoping for lower energy bills this winter.
Natural gas prices are already running 70 percent higher in 2003 than they were last year, and crude oil prices, while little changed from year-ago levels, are still at a very high $30 a barrel. If this winter's weather is severe, prices will climb further.
That means business owners need to consider energy savings steps to lower their bills.
Whether your business is a small office or a manufacturing plant, there are plenty of ways you can cut your heating bill. Some are the same commonsense things you'd do to lower your home heating costs.
For example, eliminate as many places where heated air can escape and cold air can come in. That means using weather stripping on doors and windows, repairing cracks in the walls and filling gaps in heating and cooling ducts. Pay particular attention to a room that's colder than others; it may have more problems that need to be fixed.
If you have an office, keep the window shades or blinds open as much as possible during the day, allowing the sun to warm the room and make you less dependent on fuel. Installing carpeting can make the place warmer as well.
You should give your heating system a checkup to make sure it's working efficiently. Start with your thermostat, and consider replacing it with a model that allows you to program the heating system to turn on and off, keeping the premises warmer when your workers are there and cooler after they've gone home. Some thermostats can be operated remotely, by phone.
Several Web sites can help business owners evaluate their heating systems and determine what changes need to be made.
Energy Star, the federal government program that advocates the use of energy-efficient appliances, recommends on its site at www.energystar.gov that a furnace or boiler that's more than 15 years old should be replaced with Energy Star-qualified equipment.
If your system isn't that old but isn't working efficiently, it's time to have some maintenance work done. The Energy Star site notes that faulty electrical connections, poor lubrication and dirty air filters can make your system operate inefficiently and drive up your heating bills.
The site operated by the Energy Department's Office of Industrial Technologies, www.oit.doe.gov/bestpractices, has information on equipment such as motors and air compressors as well as ways to make them more efficient.
If you're in the market for more energy-efficient equipment, the government has resources to help you locate it. The Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program has information on buying commercial boilers, heat pumps and other products at www.eere.energy.gov/femp/procurement. So does the Energy Star site.
Buying new equipment can be a major investment, but small business owners might find that they can get help with financing. Some utilities, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in California, offer rebates on certain kinds of equipment.
Of course, purchase of a new heating system is something you can deduct on your business income tax return. However, it won't qualify for the Section 179 deduction that allows small businesses to deduct upfront the cost of new equipment; the cost of a boiler, furnace or other equipment will have to be amortized over a number of years.
Although your greatest concern right now may be lowering your heating bills, you might take a look at lowering your electric bill as well. (These, by the way, are driven higher by the increased costs of fuel like natural gas.)
Remember that many of the same factors that affect your heating costs also have an impact on how much you spend to cool your business in the summertime.
On the Net:
Energy Information Administration: www.eia.doe.gov
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