Low-flush plumbing systems. Plants that don't need extensive watering. A cutback on portable desk heaters.
These were just some of the tools used by regional businesses named winners in the Green Workplace Challenge on Thursday. The competition, put on by Sustainable Pittsburgh with funding support from the Heinz Endowments, pitted businesses of all types and sizes -- from petrochemicals to prisons -- against one another to see which could out-sustain the others.
Computers were unplugged and toilets retrofitted over the past year, but it all came together in a morning ceremony at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland, with locally sourced food for all participants and locally sourced trophies for the victors.
Winners were acknowledged in three size categories and in the "observer" category, which combined several companies that did not participate in the official competition.
The winner in the large category was Bayer Corp., the German-based company with operations in Robinson. Eaton Corp., which is headquartered in Cleveland but has its electrical sector in Moon, won in the medium-sized category. Evolve: Environment Architecture, a sustainability firm in East Liberty, took the small-business honors.
Allegheny County, with buildings that include the jail and county office building, scored highest among the 13 observer participants.
This year-long inaugural contest started in September 2011 and collectively saved more than 67 million kilowatt hours worth more than $4.2 million, said Matt Mehalik, project manager at Sustainable Pittsburgh. The organization is planning another workplace challenge next year, with plans to begin sometime in the spring, he said.
The carbon emissions saved equal the amount used by the number of flights leaving the Pittsburgh International Airport over 3.1 days. The more than 50 participants collectively saved enough water to cover Heinz Field with a pool 13 feet deep.
Businesses were ranked according to a rewards program that awarded points to various energy-saving actions. Those actions ranged from replacing or retrofitting a diesel vehicle owned by the company (3 points) to providing showers and changing facilities that help employees who want to bike or walk to work (1 point).
At Eaton, the landscaping crew planted greenery that didn't need much water to grow. Bayer created a mini-competition with its 16 on-campus buildings to see which could conserve the most. And Evolve: Environment Architecture sent visualizations to all employees that illustrated just how much energy was being saved.
Zach Ambrose, a sustainability fellow with Allegheny County, provided the morning's most unique insight into lowering environmental costs.
Prisoners at the county jail often flush toilets to communicate with one another or cause a ruckus, he said, so the county installed devices that limit the number of times an inmate can flush in an hour.
The flush quota hampered the communication system, he said.
"And it helped with our water consumption, too."
Erich Schwartzel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455.