Sleeping computers bring savings

West Penn Allegheny Health System cuts energy consumption, $250,000 in yearly expenses


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It won't balance the books, but an energy saving initiative at the West Penn Allegheny Health System is paying real dividends.

With the help of Seattle-based information technology energy efficiency company Verdiem, West Penn Allegheny has cut its computer energy consumption 44 percent since September, for a projected yearly savings of $165,000 on its utility bill. Verdiem also has been working with Pittsburgh health system UPMC since 2009 and, by UPMC estimates, it is saving the organization more than $250,000 per year on energy costs.

The secret to the savings: Putting the computers to sleep when they're not being used.

As simple as that sounds, the job is daunting in a system as large as UPMC, with its 32,000 personal computers, and West Penn Allegheny, which has 10,000 desktop and laptop computers and tablets.

West Penn, which has been posting losses and is focused on improving its overall financial picture, launched the energy saving program in September, and the monetary savings were immediate.

"If you forget to turn off your computer at night," said Eric Molitor, vice president for technology operations for West Penn Allegheny, "we'll do it for you."

A computer that's "asleep" conserves about 95 percent of the energy needed if it's turned on, using 3 to 5 watts of power instead of 60 to 100, said Chris Baker, vice president of marketing and strategy for Verdiem.

By Mr. Molitor's estimate, WPAHS will save about $18.95 per year for each device it uses. Multiply that by 10,000 or so devices and "it can have a real impact."

Adding to the savings, West Penn Allegheny instituted the program at little cost, taking advantage of an energy efficiency rebate program through Duquesne Light Co. UPMC also received a partial rebate from Duquesne Light.

Mr. Molitor notes the savings to the environment, too. In less than three months, the system has used nearly 400,000 fewer kilowatt hours.

The U.S. Department of Energy has labeled the nation's 8,000 hospitals "among the most energy-intensive commercial buildings," spending more than $8 billion in energy costs yearly. DOE estimates hospitals consume "close to 10 percent of the total energy used in U.S. commercial buildings."

Much of hospitals' demand on the power grid is unavoidable because of the technology, and because they must stay open 24 hours a day and must have backup power in case of outages.

Mr. Molitor admitted to some concern to installing any program systemwide, given the complexity of West Penn Allegheny's different operations. The hospital system decided to ramp up gradually, trying the program first in his own IT department, then graduating to a phase-in program that started with 100 devices at each WPAHS location, then building from there.

And, what may surprise outsiders, fewer than 5 percent of the system's computers needed to be exempted because they were used in operating room suites or other critical patient care areas.

For the physician responding to a 2 a.m. emergency, Mr. Molitor said it's possible to quickly access computer records through a Web page. For office workers on a standard business day schedule, the system powers up the computers an hour before their arrival. Mr. Baker said the program even can be more convenient for users who don't have to wait each day while their computer boots up or wait even longer if the system needs to update.

Consolidating software means most of the computer monitors in various WPAHS facilities operate as normal, but with no central processing unit, or CPU, attached. The "brains" of the system now reside in an expansive third-floor temperature- and humidity-controlled room in Allegheny Center.

The only hitch -- a systemwide power outage in early October that had computers offline for eight hours -- had nothing to do with the energy-saving program, Mr. Molitor said. Rather, it was caused by maintenance work under way at the Allegheny Center building where the West Penn Allegheny IT equipment and software is housed.

Theresa Shaffer, a registered dietitian and the chief clinical nutrition manager at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville, said from her perspective the transition has been "seamless."

Ms. Shaffer oversees the hospital menu at Forbes, as well as the special dietary needs of individual patients. She spends much of her day out of her office in different parts of the hospital while her computers "doze." Once she's back, though, just one touch of the keyboard brings the machine back to life.

"It is very, very convenient, and I found it supports the system's values for conservation," she said.

But, just to be sure, she said she still manually shuts off her machine at night.

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Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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