The Impact of Going Green in Self-Storage: Operators Weigh the Benefits of Solar Panels and Cool Roofs

By John Carlisle Comments
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Here’s the truth about being green in 2011: Though helping the environment by reducing your carbon footprint and resource consumption makes you feel good inside—and might be a small step toward bettering the planet—it’s not what keeps a business running. This reality has set in among business owners and even run-of-the-mill consumers amid the Great Recession.

According to an April article in the New York Times, sales of certain green products, such as eco-friendly housecleaners and detergents, are down as much as 40 percent since 2008. It seems the “hotness” of going green may have simmered. But the real value in being eco-friendly―the one that endures through trends―has not subsided, as many self-storage operators are discovering.

If a green renovation can save money in the long term, many facility operators think it’s worth exploring. Some even took the eco plunge in late 2009 and early 2010 during the depth of economic uncertainty.

Consider Flagship Sun Self Storage in Mashpee, Mass. This Cape Cod facility doesn’t get as much sunshine as, for example, a facility in the Sun Belt, but that didn’t stop its owners from installing 789 solar panels on its roofs in September 2010.

My Generation Energy Working on a Self-Storage Roof“You can’t see the panels from the street,” says manager Denise McGrail. “You’d have to climb up through the roof to see them.” You also won’t find mention of the facility’s solar renovation on its website. Clearly, the facility didn’t make this conversion for a marketing benefit, to tout its environmental consciousness to customers. On the contrary, Flagship made the decision to go solar primarily to save on its power bill.

The entire system was completely online and pumping energy back into the power grid by November, explains McGrail. Through its contract with My Generation Energy Inc. and the local utility provider, the facility supplies electricity to the overall grid, counted in kilowatt hours. Whatever the facility is able to provide to the grid (more on sunny days) is deducted from its net usage and, thus, its power bill.

McGrail admits there’s a bit of intrinsic, save-the-environment motivation, too. A computer program synced with the panels and the office computer shows how many trees per hour the clean energy is saving. On a sunny, summer day, the number can be as high a four trees an hour, and on an average day, more like two and a half. “It’s cool to watch,” she says.

Shining a Light on Solar

Because converting a self-storage facility to solar energy is probably the most expensive, involved and risky green-remodeling endeavor, it deserves a fair amount of attention. Bob Burson is director of business development for DL Energy, a solar-conversion provider for residential and commercial entities, including self-storage. Burson says his No. 1 approach in convincing an owner to convert is to provide a detailed breakdown on how long it will take for a facility to pay for the project though saved power bills. He also points out the cost of power continues to go up.

There are many factors to consider, including facility size, geographic location, amount of lighting, climate control or other power-intensive amenities, and onsite management. This makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how long the payback will take. But Burson estimates four to six years for average commercial installations.

On ease of installation, Burson says self-storage facilities lend themselves to a straightforward solar conversion with the typically flat, simple roofs. Similarly, while an installation crew is putting on panels—typically a three- to four-week job—they’re not interfering with tenants or staff who need access to units. Unless the roof is in disrepair or there are other mitigating factors, no roof penetration is required. Aside from the sound of work boots on a roof, there shouldn’t be any lost revenue or much hassle during the install.

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