Why Use LED Lights for Parking Lot Lighting?

If you own or manage a parking lot that’s not properly lit, you’re risking not only wasting your time and money, but you also risk jeopardizing the financial and physical safety of the people who entrust you with their vehicles. Having bright and evenly distributed lighting should be the top priority for anyone running a parking lot.

But, how can you make sure that you’re making the best lighting choice?

By using LED lighting technology.

Here’s why LED lighting is considered the best possible choice for parking lots:

High-Quality Parking Lot Light

LED lighting technology relies on multipoint design to distribute light evenly throughout the desired area. This is especially important when it comes to parking lots. During the night, a good parking lot light serves as protection against criminals, especially if the lot is unguarded. Even distribution eliminates dark spots and gaps in security camera coverage.

But in addition to that, LED lighting technology produces brighter and crisper light than other lighting solutions. This too contributes to the safety of a parking lot, along with a wide range of color temperatures and options to increase the visual perception of brightness that is available on the market.

Reduced Energy Consumption

To a responsible parking lot owner, safety is the number one concern.

However, running a parking lot is like running any other business. If your main asset isn’t profitable enough, then there’s not much point in investing in it. And in terms of lighting, most parking lots are huge energy consumers. The average wattage for a HID lit parking lot ranges from 400 to 1000 watts which is a lot of money on electricity bills alone.

Making the switch from HID lighting to LED lights may require some initial investment, but it pays off in the long run. In comparison to HID lighting, LED parking lot lighting boasts a significantly lower wattage – between 40 and 600 watts – thus ensuring a reduction in energy consumption of 40% to 60%.  

Reduced Maintenance Costs

In addition to emitting more light for less energy, LED fixtures are also much more durable than HID fixtures. And there’s no need to replace them as soon as the fuel source is reduced, as LED lights will continue to function with gradually lower capacity until the fuel source is fully depleted.

So not only are LED light cost-efficient enough to reduce your energy spending and expenses but they are also extremely easy to maintain. This is yet another financial benefit of switching to a LED lighting solution, as frequent maintenance time, manpower, and resources can be costly as well.

No Buzzing

Managing a parking lot for a company, organization, or any other kind of public institution requires you to maintain the area in accordance with professional standards. Buzzing doesn’t leave the best first impression.

However old, LED lighting technology will never greet your visitors with buzzing.  

Advanced Lighting Controls

If you’re using occupancy sensors or photocells as a safety measure, it’s important to know that LED lighting pairs perfectly with advanced controls such as these two. LED drivers are more responsive, which allows you to turn on or dim lights on your parking lot in just a second or two.

LED lighting technology is simply the best possible solution for creating and maintaining a safe parking lot area that won’t bankrupt you. Being both cost-efficient and maintenance-friendly, LED lights are your go-to source of crisp, bright, and long-lasting lighting.

Get started today with Verde!

Why We Believe in Being an L3C Company

Social Enterprise is when mission and profitability get combined.  There are lots of types of entities that meet this generalization, including B-Corp, Benefit Corporations and L3Cs.  These companies are nuanced slightly differently, with Warby Parker being perhaps the most famous example.

Social enterprises often believe in a triple bottom line, including profit, social and environmental good.  While these can be incredibly hard to just alone be profitable as a company, often having a triple bottom line can help drive profitability.

L3C – Limited Liability Low Profit Corporation

L3Cs have a terrible name and marketing issue – the term low profitability.  There is actually no limit to the profit that you can make as an L3C, so this creates a lot of confusion in the marketplace.

L3Cs are written into your operating agreement and organization in your state, and are allowed in Illinois, Kansas,Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota,Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming.  While they can operate in any state, it really just comes down to what state you’d like to incorporate in.  Verde is fortunate to be located in Illinois, one of the states that support L3C status.

Limited liability low profit corporationss operate like any other company, but must work within their areas of social focus. Our area of focus is energy efficiency and sustainability, but L3Cs can work within a large range of social issues.

You might ask why the L3C status at all, and why paint your business in a corner.  Well, L3Cs are designed for foundational loans at below market rates.  What does this mean – let’s unpack that statement.

Foundations are large institutions that receive donations from individuals, typically wealthy individuals or businesses.  In order to avoid paying taxes on these donations, foundations must give away 5% of their net worth annually to maintain their tax deductible status.  Almost all of their giving is grants – large amounts of money that do not need to be repaid.  However, some of that giving can be in terms of loans, and this is often applied for large low-income housing projects.

L3Cs can receive this low interest loan from a foundation that is within their social focus.  While I thought this was a really interest concept when I first formed Verde in 2010, I now see how transformative it is and how it can be used.  First – Verde lives and dies on our Line of Credit.  We currently have $1,200,000 of credit from our bank tied up in our inventory and our invoices due from customers.  We rely on this line to pay our vendors and employees and rent, when it sometimes takes our clients 60 or even 90 days to pay us.

Additionally, a lot of environmental work is tied to the interest rate.  If you want to spend $50,000 on your business to save $25,000 a year in electricity, you either need to have the $50k in the bank saved, or borrow it.  If the interest rate gets high, or if you lack the credit, you can get stuck in they cycle of never moving forward with a project.  Foundational giving can help fill in the void of traditional banking, as a real way to stimulate growth that may not otherwise happen.

That being said, a lot of foundations are risk averse and stick to the traditional form of funding through grants.  The future is bright, but currently, Verde just works to stick to our values and does not benefit from foundational giving.

Why not just run a non-profit instead of an L3C?

Non-profits are essential, and I don’t want to disrespect my friends in those entities with what I am about to say.  Non profits have several fundamental problems – first, they are stuck in a cycle of needing to ask others for money and fundraise.  Often, non-profits spend as much as 20% of their donations on raising more money.

Additionally, our economy as a low profit company is driven by clients and customers paying for things that they value.  We have too grand an environmental issues to be solved by giving alone – and we need real business solutions to solve them.  As Verde is driven by clients and customer revenue, we continue to evolve based on those findings.  We feel that we can operate in this space faster and better than a non-profit, and do more exciting sustainable growth.  We hope our success creates copycat companies around the country, so our impact can be replicable and scalable.  We also intend to be the industry leader in this space, growing throughout the country as well when we are willing and able.

We believe the environment is stressed.

We are a privately owned company, and we don’t need scientists on each side to prove this is right or wrong.  We feel that there is enough evidence that our climate is stressed, and that collectively, we need to act now.  There is not one cold day or one hot day proving this fact, but hundreds of years of humans burning fossil fuels and removing wilderness that has put us in this situation.

We needs hundreds and thousands and millions of individuals and entities working in usison on this issue.  At Verde, we are around 30 individuals working in our own way to reduce electricity and natural gas usage in our business community.

We believe that environmental action is a benefit and not a liability.

We often get too caught up arguing about how much it will cost to save the environment, that we walk right past hundreds of small solutions in the process.

Benefits are just over a time period and need prioritization now.  If you are a business, you need to make the trade off every day in spending today in operational cost savings vs bringing in new customers.  We don’t always make the right choice, but we at least deserve the right information to make the choice.  Solar panels can seem like a far off benefit, but do you really have the information on how much it will cost and how much it will save?  Are there tax benefits to doing so, and are there incentives from your local utility that might help drive your decision?

Energy efficiency and other sustainable actions can be found in unexpected places, you just need to know where to look to find these opportunities.  If you are not looking, you won’t find them.

We believe in taking care of our employees as a leading L3C.

As a former firefighter, I was well taken care of in terms of pay and retirement benefits.  In fact, I didn’t appreciate how important the healthcare benefits were until I left the department and had kids on COBRA.  Wowsers, and I can definitely say that without Obamacare, I would likely have had to taken a different job to get insurance for my family and our “pre-existing conditions”.

However, I served as a union steward and found that our employer often just plain didn’t respect us and some of our most basic rights.  We would be asked questions about why we were sick, had little support for mental health coverage, and I felt that FMLA protections were used against us at every opportunity possible.  I was once put on mental health leave for several weeks because of concerns I brought up about suicide.  I am sure I didn’t handle that situation correctly, but it was hard to see how the village management cared about me or valued me as a person.

While not perfect in execution (we make mistakes), we try to do right by our employees.  We provide health insurance, pay people to work through our slow times, match 401k contributions, pay off school loans in Peanut Butter contributions, and provide unlimited time off to employees with notice.  Again, we are not perfect, but we believe that if we take care of our employees, that they will take care of our clients and the profit will follow – and I feel that the research is on our side on this one.

We believe the problems our society face are too big for one answer.

The federal government can be relied on for some things, like protecting our borders from real and imagined invasions, as well as roads, bank regulation, etc.  However, the problem we face is too large for our government to figure out, so we need lots of little companies like ours fighting side by side.  Come join us.

We believe Illinois is the answer and a great playground for experimentation.

Illinois gets a bad wrap.  Many complain about the high taxes, pension debt (I did my part by giving an interest free loan to the fire pension for eleven years), and other crime issues in Chicago.

However, Chicago has a story that is not told enough – a small community that built itself up from nothing by just a few civic leaders.  Those civic leaders financed and dredged the canals that made us the center of transportation, then led to the eventual rail and air importance that is Chicago today.

Our civic leaders continue to lead together.  Civic leaders helped push and shape the L3C law that Verde formed under in 2010. Civic leaders helped develop the 1871 tech incubator in Chicago, where Verde was formed and found our first 30 customers.  Civic leaders helped form the FEJA law, which drives over $400,000,000 of spending in energy efficiency in Illinois in 2019 and make Illinois very attractive for us. Civic leaders are also continuing to help make Illinois a destination for solar PV investment, to match the last generation of wind investment we received.

Finally, our low cost for energy also makes us interesting.  As the saying goes, if you can play in Chicago as an energy efficiency company, you can play anywhere.  Most coastal states have 2 or 3 times our energy costs.

We believe younger workers can be engaged in their work.

Millenials get a bad wrap for not working hard from much of the traditional business community.  However, I have found our young workers to be incredible employees, especially when finding those that are passionate about sustainability (and there is no shortage in that generation).  I’m a bit older and more of an outlier in my generation, but the young work harder than anyone when engaged and care more about mission than pay.

It doesn’t mean every employee is a perfect fit just because they care about the environment.  We don’t believe in keeping people around that are not a cultural fit, as hard as it can be.  However, I believe we have a higher success rate with employees than comparable firms because we seek out individuals with passion that meets our own.

Proof is in the pudding.

This is where we brag a bit, or at least provide evidence of why our philosophy is worth paying attention to.  In 2018, we were the most cost effective (lowest $/kWh at $.16) partner in public sector small facilities program in Illinois.  In 2017 and 2108, we were Partner of the Year for the Small Business Offering in Comed territory, the only two years that they have given away the “Stanley Cup” of energy efficiency.  In 2016, we were awarded the most comprehensive partner by Comed Small Business Energy Savings Program, showing our depth and willingness to learn.

L3C Profitability

Finally, we have been profitable for the last 6 years, while increasing our revenue from 2013 to 2018 by a factor of 80 times.  We stress protecting the environment and our mission over profit, but we still believe as profit as the solution, not the problem. 

2019 IL Grant Guide
Verde Energy Efficiency Experts top 10 most sustainable companies in 2019

In our business, we constantly look for inspiration from local companies that lead and innovate in sustainability.  Not all companies have billion dollar budgets, but that doesn’t mean that small companies can’t steal their innovative ideas around energy efficiency, supply chain consideration, transportation, and even renewable power.  This is our list of the Verde Energy Efficiency’s Top 10 Sustainable Companies for 2019. With a combination of large and small players, we feel that companies of all sizes can find some inspiration from this group.

1. Northwestern University, Evanston IL

Northwestern University has a clear commitment to the environment, and it shows from its top down leadership style.  The top leadership in the University believes in the importance of this approach, and you can see it written all over their communication and actions.

In our experience, Northwestern has been a leader in their investment in solar power production on site.  Two years ago, they worked hard to put together a Strategic Sustainability Plan, and since then, have certified a LEED Platinum building, won the 2018 Energy Star Partner of the Year, added 16 electric vehicles to their fleet, and diverted 38 percent of campus waste from landfills through recycling, composting and reusing material.  That is a lot of reasons for incoming students to be inspired, giving Northwestern a unique edge in top Universities in the country.

After installing 2 huge solar PV arrays, they have the ambitious goal of net zero usage by 2050.  While I am a University of Chicago graduate myself, I find their efforts inspirational and look forward to what they do in the future.  Huge universities use an incredible amount of energy, therefore, they have a great opportunity to lead the next generation of students and partners through their work.

One other interesting note – sustainability leads at Northwestern, Loyola, University of Chicago, UIC, as well as our vast diverse array of community colleges – regularly meet and share ideas and strategy.  We think this will lead to a multiplier effect, as well as some healthy competition to out “green” each other, and look forward to this being one of the top areas of innovation in sustainability in Chicagoland.

2. Delta Institute

If you work in the environmental world in Chicago, then you know the Delta Institute.  You may not always know what they do, because they cross such a broad spectrum of projects, but they impact you one way or another.

Delta has been around since 1998, and provided crucial leadership on all topics sustainability in Chicago.  One of my favorite initiatives of the Delta Institute is their Emerging Leaders Board, and in fact, two of Verde’s employees have been involved in this board and always come back inspired.

As a well funded non-profit, Delta often works as a consultant to fill in gaps in the current community.  From supporting sustainability at the Field Museum, to composting pilots and driving recycling, they are in our community and doing amazing things.

3. Invenergy

When it comes to brilliant entrepreneurs in Chicago, Michael Polsky is at the top of the list.  It helps that he has made his money in clean energy endeavors, originally with SkyGen Energy.

Today, he runs Invenergy, a profitable entity that provides power generation and storage solutions at scale around the world to create a cleaner energy future.  If there is large scale wind of PV production, Invenergy likely touches it in one way or another.  Considering the problem at hand in our environment, we need big players like Invenergy to show us how profitability and clean energy are not mutually exclusive.

Through their portfolio of clean and efficient projects, Invenergy claims to have offset 64.7 million tons of C02, equivalent to 1,505,790,651 urban trees planted.  Thats a lot of green, and shows that experienced entrepreneurs dabbling in the sustainability realm could lead to a lot of good.     

4. Center For Neighborhood Technology

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, or CNT, is an environmental think tank that has helped shape and develop Chicago’s sustainability movement since 1978.  CNT was founded by a group of passionate visionary’s that have gone on to influence Chicago’s environmental energy, water, transportation and recycling initiatives.

CNT focuses on data usage and technology, with their H+T Index for housing and transportation,  They also provide a home for future generations of sustainability leadership, including an active internship program and new ventures.  CNT spun off Elevate Energy, as well as I-GO Car Sharing, and countless other partnerships and ventures.  Their board has included some incredible entrepreneurs and sustainability leaders, and they draw in and help train the next generation of leaders in Chicagoland.  

5. Big Thorn Farm

There are lots of exciting initiatives going on in the craft brewery industry in Illinois.  With the move of Lagunitas to Chicago in 2012 because of our huge fresh water resource in Lake Michigan, and the explosive growth of Half Acre, Two Brothers, and Revolution (to just name a few), these energy users seem to really understand the importance of sustainability in their craft (pun intended).  Big Thorn Farm definitely pushes the limit, with an offgrid farmhouse brewery in Central Illinois.

While currently run on solar power, they are in the process of installing a wind turbine to expand their renewable production.  In addition to using farm ingredients, this small farm brewery is a great role model for the entire Illinois brewery community.

A little further south than most would consider to be Chicagoland, they are worth the trip and we are thinking – road trip (in a bus, of course).

6. LuminAID

LuminAID is an innovative startup that creates solar powered LED “pillows”.  Small solar panels charge up enough energy for LED lamps to run for areas in need. Well designed for areas without access to electricity or during natural disasters relief, these have a buy one give one concept to share with the developing world.

While these innovative approaches on a small micro scale might not seem like much, they really can be.  While not designed for places with reliable sources to energy, they are a physical tool that can use solar PV to get a small amount of light or charge a cell phone.  Who knows if the next generation isn’t keeping these pillows against their windows during the day to read books at night, understanding net zero usage and being inspired from a young age.

7. Abt Electronics

Abt Electronics is not what you would think of in an innovative sustainable company, being a staple in the suburbs of Chicago since 1936.  However, they have been innovating quietly in this area for years, while still driving a successful business that has a strong brand around the country.

“Putting Lights On Sensors And Recycling Paper Is One Thing, But Chicago’s Abt Has Its Own Recycling Plant And Runs Its 350,000-Square-Foot Store Completely Off The Grid.”  This is a quote off their website, but hidden deep with little emphasis in their marketing.  They not only have their own recycling plant, but also are completely off the grid with biodiesel, wind and solar PV.  They also recycle styrofoam, which even the City of Chicago won’t do.

This might sound interesting in theory, but if you have ever been to Abt and see the size and scale of what they do, you would be amazed.  It is like a Walmart on steroids – run off the grid!

8. Meliora Cleaning Products

One of the best parts about our job at Verde is getting out and seeing the amazing manufacturing that happens in our great city.  We get a bad rap for having lost manufacturing – but we are still a titan of industry with capacities unparalleled in the world.

Meliora was built by Kate Jakubus and Mike Meyer, manufacturing safe and environmentally friendly cleaning products right here in the Chi.  One of the most admirable parts of their business is that they have dedicated to being a certified B corporation, which really makes sure businesses are practicing the hippie values that they say they are.

Meliora really reminds us of Method (another innovative Chicago manufacturer), but we have exciting ambitions for what Meliora will grow to in thier young and innovative stage.

9. Uncommon Ground

Every store needs a hero.  Uncommon Ground is the small success story that shows doing the right thing the right way can eventually pay off.  Since 1991, Michael and Helen Cameron have been running Uncommon Ground in Chicago and driving the farm to table movement way before it was a trend.

With locations in Lakeview and Edgewater, Uncommon Ground is home to the 1st organic rooftop farms in the US, beehives, and the first organic brewery in Illinois.  They allow tours of their farms to the public on the first Friday of each month from 5pm to sunset, inspiring the next generation of ecopreneurs.

They also have amazing food, which is really the only reason they are still in business after 28 years.

10. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

For 160 years, Chicago’s Nature Museum has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in Chicago and the region.

Not only do they have an entire museum dedicated to nature and conservation education right on our lakefront (our most precious natural resource), but they are at the forefront of the conversation around migratory birds.  Over 5,000 birds collide with Chicago loops buildings each year, with more than half of those dying and the remainder needing care for to survive.  Organizations like the Nature Museum fill an advocate and research gap that our government does not provide.

The museum is a great place to take kids and adults alike to be inspired – with deep looks into our water usage, natural habitat and marsh education, as well as a 2,700 square foot butterfly sanctuary.  I always walk away from the nature museum feeling inspired to respect our mother earth more, and it is definitely a great place to take kids.

Check out the Verde Energy Efficiency’s Top 10 Sustainable Companies for 2019 in Chicagoland, and let us know what you think!

2019 IL Grant Guide
Business Lighting Costs and How to Reduce Them

If you run a business, you might find the cost of keeping the lights on to be incredibly high. It might surprise you to know that todays costs are incredibly inexpensive compared to historical data.

Using LED to Cut Down on Business Lighting Costs

The good news, with the evolution of LED lighting, lighting costs for businesses will continue to drop dramatically in the near future. Ten years ago, an LED could have a lumen per watt (light produced per unit of electricity) of 60-80. Today, Philips and other manufacturers are producing lights with a lumen per watt of over 200, and there is no slowing down in terms of advancements.

To break this down, older incandescent lights put out 800 lumens of light with 60 watts. Modern LED lamps put out that same 800 lumens with only 8 or 9 watts. That means that mainstream lights today are 8 times more efficient than in the past, and future lights will be 2 or 3 times even more efficient – ten and even twenty years from now.

Historical Light Costs for Businesses

Before electricity, for thousands of years, you had to use fat and a wick to keep the lights on. That was expensive, time consuming, and smelly to keep light on dark days or at night. Seriously, try selling a fine dining restaurant experience with bear fat burning between two lovers on Valentine’s day.

Native Americans in the US used salmon to make candles, sacrificing calories for light. Since most light sources came from animal/fish fat being burned with a wick, there was a serious supply and demand conflict with calories. While we have plenty of calories available today, that story was quite different historically. No one was on any kind of a diet in the middle ages, other than where do I get my next meal so I don’t starve diet.

The middle ages had really expensive light costs – probably only the king and queen could read in bed. Early live in the US was no different – limiting business and commerce after the sunset.


In the mid 1800s, candles were made from oil and coal extraction methods, bringing the cost down for the same light. However, shortly after that, the first incandescent light bulb was invented in 1879 and everything changed, dramatically dropping the cost of light.

Electricity Sources and Price for Business Lighting

Initially, electricity was expensive and not available everywhere. The cost of electricity was so expensive in the late 19th century and early 20th century, which explains the stories of our grandparents running around turning off lights in the house. As you can see, the cost for light is really low compared to historical costs.

The light from early filament lamps in the 1875-1900 range cost 100 times the cost of a lamp in 1990, since electricity prices have dropped.

How LED Helps Businesses Save Money on Lighting

An LED today uses approximately 15% of the energy to produce the same light as an incandescent. While they cost more to purchase, they cost far less to operate over time. This drives the cost for light down even further, so far that it looks negligible on this graphic.

LED technology is evolving so quickly that we now have a new challenge on our hands – LED fixtures and lamps last so long, that trends in lighting design and the improvements in lumen per watt increase – yet the current LED fixtures now will last 70,000 hours. By the time current LED fixtures go bad, the newest version will be dramatically different and more efficient – ten and even twenty years from now.

Return on Investment from Better Lighting

What drives fixture replacements today are typically an ROI (return on investment) regarding the cost savings of energy prices to a business. There are maintenance savings as well, but cost savings is the biggest driver in a majority of situations.

We look at an ROI of 1.5 to 2 years as a sweet spot for our clients – anything less often means you are leaving off opportunities around HVAC, motors, and smart controls that will lead to a long term cost savings for a facility. Anything more than 2 years, and a business really needs to know that they have a long term lease or building ownership – or are choosing to make improvements for aesthetic or safety reasons.

Competitive Advantage of LED Lighting for Businesses

If you are not willing to invest in your business at a ROI of 1.5 -2 years, imagine two things.

First, your competition is investing – so you could be facing higher operating costs than they are, so you could be losing a competitive advantage.

Secondly, imagine your ROI when converting from whale fat to LED – it would be a 25 second ROI. My point – we are lucky in today’s business environment to have access to the opportunities that we do. Don’t miss out on those opportunities, or at least truly understand the options you have as a business owner.

The Light the Way Grant Program

When it comes to non-profits, operational costs can really affect a bottom line. and in turn, program funding. Running brick and mortar establishment adds up, but also an absolute must for many organizations making a big impact in the Chicagoland area.  Food pantries, shelters, warehouses, and offices are just a few examples of opportunities for energy reduction. Charities need to worry about keeping the lights on and also keeping their programs funded. Verde Energy Efficiency Experts is proud to present the Light the Way grant, which is intended to help organizations large and small with their energy efficiency projects.

In order to be considered for the grant, an assessment of the facility must be completed with Verde, in order to identify energy-saving measures. Once the assessment is complete, a comprehensive report will be provided in order for decision makers to review our cost-saving recommendations.

We’ll look from floor to roof to see if your organization might benefit from measures such as LED retrofits,  advanced lighting controls, smart thermostats, HVAC, commercial refrigeration solutions and more.

We not only make the recommendations,  but we install the solutions ourselves and stand by our work with a three-year warranty, assuring that we have your back, even if a bulb goes out.

After install, you can enjoy the benefits of a more welcoming, comfortable and functional environment that is also sustainable, energy efficient and financially sound.  We want to help Chicagoland organizations stop worrying about keeping the lights on and save their energy and money to furthering their missions.

Know a worthy organization that could stand to benefit from the gift of energy efficiency and lower their operational costs?




To Bid or Not to Bid

In energy efficiency, bidding is everything in the public sector. It can help or kill a project, and with 1,299 municipalities, and nearly 7,000 governing bodies, there are a lot of different decision making that needs to happen if we are to significantly reduce the energy that our public sector uses.


Now these governing bodies have rules and regulations that they must follow when buying and procuring work that, well, does not always help these bodies govern. There are smart rules in place for a reason – you don’t want the mayor’s brother getting huge contracts worth millions of overpriced work. But smaller communities often overcompensate for this, which can make procurement more expensive and with lower quality results. In addition, overzealous following of interpreted rules can lead to much higher project costs when you include the oversight costs of managing a bidding process. And let’s be honest, the mayor’s brother does often get the contract in the big cities that matter.


This article is intended to be a resource for public sector decision makers to know when to bid and when not to bid, but it is in no way a legal decision or unbiased publication to resource. You should always consult your legal team, but we find that huge municipalities are not the ones that need this resource. It is the small and growing exurb of Chicago that has not dealt with a ton of this in the past, and does not have dedicated legal teams to sort through this complicated topic.

And, let me be clear. I have personally worked at a municipal government for 10 years, as well as been a vendor for public sector projects for 6 years and this is a fact – no two departments follow the same process. Some departments will bid out any work over $20,000, some will bid out any work that their out of pocket is over $20,000, some will seek 3 different quotes while others will have a formal process.

First, let’s look at the positive roles that bidding plays for our governing bodies:


Fair chance for all companies to bid on work

Less chance of a friend or family member from getting exclusive access from work, which essentially just becomes siphoning public funds to individuals
Higher likelihood that less public funds will be used in the short run to complete projects

Now let’s look at the negative role of bidding in energy efficiency work. In my experience, bidding often stops governing bodies from moving forward with energy efficiency projects in the way that the private sector does. I have found this to be concerning for several reasons, including:


Indirect project costs get escalated, as it takes significant man and woman power to go through all of the bid proposals.

Direct bid costs get higher – as those companies that bid on multiple projects have to bid on 10 or even 20 projects for every bid that they win. Those are costs that the industry absorbs somewhere.

Bidding governing bodies cannot specify the manufacturer of products that they want, so this often leads to a poor quality of installed products.

Consultants do not need to have bidding, so this can make projects that include a consultant complicated.

Incentive programs, such as the Comed Energy Efficiency Program, often have select group of partners that can access rebates for energy efficiency. This makes bidding complicated.

Bidding often involves people responding from a desk somewhere to a project put together, without ever stepping foot on site. Energy efficiency is complicated, and cannot be done properly without a site assessment.

In my experience, I have seen far more projects stalled from bidding and lead to frustrated public work managers or Fire Chiefs. They have no choice but to take the lowest cost option presented, which can often lead to overages and products that they do not want.

Case Study

I often think of a village on the southwest side of Chicago, that had an incredible project converting street lights to LED go unfinished and lead to a massive scandal. They picked a partner that was offering something a little too good to be true, and that was what they got in the end. The public works director was frustrated with the project, and wanted to avoid another similar situation.

When I met with them, they were then looking to convert their public works, police station, and village hall to LED. We presented a project in a consultative style, with Philips LED fixtures and sensors that improved the look of the space, took advantage of ambient daylight to dim fixtures (daylight harvesting), and had a great network of lighting sensors that worked together with seamless integration. Our project overall cost (and value to the town) was $100,000, and they had an out of pocket of $37,000 across 8 government buildings after the utility incentives. In our approach, we maximized long-term energy savings, as well as maximized available grants and incentives that were available to them.

After they bid out the project, they went with a vendor that was installing $70,000 worth of products for slightly less than $30,000, all likely non-branded Chinese products, and likely lacking sensors and controls to optimize control by the employees and long-term savings. They focused on the lowest cost option, as opposed to the best long term project for the village. The winning products also likely lacked the longevity of a Philips branded product, which is rated for 70,000 hours.

I know from first-hand experience that the public works director felt handcuffed to go with the lowest cost bid.

In the short run, the village spent around $10,000 less on the project, but in the long run, will lose money in higher energy costs. and almost certainly lose money in higher maintenance costs, which cannot be encapsulated in a lowest bidding project.

Better Project or Just More Expensive Project

It is not a clear cut that project A is a better project and not just a more expensive project. Project B could win the bid with lower material costs, lower profit margins, or lower labor costs. That is capitalism and at the heart of our economy. However, it can also be using cheaper materials to bring down the cost, which is what we often see in public sector work. Cheaper materials are always cheaper in the short run, but almost always more expensive in the long run. The choice to buy a Bosch dishwasher over the cheapest one on the market is also at the heart of our economy, and low-cost bidding takes that option away.

Public buildings are some of the few buildings that can truly think long term, as we will need our fire and police stations operating for the next 100 years, whereas a local business owner may not have that certainty.

Here are some towns with experience that list their formal process, for you to consider basing your policies on, including Naperville, Joliet, and of course, Chicago.

Common Q and A:


Can I dictate the materials when going out to bid?


We have seen this on several projects, where CREE is the manufacturer of choice. Manufacturers have a way of supporting certain contractors in price, so this is not actually a fair process of bidding. It also might lend the public entity to pick a product that is not necessarily better, but just more expensive (as I feel that CREE can be at times).

A public entity cannot put out to bid a specific manufacturer but can specify requirements. For example, if Verde decided to buy a new vehicle fleet (and had to bid it out – weird situ They can specify requirements, like where it is made, the warranty, MPG, etc. They cannot say that they want to buy a 2018 Hyundai Ioniq, but they could say that they want to a car with at least 57 MPG highway (which that car can do).

While this has its benefits, it is also a challenge when bidding. You don’t want the cheapest looking and flimsiest LED on the market. You don’t want a 70,000-hour warranty from a company that won’t be around next year. So if you know that you prefer Philips or GE in your products, you cannot bid out the work with that expectation.

Do I need to bid out consultants or architects?


This is a different area that doing construction, so the short answer is no. Since a lot of the work by consultants is getting a project plan together, they have a hard time bidding out that work, since they need to be in the weeds to sort it out. In energy efficiency, you want a partner that is in the weeds figuring out your best plan of action. Much of an energy efficiency project is consulting, so we do not advise bidding these projects out.

If Grants, rebates, or incentives are awarded, what cost do I consider for bidding purposes?


In our opinion, we highly advise you to base your project scope on your out of pocket when the grant or rebate is paid directly to the consulting or contracting company, especially if they are doing the work to get you the incentives. Especially in the Comed Energy Efficiency Program, incentives can wildly change based on the way you maximize the project design. If you leave sensors off of fixtures, you could be missing an opportunity of thousands of dollars of incentives that your taxpayers deserve, and they are often so significant that fixtures with sensors and less expensive than fixtures without.

For example, if your project is $10,000, and your incentive is $6,000 – we recommend that you consider this as a $4,000 project since the $6,000 never flows through your town or village.


If we have multiple buildings, should we award the work at a single time or break them into various projects?


I recommend that governments look at this in what is the intention of this project, and not a way to beat the bidding process.

If you have a budget and want to get all of your buildings done at one time, and regardless of incentives or grants, then you should consider the total out of pocket to you for the bid threshold minimum.

However, I don’t recommend this approach personally. Project managers consider that they can get a better price if do all of a project at one time. However, this kind of oversight is high and can lead to multiple meetings and a significant investment of time and money (something often precious in the public sector). We find more successful projects are done one or two at a time, and starting with smaller projects. This gives your town a chance to see how the first project plays out, and respond to what you like and didn’t’ like about that project. It also gives you a chance to push back on the vendor and make sure they are diligent in getting things the way you want and expect. We have gone out 13 times to get a project right, and we would have gone the 14th if needed to get things to how the customer expects. Not all partners work that way and rely on tight contracts to protect their small margins.

I also don’t recommend that you break a large project into chunks just to avoid a bidding process. However, if breaking the project up makes sense for how the building is used or for your budget, then do so and follow your bidding guidelines.

Sampling is also an important way to get your expectations aligned with your energy efficiency partner before you start, and that takes time and money. If you start with one project, you should have a very clear expectation before you begin the next one.

Even if I Do Not Formally Bid, Should I Seek Other Quotes?


I think the answer to this question is absolutely yes. On your first project, it is always smart to get another opinion and approach. If your town requires 3 quotes, then I always advise checking with a local contractor in town, an energy efficiency expert, as well as one other outside firm to get a suggestion.

In my opinion, on the next project, if your next bid from your partner has consistent pricing, then you should feel confident that you did your tax payers due diligence and your time is better spent on other priorities.

What Next?


If you are considering an energy efficiency project for your facility, you should start with an assessment from an energy efficiency expert. Get a baseline, understand where there are opportunities, and don’t try to do all the research yourself online and at Home Depot – you can miss out on a ton of value through utility rebates if you take that approach.

Find an initial partner to work with, either one you have done work with before or one that you find through a recommendation from your utility or neighboring community. Then, after you have a good idea of a project, go to your team and proceed with the intent of providing value and the best opportunity for your tax payers.

Sustainability Best Practices in Chicagoland

Energy Efficiency Services and Sustainability

Chicago is a leader in many things, and sustainability is one of them.

This season in the Verde Podcast, we are going to look deeper at the energy efficiency and sustainability practices at our larger institutions in Chicagoland.

sustainability best practices podcastChicago is an amazing city with civic leadership unsurpassed in the United States.  In fact, or city began as a small village with great civic leadership that dredged the canals and made our city a major port in 1800s.  That infrastructure lead to our train infrastructure, and eventually, our major airport infrastructure – which led toward Chicago being one of the top 3 largest cities in the United States.  

At this time in the United States, we lack leadership in our commitment to environmental action.  However, our local community has a broad depth of leadership, from our Universities to large corporations.  

This podcast season we will interview these leaders and hear their thoughts on 

  • energy efficiency 
  • renewable energy
  • recycling (the third rail of Chicago politics)
  • composting
  • public transportation
  • new building construction

Episode 1

Introduction to the season, and a recap of our first season

Episode 2

City Colleges of Chicago, John Brophy John discussed how the City Colleges of Chicago operates, and their initiatives around sustainability.  His biggest win was a recent fight (and win) to get part time students access to the UPASS (university CTA Pass).  

Episode 3

Loyola University Center for Social Enterprise, Seth Green In this episode, we explore the role that sustainability plays in attracting employees for future companies in Chicagoland.  We also look at the complexity of how traditional companies operate with a profit drive, and how new companies will need to look deeper to compete in our modern economy.

Episode 4

Northwestern University, Kat Benitez Kat serves as the Sustainability Director for Northwestern University, and has taken some major initiatives with support from the president of the University.  They have just commissioned their 3rd solar array, and plan on expanding those even further throughout the University buildings. 

Smart Thermostats in 2018

Smart Thermostats are…well, Smart

Your complete guide to Smart Thermostats for both Commercial and Residential applications in 2018

There is no doubt that smart thermostats save energy, or this article would be about a cool tech gadget instead of an impactful product that sold over $1.36 billion dollars in smart thermostats in 2017.  Nest and Ecobee are the two big brand names in this space, although there are an increasing number of players in 2018. Google and Amazon are getting in the mix as well, integrating their cloud based voice functionality and platforms, with more integrations coming soon.  

Smart thermostats save energy by being a really sophisticated programmable thermostat, as well as by adding cool tech like motion sensors and smart phone integration.  There is enough research into these products, as of 2018, to show that they do show significant energy savings, both on the electric and gas side (as they control both AC and heating).  This savings is different depending on where you live in the United States, as Floridians would save more on the electric energy usage, while an Alaskan will see some killer savings on gas.  

HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) accounts for 37% of residential usage, and 44% of a commercial buildings energy usage is HVAC.  This means that in order to significantly reduce the energy usage in a building or home, the HVAC system cannot be ignored.

A smart thermostats is an affordable way to save energy in HVAC, since lowering or raising the temperature controls is its major function.  Upgrading your heating unit to a high efficiency furnace, or upgrading your AC unit to a higher efficiency unit is expensive. Replacing your smart thermostat is affordable, and can maximize the efficiency of your current units.  

Cost of a Smart Thermostat

Upgrading a thermostat to a smart thermostat is rather affordable, usually less than $500 if done with a professional.  Doing it yourself can bring that cost down, and if you are eligible for utility rebates, you can bring that cost down even further.  

Most units for residential cost between $150 and $300 in 2018.  Most commercial units cost slightly higher, but of course, the savings are higher on a commercial property due to heavier usage, so the higher cost is not as big of a deal.  More detailed pricing on individual units are available below.

smart thermostat installationLabor for installing a smart thermostat can run from $99 to $299, depending on how complicated your HVAC system is.  Our company, Verde Energy Efficiency Experts, offers residential Smart Thermostat installs for $99 each. We offer a complete package for commercial customers as well, which can run as little as $75 for both the labor and installation, if eligible for both the best gas and electric smart thermostat incentives (based on your size and usage).

Cost of Replacing Your HVAC Unit

The cost of replacing your commercial HVAC unit can range from $5,000 to $20,000 and up, depending on your size and style.  Rooftop RTUs are very common in commercial applications, and those are usually 5 ton to 20 ton in cooling capacity. Unfortunately, the heating efficiency is typically maxed out at 80% for a rooftop RTU, but the cooling capacity increases with each generation.  In fact, CEE Tier 2 efficiency RTUs are seeing some fantastic efficiency improvements.

If you are able to add an economizer to your rooftop HVAC unit, you can see further advancements in both AC and heating savings.  Restaurants especially can see high gains in efficiency on their AC, since their kitchens can often be 90 degrees on a autumn or spring day.  Opening up the economizer to bring in fresh air from outside can avoid trying to cool off that hot kitchen air.

However, economizers are also highly effective when there are a lot of people in a small space.  People’s bodies create a ton of heat, and when densely packed in a theater or other space, can require AC on even a 40 degree day.  Economizers will open up and bring in fresh air, saving a ton of energy be not running the compressor.

Advanced Air Balancing and Kitchen DCV Systems

In addition, kitchen equipment can create the need from exhaust fans above them to remove the smoke and CO2 generated.  This sucks (pun intended), as it pulls conditioned air out of the building, creating a negative pressure. This means that everytime a door opens, hot or cold air from the outside rushes in and needs to be recooled or reheated. A Kitchen demand control ventilation system will match the exhaust fan to the cooking equipment, significantly reducing the amount of air that is pulled out of the building.  

This type of sophisticated programming is currently not offered by smart thermostats, but instead through a separate system that will communicated with the smart thermostat.  We have seen great success on comfort for restaurants employees and customers with this set up, and it is a great match for a smart thermostat.

Repairing Your HVAC Unit

Often, and usually on the hottest or coldest day of the year, your furnace or AC unit will quit.  At this time, you can be forced to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get your existing unit up and running again.  It is often impossible to react quickly and get a new high efficiency unit in place, so this is often not the ideal time to upgrade your unit.  

HVAC technicians are often creatures of habits, and prefer to install a unit that is older and within their comfort zone, then recommend a newer unit that might be more complicated than they are comfortable performing maintenance.

Instead, it is better to perform “early replacement” of your HVAC units, spending money to upgrade to a higher efficiency unit before the moment of failure.  This is easier said than done, but ultimately leads to the lowest cost overall to the building when including equipment costs, maintenance, and energy usage. It also allows you to pick your best option for a new equipment and then find someone to install it, instead of installing the equipment that your technician is comfortable installing.  

Programmable Thermostats

Thermostats are basically a fancy on/off control for your HVAC unit.  Thermostats take the temperature in the space, and then tell the unit to heat or cool to get to the preset temperature.  The olden days of turning the heat down before going to bed were changed by the programmable thermostat, which is a unit that can be programmed to set based on the times of the day.

There is indisputable evidence that you can save energy by setting back your heat at night at home or for your business, and programmable thermostats help you accomplish this.

5-2 Programmable Thermostats

These thermostats can be programmed in two settings, a Monday through Friday for the work week, and a 2 day setting for the weekend. This unit is typically used in residential, or with a business that is only open Monday through Friday and the same hours each day when open.

One of the best parts of these thermostats is that they can be set to change the temperature before you actually need it. For example, if you have a standard thermostat in a retail store that opens at 9am, and get there a few minutes before opening, it can take an hour to get back to the desired temperature.  However, you can set the thermostat at night back even further and start the temperature change again an hour before opening. You would walk into a warm or properly cool business at opening time, and have comfortable customers to thank you.

7 Day Programmable Thermostats

These thermostats can be programmed for each day of the week, and are a much better option for businesses with varying hours or for religious facilities and community centers that have unusual horus.  

Churches especially struggle with this, as they typically use their space on Sundays and a few days a week at odd hours.  A seven day thermostat can let the church save energy on those days not in usage, and control when the space is warmed or cooled properly.

Smart Thermostat

A smart thermostat is a fancy programmable seven day thermostat, that goes a few steps further.  

  • It often includes occupancy sensors in the thermostat, communicating to the thermostat when you are home or away.
  • Even furthermore, it will link to your smart phone and wifi network to know when you are home or away.  When away, it will set back the temperature to save additional energy.
  • The smart thermostat can include “learning” software, which will try to learn your habits. If you always turn the thermostat down on Wednesday nights because you leave early for yoga, it will incorporate this pattern into your seven day schedule.  
  • The normal thermostat will shut off the heating or cooling when it gets to temperature, but there is often a ton of hot or cool air in the system that needs to be pushed around.  A smart thermostat will try to predict this pattern, and shut off before it gets to temp and avoid overheating or cooling.
  • A smart thermostat includes control from your mobile app or computer.  This can often be invaluable for those times you travel, or forget to turn your temperature back.  You can control the temperature from your phone and save money when not at home or work. Even further, it gives business owners a sense of control over your business when employees may not consider energy savings as important.  You can monitor and even control the temperature when you are not there.


The Ecobee has a lot of options on the market, including several commercial units.  It also can include Alexa integration, which is a huge value add in this day of audio intelligence.

Ecobee4(Residential)- This is typically a residential unit, although it can be used in some residential applications.  In Chicagoland, you can purchase this unit for $249, and are eligible for a $100 rebate from the Comed Energy Efficiency Program.  

ecobee4 smart thermostatEcobee EMS Si(Commercial)- This is a commercial unit, more able to control higher end commercial units that can control multi phase heating and cooling.  It can also include a power extender, which can solve the common issue of a lack of power availability to a smart thermostat. One big advantage of this unit is the availability of zigbee integration, which allows it to talk to your smart meter in Comed territory.  While much more expensive, this thermostat can include $300 of rebate for Small Businesses in Chicagoland, as well as an additional $100 from People’s Gas and Northshore Gas. We offer this thermostat installed to our commercial customers for $75, when eligible for both of these rebates.  

ecobee ems siEcobee Smart Si(Residential) – This is a residential version of the EMS Si, much less expensive but with less functionality than the EMS Si.  It does have the same look and feel of the EMS Si, but lacks some of the functions required for commercial applications and does not work well when multiple thermostats are in the same space.  

Ecobee Smart Occupancy Sensor – This smart occupancy light switch is amazing, as it also communicates another data point of temperature away from the thermostat.  You might have a cold kitchen, and this occupancy sensor can communicate that cold spot back to your thermostat. It also sheds some insight into the future capacity of our smart home, even more integrated than we can imagine today.  I am always thinking of creative ways to heat and cool homes with technology, and I did not see the occupancy sensor in the light switch coming. Very ingenious.


Nest 3rd Generation smart thermostatNest was the original smart thermostat, easy to use and intuitive in design.  Simply turning this unit up and down by turning the dial would drive the learning thermostat.  It also includes additional functionality, like settings that are sensitive to direct daylight on the thermostat, alerts and reporting for usage, among other innovations.  It is also incredibly easy to use, and includes an awesome screwdriver in the install kit. No seriously, the screwdriver is awesome. Nest was bought by Google a few years back, and has some serious data and research and development chops backing them.

Nest 3rd Generation Thermostat (Residential or Commercial)- this is the basic unit available to customers.  It has learning functionality, farsight (the ability to detect when you walk by), compatibility with 95% of the furnaces and AC units on the market, among a super easy install and operation.  The 3rd Generation Nest is $249, and eligible for a $100 incentive for residential and a $100 incentive for businesses through People’s Gas and North Shore Gas.

Nest E (Residential)- This newer unit is lower in price point, available as low as $69 after a $100 rebate in Comed territory.  This unit has much of the same functionality, although it seems like there is a lower level of compatibility with existing HVAC units and it lacks the farsight ability.  If you are price sensitive but want to get a smart thermostat, then this is the unit for you. I personally have the Nest 3rd Generation in my home and office and love the farsight functionality, and think it is worth the extra money. The Nest E is $169, and eligible for a $100 incentive for residential or a $100 incentive for businesses through People’s Gas and North Shore Gas (not both).


Honeywell has been a trusted name in thermostats for years, and really knows how to control HVAC units.  However, they have been a bit late to the smart thermostat game and are not as strong in making tech partnerships, like Nest and Ecobee.  

Lyric(Residential)- The Lyric seems to be a competitor to Nest E and Ecobee4, very sleek and minimalistic in design.  The price point is around $149, has a lot of the similar offerings as Nest and Ecobee, as well as one call Geo-fencing.  This follows your activity and when you start heading home, it will get the temperature of your home up to your setting.

WiFi Smart Thermostat(Commercial or Residential)- This product is a bit more traditional, with a touch screen and larger interface.  It has an app and platform, like the Ecobee and Nest, and has a great compatibility with existing HVAC units due to their experience in the thermostat industry for years.  Price point is $179 to $199 and available for a $100 incentive in Chicagoland for both residential and commercial properties.


The Lux/Geo Wifi thermostat  lacks the color display of a Nest or Ecobee, but it has one strong advantage.  The Geo has the capacity to run the thermostat on 2 AA batteries. Both Nest and Ecobee have internal batteries, which makes it a dream to not have to replace batteries both environmentally, headaches, and cost.  However, these batteries are recharged through something called a c-wire, and sometimes this creates issues for these new smart thermostats.

Since older thermostats did not require electricity, this C Wire is often lacking and can create issues during install.  The Lux/Geo would be a great option when this problem exists, although replacing the batteries would be a pain. We would recommend trying the Ecobee Smart Si with the power extender instead, if you have the unit professionally installed.  The price point of this product is great at $149, although it only qualifies for the $100 commercial incentive for People’s Gas and North Shore gas at this time.

Learning Functions

Learning functions of smart thermostats are one of the coolest features – they learn your patterns, and also try to inject some intelligence into your behavior to save both energy and effort.  The more that we can take away human behavior that causes mistakes, the more savings we will see. A great example is turning the heat up to 80 when you want it to be 72 because it is taking too long to warm up (spoiler alert – it won’t heat faster).

Control for Business

One of the best features of a smart thermostat is the control that it gives the business owner.  Employees or customers can often change your thermostat, based on how they are feeling in the moment, and those decisions are not about saving energy or even what is best for everyone in the environment.  However, a smart thermostat gives the business owner a chance to not only monitor, but also override changes in temperature request.

In fact, passcodes are available to stop individuals from changing the temperature, giving ultimately control to the business owner.  I will always remember seeing strongly worded notes about the temperature setbacks required from one of our franchise owners at a popular restaurant, posted near his thermostats.  When he recently converted his stores to Ecobee EMS SI system, with support form the Comed Energy Efficiency Program, he was able to set the program and lock it. If there were issues on temperature in the store, he could make the changes if it was appropriate, but not waste energy based on daily fluctuations of the store manager or customer opinions.  

smart thermostat control

Rebates to offset the cost

Many states have energy efficiency portfolios or laws that are designed to spend money to reduce energy.  Illinois, our local state, has one of the most aggressive energy efficiency programs in the United States, and our legislature doubled down on our collective efforts in 2018 and will spend more than $400 million this year on energy efficiency.

This money has to be spent to subsidize the cost of energy savings equipment, and smart thermostats are at the top of the list of opportunities to save gas and electric. For that reason, you may be eligible to purchase a smart thermostat at a discounted price.  If you are outside of our state, check with your local utility to see if they have any opportunities for rebates for smart thermostats.  The product information and recommendations that you read won’t change state by state, but the incentives will.

If you are a residential homeowner reading this in Illinois, check out the marketplace that Comed has provided that will give you instant discounts on your purchases. If you need help on the install, give us a call (but don’t be afraid to try yourself, as it is fairly easy to install a smart thermostat).

If you are a commercial customer in Illinois, you will receive a higher incentive by working with a registered trade ally that has the ICC Certification for Energy Efficiency Installer.  Good news – Verde Energy Efficiency Experts is both of those and can help you get the best product at the best price. Give us a jingle before you purchase your commercial smart thermostat at (773) 413-9587 or click the link below.

Why Are My Energy Bills So High?

There are hundreds of reasons that your electric bill could be high.  Here are the top 7 that we see in the commercial marketplace.  You can often solve these issues fairly quickly and with little expense.

High Energy Rates

Some states just have higher energy rates than others.  We are fortunate in Illinois to have relatively low energy rates, so if you are reading this from Illinois, you are lucky.  If you are out of state, move here – we love new neighbors.

There are two basic parts of your electric bill, as far as what you are paying for; supply (electrons) and delivery (poles and wires).  

All of us pay our delivery charge to the utility monopoly – that is just the best way to date of paying to maintain the safety and consistent supply of energy.  This is usually about half of your overall costs, and is billed in a complicated formula that we estimate around $.06 per kWh for commercial.

We are also a deregulated state, meaning that you have the option to purchase the supply from someone other than the utility monopoly.  There are a ton of electricity providers in the state, and there are brokers that sell and provide this.  This cost is usually about $.06 as well for commercial, and rarely do alternative providers provide a much better deal (other than airline miles if you switch).

Solution – Lower Your Energy Rates 

More often than not, we find that our clients are hurt from purchasing their electricity from someone other than Comed or Ameren.  

If you currently purchase from a third party provide, check to make sure your rate is competitive.  Often, these companies will offer a competitive rate locked in for a certain time period, and then raise the rates when you are out of the introductory period.  Check with your local utility to see if their rate is lower, and if it is, consider switching back.

If you would like to shop around, we recommend checking out Choose Energy or another online comparison tool.  You can see the prices that multiple companies offer at once.  Try to lock in for a long time period, as the shorter periods of time have better rates and then go up significantly.  

We rarely advise for someone to switch energy providers, as we believe the emphasis should be on lower your usage, and not driving the cost down in what you pay per kWh.  The only customers we have seen that win at that game are huge companies that use a ton of energy – smaller companies are more likely to get taken advantage of and you have better things to do than watch your energy rate monthly.  

Wrong Smart Meter

This is rare, but it is a real thing.  When our utility went through a major modernization, they have installed smart meters throughout the area.  Someone has to enter this information of a meter into a computer database, and occasionally, they make a mistake.

This actually happened at my sisters house in Indiana.  Her bills were incredibly high in the winter around the holidays, and her neighbors were huge holiday light fans.  It took a lot of detective work, but we found eventually that she had been billed for her neighbors usage instead.  Someone accidentally swapped their meter numbers when entering them into the master database years ago, and she received a significant credit.

I also had this happen in my first apartment.  I had barely any usage in my place, was single, and worked as a firefighter and was gone for long time periods.  My bills were close to $300 per month, and I repeatedly called the utility to as for their help.

Finally, I turned all the breakers off in my apartment, and the meter was still spinning.  I noticed that the meter next to me was stopped, and at that point figured out that the neighbors across the hall (with the crazy amount of neon lights on all the time) were paying a tiny bill, while mine was astronomical.  I always wondered if they got a huge bill after that was resolved, since I got a credit.

Solution – Checking Your Meter

Energy Usage DailyYour meter usage can often be checked with an online tool that is available from your utility.  You can login to your account and dig through data, which might help you notice if you are not being charged the correct bill.  This is my actual home report from two days ago.  You can look at the usage and see if the pattern matches your business hours.  

You can also look at your meter number on your bill, to make sure it matches your physical meter numbers.

It may not be practical, but another trick is to turn your breakers all completely off.  If your meter is still spinning, there is something wrong.  Then it is time to call the utility and ask them to come out, although they will always drag their feet and are trained to tell you that you are incorrect.  


Exterior Lights on During the Day

This is so common – it is hard not to notice how prevalent this is when you are in the energy efficiency industry.  I notice this almost every day in the city, some business with exterior lights on all day long, or with a timer clock that is off from a time change and the outdoor lighting start or end at the incorrect time. 

Unless you are at Wrigley Field on a nationally televised day game and in charge of the television crew, there is literally no value to lights on during the day.  And, in case the Rickets are reading this – LEDs would be a smart move for the best team in baseball.  

Solution – Photocell

This is an easy solution with a $10 photocell.  A photocell is a sensor that wires into your exterior light and stops the light from turning on during the day when there is enough ambient light.  You can even creatively wire one photocell to many exterior lights, saving on the cost of the equipment needed, although this does increase the labor costs.  I have seen parking lots for large strips malls that could literally save thousands of dollars each year with a simple $10 photocell.

Most fixtures have a knockout in the side that allow for an easy installation and it only takes a few minutes.  

Interior Lights Left On When Not Needed

This is a common issue, and is not always very easy to address.  There are times that you have a very clear need for light in your occupied business, and the lights need to be on so guests can see you are open and then can enjoy what your business offers.

However, a ton of businesses are warehouses, manufacturing, or office space – and those do not need lights on for the full operational time.  In fact, many warehouses have rows that rarely get occupied, and yet they leave the lights on all of the time from habit or inability to turn some lights off and leave others on.  

To take this a step further, it is rare that a business (even those with retail space that need to look inviting) are 100% set up to make sure lights are turned off when not necessary.  Even bathrooms can use sensors, and they not only save energy but improve your customer and employee experience.

Solution – LED Lighting and Sensors

Ten years ago, this problem was not easy or inexpensive to solve.  Today, there is almost no reason that someone cannot use sensors in their business.

The big game changer – LED lighting.  Actually, its not the LED lights but the drivers that make occupancy sensors so powerful.  These drivers and LED combinations can turn on and off instantly, unlike older fluorescent or HID lighting that takes time to start up.

In addition, they can dim and put different levels of light output, often controlled by a smart phone or app.  For this, we recommend Philips lighting and controls, as we have found they have the best drivers and easiest to use “commissioning” or scheduling of the controls.  

Finally, best practice is to group fixtures together, so you don’t have the experience of walking into a storage room and getting the disco ball affect of lighting coming on one at a time.  Sensors and lighting controls can be grouped together to respond together, creating a more smooth experience that saves energy and still makes safety and employee experience a priority. 

For those of you in Illinois (and those outside again are welcome to come join us), you benefit from one of the greatest energy efficiency programs in the country for businesses.  You can get incentives as high as $75 for a wall mounted occupancy sensor in a wall plate, or $50 per fixtures in an office or exterior lighting sensor.  Those are incentives that you pay into, and can decrease the cost significantly in solving this common challenge.  In addition to saving energy, sensors can prolong the life of equipment, decreasing your future replacement costs. 

High Heating and Cooling Costs

You cannot talk about high energy costs and not talk about heating and cooling. As you can see from the graphic below, heating, cooling and ventillation costs take up 44% of the overall energy usage of commercial space.  You cannot take a dent out of your overall energy usage without considering your HVAC systems.

commercial high electric usage

Solution – System Upgrades and Smart Thermostats

The easiest way to approach saving energy is to replace your existing thermostat with a smart thermostat.  We recommend the Ecobee EMS-Si for commercial customers, as they seem to have the most robust thermostat for multistage heating and cooling often found in commercial spaces.  They also have a solution for the common c-wire issue, along with a fairly straight forward platform that can track multiple smart thermostat locations at once.

ecobee ems si smart thermostatSmart thermostats are simple – they are a fancy programmable thermostat that can be controlled from your smartphone and can use technology to push your energy savings by setting back temperatures when your space is unoccupied.  Closed for Labor Day – your smart thermostat will notice your smart phone is not in the building and also that motion sensors in the unit are not being triggered, and will save you additional money by not cooling that space.

If you have already installed a smart thermostat, it is time to think about replacing your commercial heating and cooling unit.  We recommend cooling unit replacements to a CEE Tier 2 energy efficient unit, as the theoretical savings on cooling are much higher than heat savings (at least on rooftop units or RTU).  It is really difficult (but not impossible) to get above 80% efficient rooftop RTUs, at least at the current technologies.  Fortunately, gas prices are relatively inexpensive in Illinois.   

In addition to saving energy, they also are a huge source of potential future maintenance costs.  Units today only typically get 10 years out of them, so anything longer than that is a matter of time before it needs serious maintenance or replacement.  Taking a proactive approach and replacing the unit before it crashes is called an early rooftop unit replacement strategy, and can lead to incredible Return on Investments when you consider the alternative reactive strategy.  When you react to a unit that goes down, you will never have the lead time to get an efficient model, and rarely does this happen in the time of year that you can be without heating or cooling. 

Finally, newer units often come equipped with economizers, which are designed to bring in fresh air when it is cooler or hotter outside.  Restaurants are especially a good target for this type of equipment, although all businesses can benefit from it (since humans are little heat engines and kick off a lot of CO2).  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been on a restaurant rooftop in November when the AC compressor is running, whereas an economizer would just open up and bring in fresh air to cool off the kitchen.  

Computers Running All the Time

Computers are often left running in an office, sometimes out of necessity, but more often just out of laziness. Computers do not use a ton of energy these days, especially with smaller and more efficient screens.  However, they will often have a lot of accessories linked to them that can cause phantom power draw (its a thing!), like phones, speakers, and additional monitors. 

Solution – Smart Power Strips

Smart power strips cut power when the primary energy user is not drawing a certain wattage.  This device does not save a ton of energy, but it provides the added value of protecting your equipment.  We recommend this to all of our commercial customers, especially if utility incentives cover the cost.  

Screensavers are so 2001, so make sure to put your computer to sleep (or at least the display).  

Servers Create a Lot of Cost and Heat

Servers are at times a necessary evil for many institutions.  However, those institutions are shrinking, as cloud based servers are so inexpensive and safe.  Servers create a lot of heat, and are best housed in cool climates with cheap energy.  Since huge energy users pay less for electricity – server farms get great rates and can locate in places close to wind farms and hydroelectric sources of energy production.  

Solution – Cloud Based Server System

If it is 2018 and you have not gone to a cloud-based server, please do so for your own sanity.  Servers are a lot of headaches to maintain, and there are so many inexpensive options that it is worth shopping around.  Save the heat, headaches, and high energy costs of servers.

Commercial, Nonprofit, and Public Sector Solar in 2018

Illinois Solar PhotoVoltaic (PV) in 2018

A Complete Guide to Commercial, Nonprofit, and Public Sector Solar in 2018

It’s been a long time coming, but Solar Photovoltaic (PV) will finally penetrate the Illinois and Chicagoland market in 2019.  2018 has already shaped up to be an interesting and foundational year in Illinois – but we really see 2019 as the breakout year for solar in our communities.large-solar-farm-in-England-producing-electricity

Why is Solar Relevant in Illinois?

Here are the 3 reasons that Solar will penetrate Illinois in 2019.

  • The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which passed in Illinois in December 2016, lays out a ton of spending from Comed (and Ameren) to support the solar power industry.  This law was an incredible and rare compromise in Illinois politics that improved the already awesome energy efficiency portfolio, provided support for Illinois nuclear power plants, as well as expanded significantly the way that solar PV is developed.
  • Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are a common way that state legislatures pass laws supporting solar generation.  In Illinois, we have an ambitious goal of 25% of our energy from renewable sources by 2025 (California has a 100% goal for carbon free energy production).  The public utilities purchase “certificates” each year to help meet those goals, and that funding provides added economic support for solar PV and wind power generation.  Before the FEJA law was passed, I think it is safe to say that our REC market in Illinois was dysfunctional, and therefore, not supporting solar appropriately.
  • Federal Tax Credit.  As it stands now, the federal tax credit that covers 30% of the cost of solar PV will start to phase out in 2020. This means that 2019 will be an important year, as that is especially important for profitable businesses to invest in solar PV.  While it will phase out this tax credit slowly, the peak value of the federal tax credit is right now.

Illinois has always been an important state for the wind market, at least as long as wind has been a viable and competitive form of energy production.  Solar has been decreasing in costs in the past few years, and it is a really interesting time. Illinois is not theoretically ideal for solar, as we lack the sunshine that Arizona or Colorado enjoy, but the market is as good as any.

In 2017 or before, if you were interested in solar in Illinois, you were reliant on a fairly small group of contractors and distributors to provide this quotation and service.  There are (and were) a lot of really good partners in town. However, since the size and impact of solar PV was small, the pricing was expensive as there were not a ton of competition.  Few installers were purchasing large quantities of solar panels, which can drive down the costs. As FEJA begins to impact the community, more companies will mature in their efforts, more experience will come from other states, and the prices for installation and materials will drop. This market force is important, as an individual’s decision to install solar PV depends on the cost and how long it will take to return the initial investment.  More players will drive competition and lower prices.

While it would be ideal to increase electricity costs (therefore increasing the value of the electricity generated by solar) through a carbon tax to additionally support the payback or ROI of solar, that is not a viable federal option at the moment.  The key note here is at the moment. I strongly feel that the federal government needs to raise revenue somehow, and a carbon tax will potentially fill this void and benefit the solar industry.

Good Use for Solar in Illinois

Let’s take a moment to look at the different applications of solar in Illinois, and the expected impact of this in 2019.

Residential – Individual homes will begin to make decisions to install solar, especially as they see more and more of their neighbors installing solar.  In addition, you will start to notice and feel an increased sales presence of door to door and marketing outreach from solar companies, as nationwide companies notice the attractiveness of the Illinois market.  Residential solar works well for families or individuals that plan to stay in their home for 5-10 years.

Community Solar – groups of individuals can purchase solar from a “solar farm”, which is installed somewhere in our utility territory.  This is run by an investment group that owns the solar PV farm, and typically sell your home a credit off your bill for some long time period, possibly 10-20 years.

This is wildly popular in Illinois in 2018, and has some historical success in other states like Minnesota.  It is a great plan for folks that do not have a good existing roof for solar (too many trees, poor direction of your roof angle, or perhaps you live in an apartment building and don’t have access to your roof.  Typically, the downside of this arrangement is that it is a long term contract, but the upside is that you can get involved in buying solar PV at a relatively inexpensive cost – possibly even less than you would buy electricity from the utility.

Public Sector/Municipal Installations – Lots of government buildings have solar installations, and that will continue to increase.  One great reason for this is that government buildings are typically going to be there for the next 50 years, so putting a capital asset in place that will pay for itself in 7-10 years is not a huge obstacle.  They can also do this to help meet the voters needs for environmental action, and this has taken place throughout the state.

Nonprofits/Religious facilities – Nonprofits also can often look long term, and do not have the same profit motives as businesses.  These institutions have historically been an important part of the solar PV investment, although they are not able to benefit from the federal tax credit.  Creative scenarios exist where individual donors might own the asset, and benefit from the tax credit and the donation. These groups often benefit from grants around environmental work as well, or donors that can “own the system” and benefit from the tax credit.

Utility Scale Installations – Utilities can really hit cost effective solar arrays in large scale installations in brownfields or rural areas.  While it is not always clear, evidence suggests that new power plants being built with solar PV or wind are cost effective compared to building traditional power plants.  There is a huge array in Rockford, and you will start to see more and more of these as significant parts of FEJA lay out this type of investment.

While these arrays are typically less expensive per kWh of electricity generated, they have to be placed where energy is not typically used, which is less than ideal. One of the best parts of rooftop solar PV is that it generates electricity where it is consumed, so you don’t have large amounts of energy lost in transmission.

Commercial/Business Installations – In my opinion, business investment in solar PV is the single most important part of a success story in Illinois.  If there is a business case for solar, it means the market is mature enough that it is here to stay and won’t just be a fad. We are seeing ROI (return on investment) for businesses between 2.5 and 7 years this year, likely indicating a market that is going to really succeed.

Understanding Solar Size and Components

Solar PV is fairly simple – it has cells that generate DC electricity that need to find somewhere to be used. In Illinois, we have net metering, so there is no need for expensive batteries installed in a business or home with solar.

This means that if your solar array produces more energy than you need, your meter will flow backwards and create a “credit” for when you next use energy (likely at night when the sun isn’t shining.  You can therefore put in larger solar arrays than just what you use during the day, allowing you to store some for the night usage. This means your need to have a connection point between your solar array and the grid and it needs to be approved by the utility for safety (you must be able to stop your solar power from running into your building and the grid in an emergency).

Solar PV has some exciting new technologies, like roof shingles and flexible cells. However, it is safe to assume that those won’t be viable for years, so traditional solar is what we will have for the next 5-10 years.

The efficiency of solar PV does get a little better each year, but there likely won’t be significant improvements to dramatically change the landscape (like cell phone batteries or TV prices dramatically falling).  We will likely see continuing improvements of 1 or 2% per year. I would love to be wrong on this, as it would dramatically change solar cost effectiveness, and investment in technology around the world could change this.

Rooftop Solar needs to be converted from DC into AC, so it can work in your home or business.  This is done through an inverter, which is an important and not inexpensive component in your solar array.  Old inverters would convert less than 90% of the energy from DC into AC, but modern inverters are much more efficient.

So that is basically it, a solar panel, an inverter, a connection point with the grid, and your building.  If you live in a rural area, you could add a large battery for storage and not need the grid. If you have an all DC building, you would not need an inverter (but good luck watching Netflix in a DC only home).

We find for commercial that flat roofs are the best application, ideally one that has been replaced in the past few years.  Solar set ups will last 25 years, so it is better to have a roof that will last at least 10 years. The panels can be ballasted, which basically means that they rest on your roof without creating a penetration point in your new roof.  Ballasted means that there is weight to keep it from lifting off your roof with wind, as all solar works best when pointing toward the sun (which is in the south direction).

Residential roofs that face South are ideal, as that maximizes that amount of sunlight that hits your building each day.  When facing the correct way, the same panel generates more light and therefore, creates a better ROI.

Costs for Solar PV

Solar installations are usually considered in terms of cost per watt of generation.  This can range, and a smaller array is typically more expensive than a larger one because of efficiencies of scale.

Whats a Watt?

A Watt is a unit of electricity that is produced in any given time.  For example, an incandescent light bulb uses 60 watts at any given time when turned on.

Watthour, kWh

Since energy is used over time, that is used in kilowatt hours, or kWh.  That same 60 watt light bulb over 1 hour is 60 watt hours. Over 100 hours, that would be 60*100 or 6,000 watt hours.  Since numbers get large fast, we typically consider electricity in kWh, which divides watt hours by 1,000. That 6,000 watt hours is 6 kWh.

We think of solar panel systems in terms of W or kW or even Megawatt, but we think of their output over time as kWh.  Fortunate for us, there are great software tools that can easily model a rooftop and the amount of energy that a solar array could produce at a given time period.

Incentives for Installing Solar PV in Illinois

Man-on-roof-top-checking-on-solar-panel-installationNow that your mouth is watering and your wallet is bursting at the seams to buy solar, let’s look through the costs of solar and the incentives that play out in Illinois.

Federal Tax Credit –  There is currently a federal tax credit in place until the end of 2019 that covers 30% of the overall cost of an installation for solar.  Now, this assumes that you are profitable and pay taxes, but it can be carried backwards one year, and forward up to 10 years to offset taxes.  Since this is a credit, this can be significant as it is dollar for dollar off your taxes ($10,000 credit would mean you won’t be paying $10,000 in taxes).  In 2020, this credit will decrease to 26% of the overall cost, followed be 22% in 2021, and 10% in 2022. As of now, this is the largest impact on the decision to put solar PV on your roof or business.

Utility Smart Inverter Rebates – Comed and Ameren both offer a smart inverter incentive of $250 per kW of installed PV.  This is smart (pun intended) as it helps them integrate solar PV to the grid safely and with oversight. This incentive seems to kick another 10% of the overall project cost, covering a bit more of the larger projects (as scale leads to efficiency in pricing).

Solar Renewable Energy Credit – One of the most exciting (and confusing) parts of the incentives are the Renewable Energy Credits.  Utilities, like Comed, are required to purchase a certain amount of solar and wind energy by law specific to each state.

The mechanism that they do this, often instead of building their own, is to buy “credits” for these systems that are built by other folks.  This counter intuitive mechanism provides incentives for residential, commercial and public buildings to get additional funding to put in their solar array, and give “credit” to the utility to buy these RECs.  The private sector (think Google or Apple) will also buy these RECs, although they pay much less than the utility.

These RECs can be paid out right away, or slowly over a few years.  These certificates can only be used by one amount of energy, so you can only have one buyer of your RECs at a time.  Typically, these are paid out for over 1000 kWh, and the RECs can cover between 20-40% of the project cost. These REC prices vary greatly ($43 to $158 per REC) and are managed by the utility. The smaller the array, the higher the RECs, and non-profits and public entities that can’t take advantage of the tax credit also receive higher RECs.

Depreciation – I own and run a business, and still struggle to understand depreciation.  I’ll do my best to explain, but welcome clarification from any business or tax experts out there.  The federal government allows you to write off large capital improvements off of your taxable income by depreciating it slowly over time. Solar can be depreciated over 5 years through the MACRS change, and include 85% of the cost of the solar PV.  That can add some significant tax benefit, as high as 25% of the value of the installation.

Add that up – 30% federal tax credit + 10% smart inverter + 40% RECs + 25% depreciation savings = 105% of the cost.  Perhaps that math shows why solar will be so viable in Illinois in 2019, but of course, it depends on a profitable business with new flat roof and willingness to invest capital in the short run (as the RECs, tax credits, and other mechanisms all involve cash flow to the installers in order to regain the incentives.  While you can get back 105% of the outlay for solar (not even counting the savings on your electric usage), it could take up to 5 years to recoup the entire cost.

Solar Financed in Illinois 

Don’t have the cash to outlay on solar, let’s consider an alternative option through financing.

PPA or Power Purchasing Agreement – As there are so many incentives at play here, and there is currently so much capital in the world looking for safe investments, Power Purchasing Agreements are popular.  In this scenario, another company or investment group owns your solar array and you purchase the electricity directly from them. There is a markup here, so often you are getting solar at a great rate – but committed to paying this other entity for years.

Leasing or Traditional Financing – If you own the building and have good credit, there are a ton of financial institutions that understand solar and can help you finance the installation.  This is especially great if the tax credits and RECs do not come for a few months or years, allowing you to wrap the entire cost into the financing and get short term windfalls when those incentives come to you.

Community Solar – As we described before, you can “buy” into a solar array and get credits off your bill for years from solar.  While not unlike a PPA, this would entail the solar array being somewhere else.

As you can see, Solar PV is here in Illinois and if we can help you sort through the best option for you, please drop us a line!  We look forward to a bright future in Illinois.

Composting at Work and other ways to engage employees in sustainability

There are so many ways to get started in making your workplace more sustainable, but it takes buy in from the ownership.  Whether a huge corporation or a small business, your efforts at making your office or workplace better can be thwarted by management if they are not on board.

Here are 5 key ways to bring a little bit of your environmental passion into work, that won’t create too much disagreement and/or cost your company too much money.  You won’t need to hire an expensive energy consultant or engage waste consulting firms, but instead can start with these 5 steps. 


green workplaceWhile composting gets a bad wrap at times (smelly, hard to do, flies), we have used a great service at our office that composts without the hassle from Urban Canopy.  They have a bucket that gets picked up every two weeks, and it works great for coffee, tea, and a ton of food waste.  Since they are an industrial composter, they can take more things like diary and meat products – so it opens up more opportunities.  We have not had any smell or fruit flies issues at work, which is a huge plus.

Buying Local

Its not as sexy as a solar panel or LED fixture with daylight controls, but it is important.  Buying local can happen several ways, and they can often save a business money at the same time.  As long as you don’t let it impact your main role at a company, few operations would complain if you brought them an alternative vendor that is local and would cost less – it just sometimes takes a bit of digging.

One of our favorite ways to buy local is to pick up lunch or meals at a local restaurant, instead of just getting delivery from the normal corporate place.  We have a local sandwich shop near us called Spoken that is a favorite of the office, we can walk or bike to for picking up food, and does a great job of keeping food waste to a minimum.  Nothing makes our office upset like mountains of styrofoam, especially in city like Chicago that is known for lackluster recycling.  I am never upset to show up to an event that is catered by the Corner Bakery, but I especially notice places that take time and order from local vendors.  

Another example of buying local was an analysis we did on purchasing our outdoor LED fixtures for our clients through China or from a local vendor, Jarvis Lighting. While purchasing from China is less expensive, we were constantly running into supply chain issues.  Occasionally, we had to air ship fixtures from overseas, costing both a fortune on our bottom line and our environmental impact (shiping via air has 50 times the carbon impact as shipping cargo via boat.  Our local vendor not only supplies a majority of our exterior lighting solutions, but they also have a lean manufacturing model and can turn around products for us in several days.  The impact on customers satisfaction, as well as environmental benefits, far exceed saving a few dollars on the fixture cost.

Bike Sharing

Bike Sharing is a good option for employees that mostly take public transit, but occasionally might need to take a Lyft or Uber.  A bike sharing membership costs less than $80 a year in Chicago with Divvy, and you can either subsidize it all or partial for employees.  Especially for those that occasionally go downtown, Divvy can be a super inexpensive perk that makes employees pumped up (pun intended).  

Divvy will even consider your business as a spot for one of their stations, if you are interested in a membership for employees.  While that may not make a huge difference, if you are a restaurant or bar – a Divvy station nearby could increase your traffic.

Smart Thermostats

Ok, so I often go on rants and tangents about smart thermostat solutions.  There is a reason for this, and it isn’t the hot and cool new features and styles.  

Smart thermostats give control over an empty business.  Business owners, especially in the early years, are more often to be the only one at the office late at night or early in the morning.  I can’t tell you then number of times I have been alone on a Saturday and realized that we left the heat at 72 all weekend long. 

With a Nest or Ecobee, you can login from your phone or desktop browser and lower the heat.  Better yet, they will use their smart powers to notice when the space is empty and automatically set back the heat or cooling.

Business owners also love control, or at least solutions to problems.  Have a customer coming by on a Saturday in the summer in an unusual time – you can make sure to pre-cool the space an hour before to make sure it is comfortable when they arrive.    In the past, you had to just leave the hold function on a programmable thermostat, and it may just override and set back.  Smart thermostats give you a ton more options for savings on both heating and cooling, and often make a space more comfortable for employees.

Water Purification

This is one of the least popular moves that I have made, but I strongly believe in responsibly sourcing water for an office.  

water purificationWe used to use a water service, with a cooler that provided cold and semi hot water.  The tea was never good, and the cool water was refreshing.  However, the water bottles were brought by truck weekly, and the environmental impact on that is not insignificant.  The unit also always draws water.

About 18 months ago, we put in a water purification system from Berkeley.  It costs around $250, which took almost a year to payback in terms of our monthly water costs.  However, it will last literally forever and will continue to saving us money on both the water service and electricity for years to come. 

The best part for me – we got a $10 tea kettle and now have good hot tea, not that tepid tea water out of those water coolers. 

After all, those of us in Chicago have the greatest resource on the planet in vast quantities just miles from us – we don’t need trucks to drive it to us.  We can save that for our fancy french wine (or $3 chuck in my house).

5 Tips for Reducing Waste in the Office

It’s officially Verde’s favorite day of the year: Earth Day!  While we’ve already helped hundreds of company’s reduce their energy consumption, we thought we would go a step further and help businesses with tips on how to reduce waste in general at work.  Happy readings!

Tip #1: Use reusable mugs and dishware in the office

CupLeaving/supplying reusable mugs and dishware in the office is a great way to avoid the disposables and adds some fun personality in the workplace.  At our office in Ravenswood we have ample supply of really anything you could need during lunch along with a cabinet full of fun and goofy mugs for anyone to use.  (P.S. Many coffee shops also give you a discount for bringing in your own cup.  Looking trendy and saving some dough on your espresso?  No-brainer.)  Here’s a picture of just one of the many gems in our office:

Tip #2: Composting at work

If you step foot into the Verde office’s kitchen you’ll find three bins: a recycling bin, a garbage bin, and a green bin with a lid — the compost bin!  A few months ago Verde utilized the help of Urban Canopy to begin composting any of our food scraps.  The process is simple and leaves everyone in the office feeling a tad less guilty when we happen to find the occasional fuzzy fruit at the back of the fridge.  

Tip #3: Get an energy audit of your building

Outside of the Verde staff, we generally assume that most people don’t think about the energy consumption from the appliances around them like lights and HVAC units, but they should!  Oftentimes (especially in old buildings), there are huge savings to addressing these energy issues while also reducing your carbon footprint.  Verde’s assessments are always free, but we’re offering a special deal right now of 10% off your project when you book an assessment in April.  It’s a feel good action for you and the planet.  Click on the image below to start the process.  You won’t want to wait, the 10% off deal doesn’t last forever!

Tip #4: You’ll never know what you’re wasting the most of unless you look!  Conduct a waste audit

It’s hard to change if you don’t know the details on what you’re changing exactly, so gain some insight by conducting a waste audit.  If you notice a lot of items that you can easily transition out or change to reusables (plastic utensils, cups, unnecessary packaging, etc.) then you can start making the conscious effort to change.

Tip #5: Screen Saver?  More like power-drainer.

For your computer, opt for your screen to automatically power down after a certain time of inactivity.  Not only does this help save a bit of energy, but it’s also better for your screen.  Bam, double-win.

A Sustainable Education: Debra Kutska from Oakton Community College

Debra and Jamie sit down to discuss the progress and investment that Oakton Community College has put forward, creating a truly sustainable education for their students.  Debra comes from the Brookfield Zoo community, where she was inspired about conservation by her colleagues and the community.  

Oakton Community College has invested a ton in LEED certified buildings and solar panels on their buildings.  They also benefit from an amazing campus with a lot of natural woods and natural area around them. And their greatest resource – their students passion.  Hear how student groups led the ban on plastic bottles sold on campus at Oakton.

Debra’s favorite animal at the Brookfield Zoo you ask?  The egg laying mammal called the Echidna.

Speaker 1: Welcome back to episode 13 of the Verde podcast, every week we talk to local community leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight. But is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago.

Today we have Debra who is the Sustainability Specialist at Oakton Community College, I’m particularly excited, although I tell everyone every week, I’m very excited to interview them. I’m particularly excited, because I was just telling her a Sustainability role, trying to do good in the public sector it’s like a really interesting position to me.

And one that I’ve often thought a lot about, and would have loved to have that position, you know, years ago, so it’s a … I’m particularly personally raged to be with you today Debra.

Debra: Well thanks, I’m excited to tell you all about what I do.

Speaker 1: Good, very good. So tell me a little bit about how and why you joined Oakton, and what motivated you to join the sustainability field in general?

Debra: Okay. So my background from the time I was in high school, was actually focused on animals and the environment. So I initially thought that I wanted to be a Veterinarian, I was one of those kids that volunteered at the local animal shelter, got an internship at my local vet office, and started working that route.

But then somewhere around Junior year in high school, I really started thinking more about Zoos as a field to pursue, and so when I went into college, my goal was to become a Zookeeper. And so I kept up some of that animal work, and then got an internship at Brookfield Zoo, keeping for animals, and then that became a seasonal position.

Speaker 1: Sorry, what is that? What do you study to become a Zookeeper? Is there like a program? Or is it pretty open to whoever?

Debra: It’s pretty open. My background was in Biology, so I majored in Biological Sciences for my Bachelor Degree. And then did that extra curricular involvement working with animals. But I have Zookeeper friends who have backgrounds in philosophy, and psychology, who were lawyers, who were teachers, so there’s lots of different ways to get into it, I think most of us have a background in Zoology, Ecology, Biology, or Psych is a big one too, because of animal training.

And then I really got interested into conservation as whole, and conservation education, and training, so I did my Master’s Degree at Columbia, New York, in Conservation Biology, and I had spent some time there at the Central Park Zoo, and the Bronx Zoo, so I got to work with animal observation, and research as well as public evaluation.

So collecting surveys from guests about their experiences, and then taking that data and compiling it, to make our experiences better. And from there, went back to Brookfield Zoo, where I did conservation leadership and training for next seven and half years. So working with outreach programs, doing education, high school volunteer programs, the college internship program, everything was built around getting people engaged with nature. Helping them to build that relationship, and then going out and doing something to protect the natural world.

So everything at the zoo, was very focused on conservation action. What could each of us do, to make a difference, and improve the world around us? And that naturally led to my thoughts about sustainability. So we thought of it as conservation behavior, conservation action, it’s the same thing. So it’s what little things we can each do, as well as big things to make a difference with the products that we’re using, the ecosystems we’re impacting, basically reducing our impact on the world.

So when I had kids, and realized that a full time job was really demanding with a long commute, and wanting to be there with them. I started looking for opportunities that were part-time, where I could still be invested in a career where I was making a difference that fit along my passions and pursuits, but also allowed me to spend more time with my kids.

And around the same time I started having these thoughts, this position at Oakton Community College opened up. So 2014 this position was created, brand new, it was 20 hours a week, three miles from my home, and I was finally able to have a community impact in my own direct community, and have broader reach of some of my interests, and my skills in a way that I never had before.

So of course I love that I’m still doing education, because it’s a very big piece of me, but it lets me look at saving the world in a different way than I had been before. So I think it was a natural fit, and it really allowed me again, to have that work-life balance, that I really needed at the time. And to grow in this position to the point that just this summer I became full time. So my kids are both in school full time, I’m full time, it was all just meant to be. I suppose.

Speaker 1: Yeah. Yeah it’s hard to find work-life balance no matter what. It’s almost like seemingly impossible, so it’s cool that you found it.

Debra: Yeah and it’s really been exciting for me and with my kids. Like everything that I’m doing is about behavior change here at the college, which I think we’ll talk a little bit more about, and that can be so tricky. So having kids at home that I can help shape, this conservations sustainability ethic in, that they’re just are used to recycling, and composting, and picking up trash when we go for walks, is really meaningful to me.

Speaker 1: I have a three year old, and love when like she throws something on the ground, and I’m like, May, pick that up. We don’t litter. And she just looks at me like, it doesn’t make any sense why we wouldn’t just litter. And it’s an incredible blank slate to kind of like really influence your values on, which I guess sounds really evil.

Debra: It’s scary too.

Speaker 1: Yeah, but it’s good for sure.

Debra: It’s a big responsibility. And actually one of my favorite stories with my kids. Is we took them the Sox park to go see a game, and we were walking out afterwards through the parking lot, and my daughter who was probably four at the time, started trying to pick up all the broken glass in the parking lot from beer bottles that had been smashed. And I had to actively tell her, no just leave it on the ground.

And it was so against everything she felt, like pulled to do. So understanding that there’s a time and a place to pick up trash, and a four year old with broken beer bottles probably isn’t the time or the place.

Speaker 1: Well that’s cool. So I’ll dive into some more questions. But are you still very involved in the zoo community? Like now there’s two things I’m really interested in, sustainability at community college and now a zoo community. Like are there zoo parties? Things like that?

Debra: You know the zoo is like a second home to me. So I built a lot of really important friendships and professional relationships there. So even though some of my colleagues, who I worked with have gone on to other zoos, or other realms, we still do have this network.

And I’ve got really close friends who are going to be a part of my life from that experience. So even though I don’t go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conferences anymore, or am involved day to day in volunteering, or work tasks with them. We go often with my kids, we’ve got annual memberships, so we hang out there and visit the zoo from a guest perspective, but then also, when I’m involved in things like Chicago Wilderness in the region, or some nature education, nature play experiences, as part of my role here at Oakton, I’m seeing my colleagues from that other world.

And so we’re still integrating, we still communicate about crossover, and opportunities where our respective fields can align because there are a lot of them. I’ve been fortunate to lead a group of students from here at Oakton on a tour of Brookfield Zoo, so we went on a field trip, and I got to talk to them about the conservation stories of the animals as well as career training for them, if they’re thinking about a path like this.

I spend a lot of time kind of dispelling some myths about zoos, so I’m of course and advocate for a well-run accredited zoo, or aquarium. And I think they’re really powerful tools for conservation, education, and awareness. I know that I personally wouldn’t be in sustainability, I wouldn’t be making the life choices I did, if it hadn’t been for early introduction to animals at a zoo with my family.

So I think they’re really powerful if done correctly.

Speaker 1: Do you think that zoos, this is kind of a meta question I guess. But do you feel like zoos are fulfilling their kind of obligation to be leaders in that conservation space at this time in general?

Debra: Absolutely. You’ve seen zoos evolve now. Initially when they started, it was menageries. It was rich people going out, flying to exotic places, taking animals, bringing them home, and then charging people to see them. And now we’ve evolved to conservation organizations. So there is no reputable accredited zoo, that isn’t spending most of their time and energy on telling conservation stories. You see it in the signage, you see it in the way they procure resources for the zoos, and the aquariums, water conservation, their energy conservation.

If you visit, we’re fortunate here in the Chicago area to have so many accredited zoos and aquariums, well one aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium, does amazing work. They’re pushing a straw free initiative, to encourage people to reduce their plastic consumption. We’ve got so many good things that are being taught to people, who may just be coming for a good time, may just be coming to see animals, but then they walk away with really important education.

And I think that, that’s important. As well as the money that zoos are generating, if it’s not going back to the animals, and their care, and the people who care for them, it’s going to field conservation organizations. So paying for researchers in the field, in these countries of these wild animals, to help protect them to create jobs, to raise awareness, and to do really important work in the field where it’s most needed.

Speaker 1: That’s good to know. I think we don’t, as a novice to the zoo world, like I don’t know much about that. It seems like a natural fit, but I do know, and I think you and I talked about this recently, about how the aquarium has the first largest solar pv panel set up in Illinois. And it’s an investment that they chose to do for whatever reason, but that really resonated with a community member. So it’s interesting to see how they take initiatives like that, that can really be leaders where we lack leaders in this space.

Debra: Absolutely. Yeah, you’ll meet some of the most passionate people who are working at those organizations. And they’re doing it for the love of the animals, the love of the mission, and again, educating the public and getting them engaged and involved. So it was really wonderful working with conservation leadership program at the time, because I was able to take students who were interested, and engaged, but didn’t know what to do with that interest. And really watch them bud into educators, and scientists, and go on to their Ph.D’s and be field researchers.

And now I have this whole community of students that I worked with, who are now out actively saving the world, because they decided to volunteer for the zoo one summer.

Speaker 1: Do you have a personal favorite animal at the zoo?

Debra: Everyone asks me that. You know it changed every week. I love animals, so every day it’s something new. I learned a lot about Echidnas when I was there, so that’s the one I’ll pick today.

Speaker 1: I don’t know what an Echidna is.

Debra: Echidnas are an Australian animal, and they’re egg laying mammals, so they’re bizarre, and they’ve got these cute little noses, and little spikes, but they fascinating little creatures. So you can go into the Australia house they have them.

Speaker 1: Is it Echidna or just chidna?

Debra: It’s Echidna, E-C-H-I-D-N-A.

Speaker 1: Oh amazing. Okay.

Debra: And so those are fun little animals.

Speaker 1: I’ll have to tell my daughters about them tonight. Because I didn’t know there was egg laying mammals.

Debra: They’re cute. Monotremes.

Speaker 1: Are there a lot of those?

Debra: No.

Speaker 1: Interesting. Okay. So tell me about some of your favorite parts about running initiatives that you do at Oakton? What are some of the most exciting parts and gives you the most professional satisfaction?

Debra: Yeah, so I think there’s a twofold for me. One is of course engaging with the students, so again at heart I’m really an educator, I want to make those connections, and students who are here at this college phase of their lives, are really eager for information and again, ways that they can be involved.

So when I can connect with students in a classroom, or an activity, or they have a project that they want to initiate here on campus and I can help harness their ideas and actually give them a trajectory to pursue those thoughts, and actually turn it into reality, that’s really powerful for me.

So since I’m not faculty, I don’t have a chance to really teach students or be engaged with them on a daily basis, and I think it makes those times, when I am able to do that, more important. Because they’re not as frequent.

And then the other piece is just seeing the changes that happen on campus as a result of what we’re doing in sustainability. Like I said, I was part-time until just this summer, and compiling my most recent sustainability report for the college, it was really impactful for me because on a day to day basis I may not feel like I’m making much movement, there’s so many big things I want make happen. And it’s really hard, they can’t be done in a day’s time.

So when I look back at that report, and I see all the initiatives that we’ve been able to do, with me being part-time, and not a huge team of staff working together, it’s very fulfilling to me to see how much can be done. And then how much those projects can help benefit the students on campus. Or the community. And what can grow from those.

Speaker 1: Any individual project that stands out in your mind that you’re kind of most particularly proud of?

Debra: Yeah, and it’s one that I didn’t even have much to do with. And so that’s our water bottle ban on campus. So in the spring of 2015, we had a group of students who were involved in an honor’s course, and they were learning about all kinds different social and environmental issues, and injustices that lay in those realms.

And there was a group of students that decided that they wanted to pursue a water bottle ban on Oakton’s campuses. So after learning about the environmental implications of bottling water in plastic, and then what happens to those plastic bottles. About two-thirds don’t ever even end up being recycled, they end up in the land fills, or in our waterways, and become a huge issue. But then also the social piece of taking water as a public resource from communities. Privatizing it, and then selling it back to those same individuals, they learned about all of the cultural and social implications of that practice.

So whether it be taking the water and draining aquifers, or ruining agriculture for communities, or just the price piece, the fact again, they’re taking something free, and then they’re selling it back for $5.00 a bottle or $2.00 a bottle. Whatever it is.

Speaker 1: Something we never would have paid for 30 years ago.

Debra: It’s really, it really blew them away. And so the students started working on researching this issue, and then presenting it to their peers, they would do tabling events, and workshops, and getting signatures from students. I think they collected over 1500 signatures on a petition to ban the bottle, they presented that to faculty and staff, as well as our President’s council, here on site. And our administration decided to support the students, so they said, we’ll help you to keep this issue alive, and to ban bottled water.

So the course itself was only a semester long, and what was really interesting, was after that semester, the students started working with Students for Social Justice, which is one of our student groups on campus, and they kind of handed over the reigns, and so that student club, then carried the initiative through to its implementation.

So I was involved just in supporting them, and taking care of some of the logistics, working with our President, and our Facilities director to see what we needed to do, to put this practice into place. So we were proactive and did a whole bunch of water testing, because it was at the same time as the Flint Water Crisis was occurring, people were thinking more about water. And was it safe to drink? So we were able to verify the safety and cleanliness of our drinking water on campus, we were able to get funds to put in more hydration stations, so the water bottle refills. We worked with Oakton Educational Foundation, to get a grant to provide all students with a reusable water bottle, so that they didn’t have the excuse of not having a receptacle to put the water in.

And again, just supporting the students along that path. So on November 1st, 2016 is when Oakton officially stopped selling single use plastic bottled water in the cafeterias, in the vending machines, and in the bookstore. And now it’s become a thing for our campus, it’s something notable, it was in the news, other colleges know, we aren’t the first one to do it. We followed a lot of other colleges who had. Loyola locally, connecting with students there, and finding out what did you need to do to make this happen?

We also did surveys for staff on campus, to find out how they felt about the change, which was a challenge. Because there were some people who were very passionate about it, and taking away a right of theirs, so it became a really big advocacy project, as well as awareness, and communication piece. Lots of people thought about the recycling aspect, so they, I buy my water, I recycle it, I’m good, I’m not the issue.

And we really needed to teach them about the social piece. Like where is that water coming from? How much water are you using to make that bottle, that you’re putting it in? When we’re fortunate in this area to have clean drinking water.

Speaker 1: Well the truck to transport it here, the truck to transport it away, does it actually end up in the recycling place it’s supposed to? And Chicago’s notorious for not being great about that.

Debra: Well it’s getting better.

Speaker 1: It is getting better. It is getting better, that’s for sure.

Debra: Yeah so that’s been such a powerful experience for me, and again, if had come into Oakton, and said we’re going to ban water bottles, it never would have passed. But because it was student passion, student initiative, they did their homework, they did their research, and they presented it well, they were supported. And that’s something really powerful about Oakton too.

We’re a small enough campus that if you do have a group of passionate students, you can enact really big change. And those students, then can go onto their other colleges, or universities, or jobs, and use some of those same skills they learned to make bigger changes.

Speaker 1: Yeah, well it’s particularly, that story’s particularly relevant right now, especially with the student driven gun violence legislation that they’re, or they’re policy agenda that they’re asking for. I don’t know about you, this is not really relevant, but I took my kids to the march this weekend. I thought … I personally am against, I personally support gun rights legislation, I don’t … I’m sorry, edit that out. I’m personally against any gun ownership I don’t feel like it’s really … that’s my personal … that’s my family’s agenda.

But what I was so inspired about, I normally wouldn’t go support that kind of thing. But what I was really inspired about, was that these kids were organizing it, and the policies that we make are often based on fear. You know, I’m afraid for my safety of my house, and this is something a 40 year old father like myself might have experienced and do. But the policies that we make affect these kids for the next 60, 70 years. And so it’s really refreshing, kind of like that thought that my daughter looks at that trash, and just doesn’t really … like these kids are very idealistic, and it’s kind of refreshing to feel some idealism in this world.

And it’s exciting to see, I mean I’m very optimistic that this activism of this age, is going to continue. Because while you certainly make a lot of mistakes in your … you really do dumb things when you’re that age, like it’s fun to have them directed at idealistic things, because for sure environmental action is one of those topics that the things that we do today, these kids are going to have to deal with for 80 years.

Debra: Oh absolutely. And I think, you know I was so fortunate to build such powerful relationships with teenagers, when I was working in my previous position, that any time people around me would negate the power of teenagers, so you know, oh they’re entitled and they’re lazy , and they’re this and they’re that, I had real stories of students to say, no they’re doing a lot more than a lot of us are.

And so to me that teens were able to rise up and get this power, is not surprising to me. It reaffirms what I already knew from working with my students. But it also, this is something we’ve seen throughout history, like young people change the world. And I spent some time really thinking about just all of the attention that’s being drawn to these mass shootings, and reading a bunch of articles, and hearing people from our non-white communities particularly talk about how gun violence and environmental injustice has been affecting them for so long, but you don’t hear it in the news. Right?

You don’t hear those stories. And debating on whether or not to join in this movement, if it’s not completely reflective of their own experiences, and it’s been really promising to see so many backgrounds of students coming together and saying, yeah because we all want the same thing.

And people forget that teenagers have been the one, they were protesting the Vietnam War, when we were integrating schools in the south ,the Little Rock Nine, they were 14, 15 year olds, that were subjected to awful experiences. But they made such a huge impact for future generations. And yet, we’re seeing how much still hasn’t changed, how much work there is to do.

So I love seeing the power and the engagement around teens, young adults, youth, those who are just voting in this first election, and understanding the power that comes with that civic duty, of choosing who’s in office.

Speaker 1: And not just this next election but the one two years after that’s going to be really compelling. Because those, you know, 16 year olds are going to be able to vote at that point.

Debra: Right. And I think the power, one of the things that I’ve been focusing on here too with community college is talking with students that it’s more than just Presidential elections, you voting for your school district board, or your municipal water reclamation district commissioners, all these different local opportunities, for you to have an impact and say, who’s going to speak your voice, or for you to run for one day. I’ve been really impressed with the number of students here at Oakton I’ve met, who are interested in policy. And potentially running for office one day.

And so learning all they can about they can do here to build upon their experience for their future. And I would love to have my future in the hands of some of these students that I’m working with.

Speaker 1: Yeah. For sure. I guess you’ve already talked about a big one, but what is your … what are some other creative ways you’ve seen students here push sustainability as a priority? I know you have some experience with lead buildings on campus. I’m just curious … I find it really compelling, you know that I worked in public sector for about 10 years and I just felt wall, after wall, after wall. Of like, we’re not going to do, we can talk about it but ultimately we’re not going to do it for whatever reason.

And it seems like Oakton has done a little more than the average group, so what creative things have you seen that other people listening might be able to take away as an idea?

Debra: Right. So we do have one lead building on campus. And it was being erected as I was starting. So it’s our new Science and Health Career Center, and as the name implies it’s all of our science classes. So from Biology to Physics, Chemistry, as well as all of our health careers, so Physical Therapy, we’ve got a Phlebotomy lab, we have a half a floor which is devoted to nursing. So a simulation hospital.

And so for all these students to come and go through that building, and to see the little signs about what sustainability efforts were incorporated into the creation of that space, again, it’s just that awareness, that they become used to it, as being part of their environment. And that they’re picking up some of those little things. So I think that’s been fun to experience, and to hear about the students that were in that building when I tell them I work in sustainability here.

That one of the first things they’ll say, oh I noticed those signs in the Lee Center, which is a little sense of pride for me. I helped create those signs. But even if they’re only picking up one line of information, or understanding how they’re impacting the earth just by being in that building, I think that’s powerful.

But really the biggest successes again, we’ve seen, is students. If we can get students who are engaged and are excited, channeling that passion and that energy into a project or an effort, that carries weight here. So around when I was starting, there were a couple of faculty who were engaged in creating an Environmental Studies concentration. We didn’t have anything like that here, so they took a sabbatical to go research what other colleges and universities were doing, how they wanted to shape it, what they wanted it to look like, and now we have this 19 hour, or semester hour program.

So a concentration at a community college is kind of like a minor, you know if you get an Associates Degree you can add this on by taking certain courses basically. But the way that it’s structured is that many of the courses are Gen Eds, so composition one, and intro to biology, or intro to environmental science, and so you can take your Gen Eds while getting credit for these ESC courses at the same time, and the other thing about it, is that it’s interdisciplinary.

So as opposed to just an Environmental Sciences program, where they’re just getting the science, and you’re just getting those science minded folks, it’s philosophy, and like I said, composition, it’s literature, it’s global mythology, all these different courses, that are getting students to think about the environment and sustainability and their role in the world, from different viewpoints.

And building it together into this really nice, cohesive program. So they were working on developing that, I was working very closely with them to align what students were doing in the classroom, with what changes could be done on campus. And there was such a support for the ESC of students, and other faculty members getting engaged, that it helped bolster appreciation of the sustainability work I was doing on the operations, and planning side.

And similarly, when I’m doing actions in sustainability, whether it’s putting in an electrical vehicle charging station, or trying to reduce our carbon footprint, then I can reflect it back to the students. So we can bring those topics into the classroom, they can look at real data, they can be out on our natural grounds, we have 147 acres here at the Des Plaines Campus.

Speaker 1: That’s beautiful.

Debra: Where students can cage young oaks, they can go out and do bio-diversity studies with our faculty. They can do a nature walk in their pros class, and come back and write creatively about what they experienced out in nature. So we’re able to tie so many different projects and efforts together with the number one reason we’re all here, which is to provide students an education.

So that’s been really important for us, and they received … the ESC received a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, a very large grant, about a year ago that has enabled them to really develop some of the course work, and create a field study course, so this summer students will take 17 days, and camp out to Yellowstone along the way learning about plants, and the humanities and nature, and all these other awesome things.

So I think that, that’s been really encouraging, and any time we have a new class, a new project, students have ideas that they want to implement. I have a group of students now involved in one of the courses, who really want to push for more food waste reduction on campus. So eliminating at the source as well as composting afterwards. And hopefully with their help, we can make it happen.

They give credence to what I do.

Speaker 1: Well I think we, I like to think of everything in the business sense, because that’s what I do these days unfortunately, but it seems to me that ultimately, the leadership and the management of the school must look at the students as customers essentially, and if the customer or the student is requesting more environmental classes then that’s going to speak to them more than probably anything else.

So that’s pretty cool, do you feel like there’s kind of an uptick? I guess you’ve been here since ’14, so that’s three or four years. But do you feel like there’s a more interest now than there was three or four years ago from student driven requests for sustainability? Or it’s been consistent but just your ability to kind corral that?

Debra: I think that’s exactly it. The latter point. So I think the interest has always been there, but there wasn’t really a place to direct that interest. So we had a few faculty on site, particularly who were known for getting students to think about the environment, and sustainability in their courses, and that were powerful. But the average student didn’t really have a chance to learn about what the college was doing, or how they can provide input.

So I think just building this small sustainability center here at the college, and having me available to go to different activities, and to talk with student groups, has allowed them a place to voice what they’d like to see happen. So when we do big events, like our Fall Fest, welcoming students at the beginning of the year, we have a table.

We can ask them agreeing suggestions, what do you want the school to do? What would you like to see more of? And the first year I was here, one of the big things was more waste bins, more recycling bins, so we did that. We changed the recycling bins that we had onsite, into these multiple streamed bins that were sometimes not all together. So you would find a paper bin, or an aluminum bin, but you wouldn’t find them all next to each other.

And now we have nice single stream bins, where waste and recycling are connected. And they make that choice, but it’s always available to them. And that as well as a few other initiatives, we saw an increase from 19.7% recycling up to 36 point something recycling in our couple years. So students asked for it, they wanted it, and then they used it.

And so those opportunities where students can tell me what they’re interested in, I think are more available, which means that they’re being heard more, and we can act on them.

Speaker 1: Well that’s cool. I appreciate what you’re doing, and I think I forgot to mention this, but I was, I’m a proud Alumni of Oakton, I have my Paramedic Degree came through here. So it makes me feel, I never came on campus, because we were through the hospital, but it’s, it gives me a little bit more pride in that degree.

Debra: Oh that’s exciting. We love our Alumni.

Speaker 1: Yeah for sure. So it’s been great to hear all your stories, and I hope we can stay connected, and I hope that this kind of … you know I know you mentioned that there’s a huge network of similar professionals like you throughout the Illinois community college networks, and it sounds like you guys all kind of really helped push and pull each other towards change. But there’s a huge, as far as for community college students listening, or that are … there’s a huge job network in Illinois around this topic.

You know we have 25 employees at my company and one of the first things I look for on a resume is what did they study? It doesn’t rule out, if somebody studied something else if they’re a good fit, but it definitely gets them the interview if they studied something, one of the few that really studied a degree in sustainability is very valued for a company like mine.

Debra: Right. Which is always great to hear, because of course as a community college, a lot of time we are faced with administrators that of course, they want our students to either go on to a four year degree, or they want them to be able to get a job right after their degree. And proving that green jobs are available, and prevalent, and growing in our area, can be really tricky.

Because as you know, it’s often not going to be labeled like, Sustainability Specialist, it will be, an Engineer, a Program Manager, or an Account Manager, for a sustainable company. So we have really hard time, occasionally convincing people that these efforts are worth it, and that yes our students will be able to get a job.

So I think when they hear, individuals who have a business, in the area, that does employ students with these skills, it ramps up the appreciation, an extra little bit.

Speaker 1: Well very cool. Well thank you, I think this is a particularly interesting conversation topic. I enjoyed it.

Debra: Yeah we went all over.

Speaker 1: Yeah, we covered the basics from what was the animal? The Echidna?

Debra: The Echidna.

Speaker 1: The Echidna, all the way to recycling water bottles.

Debra: Look him up. They’re cute.

Speaker 1: Or not, I guess. Well thanks Debra, thanks for being here, and I look forward to talking soon.

Debra: Thank you.

Bringing Energy Efficiency to Park Ridge

About 30 minutes outside the office is Park Ridge, located in Cook County, where we went for our outreach week.  Being proud members of the Park Ridge Chamber of Commerce, we decided to to hit the streets of this great place to let business owners know about not only us, but about the energy efficiency program!  

We started our day at the Allegro Coffee that’s held within the Whole Foods.  There was ample seating for our team (a must when you have a 5-6 person team) and the natural lighting that came in through the huge windows made the area an ideal place to get together.  After the team was fully caffeinated and clear on the plan for the day, we went out in our teams throughout the town.

Both teams were able to meet and talk with a lot of the business owners about the energy efficiency program and the benefits (one guy told us he had just heard of the program last week and had wanted to look into it, what great timing!).  We were also happy to hear that a good amount of people had already heard of the program AND taken advantage of the incentive money.  When that is the case we like to ask business owners how they are liking the switch so far, is the light bright enough, and to hear any other comments they may have.  Constantly improving and learning is something we are a bit addicted to you might say.

The team was able to do some assessments at an auto shop, lawn care business, and many other businesses (we even poked our heads into the Park Ridge Public Works).  We covered a lot of ground, leaving us pretty hungry.  When lunchtime hit, we made our way over to Cafe Orchid for lunch.  Cafe Orchid offers a great selection of Mediterranean food at a more than reasonable price.  

The team hit the pavement for a few more hours, talking to owners of businesses big and small.  Being in the neighborhood, we stopped by one of our analyst’s first projects with Verde, that being the flower store Kiko’s Flowers and Gifts.  Walking in you immediately are greeted with the pleasant smell of fresh flowers (not to mention some great lighting as well) and kind, personable conversation from all who work there.  With time coming to a close for us on our outreach day, we said our goodbyes and made our way to our final destination for debrief: Harp & Fiddle.

Keeping with our tradition of tasty beers for our debriefings, we met at Harp & Fiddle to discuss the day.  With a wide variety of beers from all over, everyone was able to grab something they liked as we discussed outreach and ways to improve for next week.  The atmosphere was cozy and the space was perfect for our team meeting needs.  Will definitely stop back in when we return to Park Ridge!

Embracing Organizational Transformation: Ross Outten Podcast

Ross and Jamie sit down in The Friendship Center’s new location on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, where they will be extending their services to include a hot meal service for those in need.  Friendship Center has been around for 30 years, but Ross as Development Director is acting like an entrepreneur to expand the service offerings and really embrace organizational transformation.  


Bringing Energy Efficiency to Ukrainian Village and East Village

We’re in our third month of outreach and our team is loving the ability to explore all throughout Cook County and the greater Chicagoland area.  This week we decided to increase our workload by going to not only one but two towns: East Village and Ukrainian Village (we made it kind of easy on us though by making them right next to each other, we like to carpool).  We met as a team for breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe where we filled up on omelets and caffeine while we prepped for the day.  

The team working throughout Ukrainian Village went to multiple places and were able to assess the energy efficiency of a car wash, toy store, and health grocer (the analysts took a brief break at the toy store to check out puzzles for research purposes…).  The team at East Village was able to assess some of the businesses within the area, writing up reports to later let them know their total savings if they switched to energy-efficient options.  The reports are extremely accurate, using actual data from that business to show them the savings available and the ROI.

Usually we debrief at a place we have never been before to check out new places (and brews!), but we couldn’t pass up going to Forbidden Root, one of our customers and one of our favorite brewery spots.  Many of us had never been there before, so taking in the menu was an experience in itself.  From Strawberry Basil beer to Rosé beer, we definitely had a lot of unique options.  Waldo, the bartender taking care of us, did a wonderful job making suggestions for us and making us feel comfortable with the beer list.  We were also lucky enough to run into Patrick, the owner, and see how the new energy-efficient add-ons were doing and how he liked them.  Ensuring customer happiness is one of the most important aspects to us — before, during, and after installation.  

Having our fill of beer, we made our way back to our homes to get ready for next week’s outreach!

From Struggling to Thriving:Effective Management with Harold Rice CEDA

CEDAJamie and Harold sit down in CEDAs office in the top of the 567 W Lake St building in Chicago.  With a backdrop of a ton of natural sunlight and possibly the best office lighting in Chicago, Harold discusses his effective management and turn around experience at CEDA.  At the time that Harold took over the organization, it was clear that one of the largest private, non-profit Community Action Agencies in the country was struggling.  

Harold took on the challenge, and has since turned CEDA to a forward thinking organization with real impact in Chicago.  He believes in empowering and supporting employees, and it shows.

Speaker 1 Welcome back to Episode 11 of the Verde Podcast. Every week we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spot light, but is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago.

Toady we’ve got a fun twist on our normal interview. We’ve got Harold Rice, who is the President and CEO of CEDA, which is a very large, nonprofit here in Chicago that does some good work.

Welcome, Harold.

Harold Rice Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 1 Well, Harold. If you don’t mind, start by giving us a little background about CEDA itself. How it was started and kind of the history of the organization.

Harold Rice CEDA is part of the Community Action Agency Network, nationwide. Community Action was born out of the document that was signed by President Johnson back in 1964, which was his War on Poverty. Our sole purpose is to stamp out or alleviate poverty for families and individuals. In the birth of that, the level of funding or the type of funding was what they called, “CSBG”: Community Service Block Grant Fund, that kind of kicked us off.  

All we do is look at ways to bring people out of their impoverish situation and bring them to a point of self-sufficiency.

Speaker 1 You joined the organization about three and a half years ago. Tell me about what you came into, and how big was the organization, and some of the challenges, and also, where it is today and what’s happened since then.

Harold Rice Well now you’re bringing back some nightmares. CEDA was my challenge, my charge. When I took the assignment, Mr. Phelps, was to shut CEDA down. At that time, we were 206 million dollars in size, private, non-profit. The board wanted me to shut it down or reduce it from a 206 million to an eight or 10 million dollar agency, because of the dept, about 40 million dollars of dept. We had a federal investigation. We had net assets of -3.5 million.

Speaker 1 Wow.

Harold Rice And about over two million dollars of lawsuits. And violations up the wazoo.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice The challenge was insurmountable. They brought in a number of consulting firms. Everyone pretty much said, “Shut it down. Change the name. Make it go away.” That was the push. I’m a little hard headed. I decided to hold on to, what I thought were, the best parts, the core, of what made this organization be what it used to be. It really boils down to people.

At any organization that I take over or run, I do what I call a “one on one getting to know you.” Get to know my staff, their goals, their aspirations, their dreams, and so forth. How do we integrate that, or does it integrate?

If I find a commonality, a common ground, then I have something to work with. If I don’t, then yeah, shut it down. I found that I had a committed group of about 400 people that really believed in the mission. They were beaten down, you know, beaten up a lot, but they really believed in what they did. I figured I’d run with that.

Speaker 1 When you came in there was about 400 employees, or was there more that you had to shed some loose?

Harold Rice We had 800, and when I came in, we were about 400-500. We had to continue … You know, typically, in most organizations, your largest expense is payroll. I think I cut the number of people down to about 200. I kept cutting back in areas that we didn’t have a good handle on and we had to improve.

Speaker 1 Right.

Harold Rice I think we got down to about 200 people.

Speaker 1 How about today? Are you staying around that level or you guys trying to grow?

Harold Rice We’re about back up to 400.

Speaker 1 Oh, wow.

Harold Rice Yes.

Speaker 1 You really found a core group to build around and then you went after it?

Harold Rice Right. Right.

Speaker 1 Cool.

Harold Rice Yeah.

Speaker 1 What’s the annual budget now, compared to … ?

Harold Rice Annual budget now is about 150 million. We lost a 30 million dollar Headstart Program because of violations. We’ve solved all of the violations. We’ve cleared all of that up. It’s just a matter of, now, is this a good time to go back for Headstart? We have a couple of other initiatives that I want to focus on. My officer group and I, just yesterday, talked about, if and when to go back for Headstart.

Speaker 1 Many people, at least kind of in my circle, that may or may not be listening to this, know you through the weatherization work that CEDA does. Do you mind talking a little bit about that, and how big that is of your portfolio, and describe it a little bit?

Harold Rice Sure. Our Weatherization Group, which was the group that had the federal investigation, at that time, when I first came on board, they were about 21 million in size. The largest in the US. We were losing over about a million to a million and a half a year. I came in to bring in the right leadership, of which John Patty, my Director, is one of them. Retained the talent that had institutional knowledge and the desire. The majority of them were trying to jump ship. Again, we had the one on one conversations. They took a chance on my leadership. I didn’t beg them to stay. They wanted to make a difference.

We purposely and planfully went from about 21 million, cut back to about 10 million in size, to really make sure that we knew what we were doing and to fix the areas that were broken. Now, we’re about 17 million now. We’re growing back at a pretty rapid rate.

The Weatherization Group, out of the total budget for this organization, is the third largest department. Our first largest is the, and they’re all considered the Energy Department, which is LIHEAP. A lot of folks know us from LIHEAP. That is about 120 million, in volume. The next largest area would be our WIC, Women, Infant, and Children.

Speaker 1 Okay. LIHEAP is Low Income … ?

Harold Rice Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Speaker 1 Okay.

Harold Rice We will go in, all of this is income based, for low income individuals, seniors that are low income, we will provide utility supplemental payments for them.

Speaker 1 Okay. People when they’re getting hit by their heat bills, and they think, people’s gas or [inaudible 00:07:27] is helping them out, usually it’s funneled through you guys?

Harold Rice Yes. Oh, yes.

Speaker 1 Okay.

Harold Rice It’s kind of an interesting relationship with the utility companies. There’s the federal funds, that come out of Washington. That comes directly to CEDA and then to the individuals.  Then, there’s the supplemental funds, which every time someone pays their utility bill, if you look at your bill, about 47 cents comes out of that to replenish the supplemental fund. About half of that comes to CEDA.

Speaker 1 That’s a line item tax that just goes directly to this program?

Harold Rice Yes. That’s about 20% of our volume.

Speaker 1 Man. I cannot stop thinking about three and half years, you’re in Illinois. We’ve got problem after problem with state funding support, the federal government is shrunk, and you’re still growing. You took on a challenge.

Harold Rice It wasn’t easy. I appreciate that observation. Actually, the first year of my tenure here, I had the 40 million dollars of dept and the net assets of -3.5 million, and two million of lawsuit. Within that first year, 95% of that 40 million was gone. Net assets reversed. We had about an eight million dollar swing. Our net assets, which is kind of where it’s floating around now, a little bit higher, 5.1 million. All of the HR lawsuits, the two million dollars of lawsuits, were settled for a fraction of the cost.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice After that first year, we were being kicked out of where our other location, because we were 1.1 million in arrears. We negotiated a different rate that we could afford. That was done. We had to sign an agreement, a contract, stating that we would be out by a certain date, with the agreement that we had somewhere to land. That’s how we wound up here, built this whole place out. It was a story behind how we got in here, for a fraction of the cost, because we were broke. We did not have any unrestricted, or any reserves, built up over time.

After that first year, I was breathing a sigh of relief. Our new governor doesn’t sign the bill. He vetoes the first bill. I had to lay off all of my employees. I think we were about two weeks away from shutting the doors.

Speaker 1 Wow.

Harold Rice We had about a handful of people, about 10 people, running the organization. Including self, in two weeks, that would be it. I called some friends that I knew worked for the governor, I didn’t know the governor personally, to have a meeting with them. I was, from what I was told, the only person he granted an interview. It was to talk to him about the impact of that decision. These were federal pass through funds, which he couldn’t use to fill the budget gap anyway.

Speaker 1 Right.

Harold Rice To restrict that, was harming a lot of the individuals that were already harmed. You were taking poverty and driving them deeper into poverty. With that conversation, got to know Governor Rauner pretty well. He signed the Bill: SB 2042, which was to continue, or to allow, the flow of federal pass through dollars. The state portion supplemental funds was still tied up to the state budget, and about three months later, through legislative action and support, we got that released. That restored us to full board.

Speaker 1 In my business, which is about eight years old, there’s been a couple times where … It’s never been like a Governor Rauner decision, but there’s decisions that are made higher up in the state, and it just immediately trickles down and effects everyone in my company. It’s humbling to realize, no matter how much you think you’re in control, you’re not.

Harold Rice No.

Speaker 1 I would love to of been a fly on that wall of that conversation you had with him, to hear the realization that something they probably were doing for political reasons, which was probably felt righteous on their part, to see the effects it had on real people.

Harold Rice There’s an old African proverb that espouse today and that is: “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” It was Madigan and Rauner battle.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice Individuals who are voiceless and powerless were getting caught up in that battle. Along with the fact that I had an employee who was, prior to the budget impasse, came to me and said, Mark said, “I have stage four cancer. I’ve been given a year to live, and I just want to let you know.” I was like, wow. I have another employee who is still with me. She has an autoimmune disease, a very serious one, where it attacks her internal organs. Her medication, with insurance, was 700 to 1000 dollars a month. I had to lay both of them off. That just tore me apart.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice Mark lived for an additional year, but even when I had CBS interview him, he made the statement that he’s the only sole income provider for his family. He now has to make a decision, either chemo treatments or feed his family. I’ve made the decision to feed my family. I was happy to get those funds restored for him. I was happy to get the funds restored for my other employee, who went without her medication because she was laid off. That was really a driving force to talk to Governor Rauner. I shared those stories with him.

Speaker 1 One thing I keep thinking about as you describe your … I’ve never been very strong on the financials within my own company. I’m starting to get better. I started learning every day. Every year I learn a new term and how it helps. It sounds like you’ve had years of experience being comfortable with these terms and how you run. Tell me about some of your background, where you were before CEDA.

Harold Rice Prior to CEDA, I had a couple of small businesses. The largest one that really kick started, or really spurred my financial awareness, was owning and operating a number of McDonald’s restaurants. I had the dubious honor of being given stores that were being shut down to do turn arounds. Out of the seven restaurants, six of them were turn around situations.

Speaker 1 Cool.

Harold Rice You better know finances and numbers real quick. I always say, “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.” The answer is somewhere in the weeds. Understanding, not only what the numbers say, but how did you get to that decision. I always say, “Your PNL, your balance sheet, is nothing more than a report card on management decisions.” Once you understand what went into that number, whether it was nice number or a bad number, there was a decision behind it. It forced some other things.

As I shared with Governor Rauner, when I had that meeting with him, he asked a similar question. When I do turnarounds, what do I look at? I said, “I look at three things. Fiscal, operational, and the last, which is the toughest, culture.”

You can get the numbers right, you can get the operational piece right, but if you don’t get people working together, it all falls apart. Starts the dominoes.

McDonald’s in my early years, it was turning around organizations like that, and having to know the numbers part. After that, it was … Let’s see, I left McDonald’s, well, I was Chief Development Officer, but I had another business that I was part owner of. It was a nutraceutical firm, out of Salt Lake City, Utah, called Thorough’s Laboratory. They were in a fairly similar situation. They were a young, start-up business and had bad leadership. I came in and, initially as an investor, once I saw my investment dwindling, the board asked me to come in and help turn it around, which I did, and then got out of it.

Speaker 1 That’s cool. You and I were talking a little bit before the podcast about McDonald’s, who my company now works a lot with, and we’ve got some common friends that we’ve bumped into a few times. Yesterday, in fact, I got a call from one of the franchise owners that we’ve worked with for a couple years. He said, “I bought two stores. Go take a look at them. I want you to do these three things that we did together.” He had kind of a playbook in mind.

It was interesting. I had the thought yesterday that all these employees probably just got a new boss. Right. They don’t fire everyone and then hire all new people. Right. It felt like there was a little bit of transition going on, in the culture. I remember thinking, the communication wasn’t there, things weren’t there. I could see how that … I would of loved to of been a fry guy, I guess, at one of your restaurants, during the turnover. Who drives the culture in a restaurant like that?

Harold Rice I always say, you look at any organization, if it runs like crap, it’s leadership. It is the person at the top. They are the ones, the shot callers.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice You can’t blame it on the employee that doesn’t show up. You can’t blame it on a piece of equipment that doesn’t work real well. It’s the leadership. It gets back to that person who bears the title, President, or CEO, or COO. That’s where it all starts.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice That’s where the buck stops. It’s a tough job, because you have to set a culture. My culture, when I turned over the McDonald’s, it was different from the previous owner. I had a very involved family culture. Some owners were very dictatorial and autocratic. Some were successful with that leadership style. That was not a culture that worked for me. I’m a very engaging individual. Even now, I believe in management by wandering around, getting to know my employees, making sure that they understand. I believe you inspect what you expect. If they don’t know what you want, if it’s left up to them to come up with how the place should run, you’re going to get a hodgepodge. Like Forrest Gump would say, “It’s like a box of chocolates.” Just never know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

Speaker 1 Yeah. That’s one of the things I struggle with personally, a lot, is, you know, I was a firefighter before this. I didn’t get an MBA. I don’t have a lot of management experience. I struggle with letting people know what my expectations are and what I want, because I’m very hands off. I just don’t have the attention span to really describe everything I want and how it should be done. I become a very hands off boss, which is good in some ways.

Harold Rice Yep.

Speaker 1 Whenever I interview employees, I always ask, “What do you look for in a boss?” Everyone says the same thing. “We want someone who lets you have space and doesn’t micromanage.” Which I think, I flirt on the edge of just not paying attention, which isn’t good either. I appreciate where you’re coming from.

Harold Rice I’ll tell you, every employee, whether they say it or not say it, they want direction. They want to know what are they do to.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice If not, they’ll make something up.

Speaker 1 Yeah. It’s tough. It’s a fine line to walk.

Harold Rice Right.

Speaker 1 I find doing these podcasts. I think we were talking about why I do this. Part of it’s just talking to people like you so I can be better. That’s something I’ll take away from this. I appreciate that.

Harold Rice Great.

Speaker 1 We kind of already talked a little bit about the most challenging time. I think we’ve got that covered. What would you say your favorite parts are of being the CEO or President of an organization like this?

Harold Rice I’ll tell you, first and foremost, is watching people grow. It’s taking a dysfunctional organization and the folks that work within it, struggle within it, and then watching them become more than what they thought they could be, and watching them aspire to be more. Sometimes you just, I think it was Steve Jobs that said, “You hire the right people, and you get out of their way.” To watch individuals take charge and find out that they got this. Not only do they have it, they can do more. I get really pumped, because the residual of that is that the organization grows and benefits from it.

That’s probably my biggest charge, outside of making sure that the organization is sustainable to do what the mission says you want to do. You don’t get any of that done without the person doing the job.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice I came out of engineering. I remember years ago when I did R&D work in solar energy. I remember at 3M, we had the press out there. We had everybody looking at this great home, it was a sample home, that we had built. Air condition and heated off of solar energy. The engineers, we were kind of left out of it. Marketing took over. They were ready to kick it off. Lights, camera, then no action. No one could figure out what was going wrong, what happened. Turned out the one guy just didn’t flip the switch. He wasn’t motivated to flip the switch, because he wasn’t a part of the process. His answer was, “They didn’t talk to me. They didn’t tell me …” He wasn’t being malicious about it, but he wasn’t included.

Speaker 1 Yeah.

Harold Rice Again, it gets back to, that one person that has to flip the switch.

Speaker 1 Yeah. I just read this book by a Navy captain of a ship. I’m blanking on his name. It’s about … “Turn The Ship Around”, I think, is the name of the book. It’s about a Navy Submarine Captain who comes in and does a turnaround like you talk about. He’s got one specific example of during some changeover, I think it was of the nuclear weapons, I can’t remember. It was some pretty important change over. One of the guys hit the wrong switch. He talks a lot about employees feeling engaged, how to engage them, and also, to feel empowered, to be conscious in thought about what they’re doing.

It sounds like you got to hit a lot of different check marks on someone to make them engaged, do the right thing, and also participate, fully, in what they’re doing. Be able to set up and say, “Hey guys, I got to hit the switch tomorrow, or we’re not gonna-

Harold Rice Right! Right!

Speaker 1 You know? It’s easier said than done. I’ve been in my own professional career, I’ve definitely been, at times, where I was checked out. You say it enough times, “Hey guys, I got to hit the switch tomorrow.” Enough people tell you to not worry about it, you stop worrying about it.

Harold Rice Yeah. Yeah. It borderlines on micromanaging. I’m not a micro-manager, but I want folks to understand, here’s the plan. It’s an overall plan for the organization, but this is where you fit in. Your part is a very important part, because if you don’t do your part, the plan doesn’t really work that well. I believe in making sure that my maintenance guy, even though he cannot articulate the whole strategic plan, but if you sat down with him, he could tell you, to boredom, what his role is. Day in and day out. That fits in with another piece.

Again, I’m there to … I believe in, you can support negative behavior or you can support positive behavior. The choice is yours as leader. I used, even in my McDonald’s, when I would walk around, I would tell people, “Come into my office.” I’d have to talk to them. Of course, they’re all jittery. They say, “Well, what did I do wrong?”  I say, “What makes you think you did something wrong? I’m here to tell you what you did right.” They walk out of there on fire. Of course, they’re telling other employees. It’s contagious. I believe in catching people in doing something right, to reinforce that positive behavior.

Speaker 1 Cool. Last question I always like to ask people is, you’ve known me, and this is just my personal passion and sustainability. It’s what I’ve been doing, on the side, for 30 years, and what I’m doing professionally for the last 10. How do you make sustainability a priority at CEDA? Not just, ’cause you guys do obviously important weatherization work, and other initiatives I know that you’ve guys got externally. How do you make it a priority within your internal organization?

Harold Rice First of all, again, it gets back to, making sure that everyone understands the plan and how they fit in. I always say the foundation to any organization are the folks, your people. You have to invest in them, in some form or fashion. If you’re not, someone else will, and they leave. They may have that institutional knowledge. The overall goal, like in our particular situation, being the third largest private, non-profit in the United States, we’re here to stamp out poverty. We’re also here to not sit on our laurels. We’re here to come up with creative ways to eliminate poverty and engage people and help people to a point of self-sufficiency.

I mentioned earlier that we’re engaged in solar energy for low income individuals. That includes a lot of things. One, it helps lower the energy costs of wherever they’re living, in an apartment or a home.  We’re using it also as a job creation piece, as well. We want to hire individuals from the neighborhood. First train them, and then hire them, to make sure that they have a livable income.

Sustainability is more than just bringing in the money. That’s part of my job, is to be in Washington, DC and Springfield, and make sure the funds are still flowing. The other part of sustainability is having … In McDonald’s we call it, aces in their places. Making sure we have the right people in the right place. They know what they’re supposed to do. They understand the plan. If we fail, we fail quickly. We celebrate that and move forward.

Sustainability has a lot of different pieces. It’s not always being successful. It’s learning from the failures, as well, to be successful. I was telling my son’s wrestling coach, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.” He looked at me, and I said, “Practice makes progress and consistent progress makes perfect.”

Speaker 1 It’s been a pleasure. I was at your offices, must of been about three years ago, it’s like a transformed space. The light in the space. The feeling about it. Congrats on the first three and half years. Here’s to another 10.

Harold Rice Thank you, man. Likewise to you. Thank you, very much.

Speaker 1 Thanks for catching up. We’ll look forward to again soon, Harold.

Harold Rice Okay. Looking forward to it.

Energy Efficiency Makes Us Hoppy

Beer can be pretty energy intensive. Lifting a 16 ounce glass repeatedly…bicep really feels the burn, amiright…

No but really kids – tons of energy input to create that delicious beverage that we love so much. We got two categories – thermal energy and electrical energy. According to the EPA and the Brewers Association, “Thermal sources average 70% of the energy consumed in the brewery…but only accounts for 30% of the actual energy cost.” (Read more of that here)

Energy Consumption in Breweries

That means the remaining 70% of the cost of producing yummy fizzy goodness can be mitigated. Hooray!

There are some insane opportunities out there to drastically reduce the energy used to power things like the walk-in cooler where they store the silver vessels of golden goodness. Easy peasy with some super cool EC motors with Evaporative controls. Walk-in cooler (and freezer) strip curtains are also available through the energy efficiency programs and can save up to 2974 kilowatts per hour annually. In normal person terms, that’s about 2,974,000 watts or picture 49,567 light bulbs that are in 60w incandescents – which, of course, we can’t condone. (330,444 LED bulbs but that’s just an insane amount bulbs to imagine.)

Other than the chilly place the kegs live, there is a lot more savings to be had in replacing older lighting with new efficient LED lighting, installing occupancy sensors and much much more.

Bringing Energy Efficiency to Andersonville


Our outreach in Andersonville was a new experience for our team since we were able to work with a town that already promotes energy efficiency within its businesses.  We were lucky enough to meet with David Oakes, the Business Service Manager of Andersonville, at The Coffee Studio and discuss what we do and learn more about their efforts for efficiency.  While sipping some delicious coffee, we were able to learn a lot about the values of the town and the active and involved community (by the end of the talk we were already planning to move there.  Anyone looking for some roommates?).  

After learning about the area, we decided to grab some breakfast at m. henry and oh my word this place is a dream.  The area is cozy and spacious, the staff is kind and quick, and the food is not only aesthetically beautiful but purely delicious.  To prove that point simply feast your eyes on what their blackberry blisscakes look like below.  Truly a work of art. 

alt=”blackberry blisscakes”>After our morning coffee and breakfast, we got to work on bringing energy efficiency to Andersonville.  We were able to go into a lot of really unique businesses, such as The Brown ElephantGeorge’s Ice Cream and Sweets, and Cheetah Gym.  We were able to talk to a lot of business owners about how the combination of the ComEd Energy Efficiency Program and the Andersonville grant could help them tremendously with the transition to energy efficient options for their business.  We were so happy that we were able to inform hard working business people of ways for them to save money and invest their money into business growth, not their electricity bill. 

Running a Social Enterprise: Tim Frick of Mightybytes Podcast

mb-about-new-20170920.pngOn Jan 23, 2018, Tim Frick and Jamie Johnson sat down in the offices of Mightybytes to discuss running a social enterprise – a firm focused on more than just generating profit.  Mighybytes is a B-Corp and an Illinois Benefit corporation, while Verde is an L3C entity.

Mightbytes focuses on providing small business IT services, focused on digital marketing, strategy, design, implementation, and optimization of online brands.  Tim discusses the environmental costs of our increased usage of computers and cell phones, as well as the environmental implications of storage of those sites, images, and apps.

Read the full transcript below

Host Welcome back to episode 10 of the Verde Podcast. Every week, we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight, but is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago. Today, we have Tim Frick, who is the owner and CEO of Mightybytes. I’ve been able to follow Tim for a couple years. He’s quite a leader in the Ravenswood community as well as the social enterprise community in Chicago, so welcome, Tim.

Tim Frick Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Host Tim, tell me a little bit about Mightybytes, specifically. We’ll dig a little bit into B Corp thing, but tell me about Mightybytes, what year you started it, what drove you to build your own business.

Tim Frick Sure. We started 20 years ago this month, actually.

Host Wow.

Tim Frick It was a different internet back then and different digital agencies. It was completely different. In fact, we’ve seen several significant shifts over the 20 years that we’ve been in business and the kinds of business that we do, the kind of things clients are looking for and such. I started the business to do meaningful work for meaningful organizations. Since the beginning, we’ve focused a lot on education. Social enterprise wasn’t really a word back then, but we did do a lot of work for non-profits. That has kind of grown and evolved over the years as well. Once we became a B Corp in 2011, we went kind of all-in on that stuff and that’s been a whole interesting evolution of the company.

Host Who were your early clients? Who were your first couple clients and what kind of projects did you work on for them?

Tim Frick Sure. Our first project was actually an interactive game for a toy company called Learning Curve Toys. It was an educational game similar to that game Perfection where you push the plunger down and you have to put all of the pieces in in a certain amount of time. It was kind of like a virtual version of that. We did a lot of motion graphics and kind of interactive media. Back then, it was flashing director and some DVD-ROM authoring and such, but that kind of evolved over the years to content management systems and telling better stories online.

Then we got more complex with software development and we’ve done a number of exhibits for museums around the Chicagoland area. That about kind of sums up. Now, I’d say we work in four different service areas. We do a lot of strategy consulting, so helping our customers kind of align their digital marketing channels. We do a lot of design in UX and a lot of web and software development as well as digital marketing and optimization. The work that we do falls in those four categories and oftentimes, our customers kind of go through that life cycle from one to the next to the next to the next.

Host That’s nice for recurring revenue.

Tim Frick Yeah. I think having that kind of larger, kind of omnichannel bigger picture approach to things really helps our clients how to make sense of all of things that they’re doing in the digital realm.

Host Well, I’m sure spending time and figuring out the strategy first actually helps the process [inaudible 00:03:20] go smoother and much faster and better for you as the contractor as well.

Tim Frick Absolutely, although we do make sure that we focus not too much on trying to flesh everything out up front. Like many agencies, we evolved years ago from waterfall to kind of more Agile-based practices. We do a lot of iterations. We’ll come up with a bunch of hypotheses on what we think will work up front and then we’ll prove or disprove those hypotheses over time using these various kind of disciplines.

Host Before my company evolved to what it is, we had a iPad app and an API that showed energy savings. I didn’t know it at the time and I’m definitely an Agile person. I would never work well on Waterfall, mostly because I’m just not organized enough to be.

Tim Frick Absolutely. It’s so much more of a better way to work. In fact, we’ve kind of taken what originally was more of a software development and then slowly evolved to a project management process. Now we kind of apply that process to everything and consider ourselves … We really focus on organizational agility internally so that we’re okay with making mistakes as long as we’re learning from them and, of course, correcting as we go along.

Host It’s funny. I can hear someone else talking about their business and I can quickly think, “Well, if you apply Agile principles, this would be so easy to solve,” but then in my own company, I never do it. I should and I talk about it and I think about it, but when it comes to application sometimes it’s helpful to have someone from the outside looking in.

Tim Frick Oh, for sure. That level of objectivity is definitely necessary when you’re trying to do this kind of stuff using Agile methods.

Host I assume it was just you, but who started the company?

Tim Frick It was just me. I was a freelancer working out of my back bedroom and got really busy. I was lucky enough to have some really cool clients right from the get go, and over time, built the company based on that. I went to art school. I got a bachelors in writing and film studies and a masters in film studies from Columbia here in town, so Mightybytes has been my business education. I really made lots of mistakes over the years, but have learned from all of them and didn’t have a clue at the beginning, especially about how kind of run a business.

Host Likewise.

Tim Frick I think running a business is a lifelong learning opportunity for pretty much anyone who does it.

Host I went to grad school and studied environmental policy and I some ways am envious of people who have MBAs because they study how to run a business, but I’ve never met someone who said that it truly prepared them for running a business.

Tim Frick Right, right. Exactly. “I figured it out on day one.”

Host Give me, just for people that don’t know Mightybytes, kind of a idea of what you guys are like today, how many employees, and-

Tim Frick We’re seven people plus a handful of contractors and freelancers that we work with based on our workflow expanding and receding. That’s pretty common in the digital agency world. We do a lot of small projects as well as a lot of large projects. We have a bunch of long-term, ongoing retainer clients.

Host How many customers in general in 2017?

Tim Frick That’s a good question. We just closed out the year’s work. I can tell you the numbers. I’m not sure exactly how many customers that we worked with, definitely two dozen at least over the time, but some of ’em, like I said, small, little things that we just help them with. We do hosting and website maintenance for our clients, so a lot of them have just small contracts with us. Some of ’em, we do SEO work over time, so we have a lot of kind of ongoing recurring revenue and then we have a couple, like I said, larger clients.

Host Do you have a rule of thumb where you try to spread out the work, where you make sure one customer doesn’t become too large of a-

Tim Frick Absolutely. Yeah, I made that mistake early on. We were working with a large tech company, one of the Bell companies in the late ’90s when we first opened and they were the majority of our work. Then they were like, “Oh. Well, we’re not going to work with you anymore,” and that was a really tough lesson to learn, and so I’ve really tried to diversify our client based in as much as I can without losing our soul. We want to stay focused on a specific kind of work if possible, so I try to keep it diverse and I also try to diversify the income stream. We do project work, but we also do monthly retainer work and stuff like that definitely helps with the peaks and valleys of cash flow.

Host Which come with any business.

Tim Frick Absolutely. For sure. For sure.

Host You talked about the client focus and who you go after. Tell me a little bit about the benefit corporation and the B Corp, which you are both. Describe that for people who don’t know that as well as how it applies to your business.

Tim Frick Totally. As I mentioned earlier, we have been working with mission-aligned and mission-driven organizations since the beginning. Education has played a huge part of that. A lot of the stuff that we do has an educational component to it. We have always been sustainability focused. I’ve always been an avid environmentalist. We’re down in Ravenswood now, but when we were up in Andersonville, we were members of the Chamber of Commerce there. They had an eco certification that we went through and we got a three out of four stars for our certification. That was kind of the gateway drug for me to becoming a B Corp because it kind of opened my eyes about it’s not just about recycling or changing out light bulbs. There’s a much larger thing there.

I learned about B Corp certification on a climate ride in 2010 and I was fascinated by it. At the time, apps were all the rage and stuff and we had been doing some internal brainstorming on what that might look like for us. We realized all of the ideas that our team were coming up with had some sort of mission focus, some sort of good cause, were driven by altruism and education and stuff. We were thinking, “Well, how do we walk the walk and actually draw a line in the sand to say, ‘This is what we stand for’?” We’re a for-profit company. We want to be for-profit. The more profit we make, the more we’re able to align that profit with better purpose and offer better benefits to our employees and all that kind of stuff, be a better community player, corporate citizen, et cetera.

The L3C, which you mentioned your company is, I looked at it. That was the first thing that we looked at. We were intrigued by the idea of being able to get grants and stuff like that, which as a corporation, you can’t get. Then the B Corp certification came along and when I learned more about it, I was like, “That’s the thing.” We went through the certification process, which can be pretty challenging and arduous, for the first time in 2011. We just finished our fourth re-certification in the fourth quarter of last year, scored highest ever. We finally cracked the 100-point mark, which is no easy feat. Then in January of 2013, the state of Illinois passed benefit corporation legislation, so the B Corp is a certification similar to Good Housekeeping has a certification or Fair Trade has a certification. You go through a process. It’s an audit of your processes and you fill that out and you get a score based on how you perform and then you use that as a benchmarking tool to improve over the years.

The benefit corporation legislation allows you to change the legal structure so that you actually can make sure that align purpose and profit alongside each other in the way that your business runs legally. As a benefit corporation, we are legally required to provide some sort of societal benefit alongside the standard corporate edict of earning and generating profit. We changed that up every year. We kind of evolved those processes and what that means to us as a company and then we produce a report every year that says, “This is the benefit that we provided to society alongside pursuing profit.”

Host How many benefit corporations are there in Illinois?

Tim Frick That’s a good question. Last I checked, which I think was last year, there were over 50. That’s a little bit harder to track. You can go to bcorporation.net and actually track how many certified B Corps there are. They have a search engine and you can actually see. There’s about 2,500 or so B Corps right now around the world, over 50% of which are in other countries, but benefit corporations, you’d have to go to the individual states who passed the legislation and look at the Secretary of State’s listing.

Host I started a company in 2010 and I was very excited about the L3C concept, how it kind of ties in a mission to your revenue. Still, to this day, every dollar of revenue my company generates goes toward reducing energy, so the L3C concept kind of petered off in its ability to kind of excite the marketplace. I think the IRS never really ruled in a way that made it recognized, so it’s good to see that the same kind of theory of mission-focused, but still for-profit, because I totally agree with you. I love nonprofits. I like hearing what they do, but there are some things that I think for-profits can do better.

Tim Frick And there’s opportunities in both sectors for us to learn from each other. I love being in this kind of hybrid fourth sector where we can learn a lot about how to run with more of a conscience from nonprofits, but nonprofits can also learn a lot from for-profit companies about how to run as a better business. It’s a really great opportunity to share a lot of knowledge.

Host What are some of your favorite parts about running Mightybytes? What do you wake up in the morning, first thing that you’re thinking about and ready to go?

Tim Frick Sure. I mean, it’s always a balancing act. It’s a really competitive industry. There are over 560,000 agencies around the world that do some variation of what we do. Some of them could be just specifically on blogging or copywriting or content. Some could be specifically focused on web development, but that’s a lot of companies who do what we do around the country and having been around a long time, we have amassed a lot of experience. It’s tough to compete. Business development is always a challenge, but I also really love the variety of it and the fact that we have taken much of our 20 years and focused it on finding really good clients and I’m very proud of our portfolio. Being able to do ongoing work that really literally changes the world, I’m very proud of that and that’s really exciting.

We’re one of the few agencies that apply sustainability principles to the process of creating digital products and services. When we became a B Corp, each company gets to define what that means for them, and we were like, “Well, as an environmentalist, we’d like to be able to figure out how we can be a better, more environmentally friendly company.” Right around the same time, I was learning about the environmental impact of the internet, which is massive. I mean, it’s more than the airline industry and at the time I was learning about it, it was about a billion tons annually of CO2 emissions. I was kind of floored by this because I was like, “Well, wait. That’s what I create every day for a living, and so how can I reduce our impact?” We went on a long mission to find really good green hosting. Ironically, we were trying to find either other B Corps or a lot of smaller companies to support. We ended up landing on Google Cloud platform because, of the companies that are around, they are super green-focused and really impressive. It’s also a very scalable and expandable solution for our clients.

Then we started kind of doing standard kind of lifecycle assessment efficiency processes on our own process, figuring out, “How can we make sure that what we built is optimized, efficient, and powered by renewable energy?” We’ve been working on that since about 2012. We created a free tool called Ecograder, which is at ecograder.com. People can put their URL in and they can crawl and find out whether or not their site is kind of sustainably focused.

Host Cool. I didn’t know that.

Tim Frick Yeah, so it uses the green hosting, web hosting database and kind of cross=references whether you have green hosting and then identifies a bunch of things in the area of UX and content and findability for performance optimization for efficiency and such. We created that. We created a microsite called sustainablewebdesign.org. I wrote a book called “Designing for Sustainability,” so it’s really become part of the philosophy that guides Mightybytes’ mission.

Host Do you find that that draws in a lot of customers, that focus?

Tim Frick I think not as much. I think people appreciate that we do that. I think there’s a lot of people in business who are still like, “Oh, it’s green. How much extra does it cost?” We get a little bit of a side-eye every now and again. Our clients really appreciate the green hosting thing, but they also really love the efficiency thing. They also are like, “Oh, you mean my site’s going to run faster? It’s going to be friendlier for users? People are going to be able to find things faster? That’s awesome. I’m all about that.” We don’t typically lead with, “You have a green website.” We more lead with, “You have a really optimized, efficient website that is going to be better for your users and better for your company’s bottom line and thus more sustainable for the long haul.

Host Five, six years ago when I … I’ve switched a bunch of URLs over the years and I’d custom built our website and hosted it at A Small Orange because they had-

Tim Frick Yeah, we work with them.

Host To this day, everything is slow, so I don’t know that they’re very good at what they do, but their green focus got me.

Tim Frick What we struggled with was a lot of the smaller green hosting providers, especially since we do work for some larger organizations like YMCA and Allstate and a few other larger companies, it’s hard to go with a smaller provider. A lot of them, while the commitment to renewable energy is certainly admirable, there’s not necessarily a hand-in-hand approach to customer service and reliability, and so we would have websites go down a lot. We would have to be waiting with some of them. Some of the green hosts we worked with, we’d be waiting significant periods of time to try to get answers as to why certain things were happening with their website and our clients would be like, “Absolutely not. No way.”

Host The thing you have to do is keep that side happy.

Tim Frick Exactly, so that was ultimately why we ended up going with Google Cloud platform. As much as I love supporting small businesses and especially other B Corps, we just wanted to make sure that we were covered in terms of reliability and customer service.

Host They’re 100% covered by Google?

Tim Frick Yeah. The company went 100% in 2017.

Host That’s pretty incredible.

Tim Frick For a company that size, I’ll take it. For sure.

Host For sure. Just to stay focused on that, do you have any thoughts about Bitcoin mining and [crosstalk 00:18:21]?

Tim Frick Yeah. I’ve heard a bunch of different things that a single Bitcoin transaction uses as much energy as your house in a week and every time new Bitcoins are released, they use up as much energy as the country of Iceland. There’s a whole bunch of things out there that are bad.

Host Those can’t be factual, right?

Tim Frick I mean, a couple of ’em are from factual resources like Guardian and Fast Company and stuff like that, but we haven’t really cracked that nut in terms of how it impacts our own work yet. I think blockchain in general offers a lot of opportunity for sustainability because of its transparency, but I do think if it is indeed using as much energy as people are purporting that it is, something’s got to be addressed there before it explodes or before it gets much larger.

Host Well, and I’m sure that creating a penny with copper or whatever isn’t exactly environmentally safe either.

Tim Frick Right. For sure.

Host I’m sure it takes careful analysis, but definitely the buzz right now is that it’s a [inaudible 00:19:26] currency, which is crazy.

Tim Frick Which is crazy, yeah. I think overall, the biggest eyeopener for me in the last 8 to 10 years has been that we’ve been brainwashed in the digital age to think that, “Digital is better. Digital is more sustainable. Digital is greener. It replaces paper. Why wouldn’t it be?” All this kind of stuff and so much of the research is showing that in certain cases, it’s actually not better. We really put as much effort as we can as a small company into trying to figure out how to be as sustainable as possible in all of our practices, right down to buying pens for our design labs, markers for our design lab that have soy-based replaceable ink cartridges and stuff like that. We kind of put that philosophy across the business.

Host That’s good to hear. It’s good to hear this reflected from everyone I know who talks about you, they’ve always shared that anecdotally, that you’re pretty-

Tim Frick Those environmental nerds.

Host Well, it’s not greenwashing. You don’t just talk about it. You do it and you live it. I think that’s-

Tim Frick Oh yeah, and it can be tough and a struggle. It can be a lot of extra work depending on what it is that you’re trying to do, but to me, if we have a better system or sustainable feature for our planet, I’m all about that.

Host You said 20 years?

Tim Frick Yup.

Host In 20 years, do you have a particular time that is most challenging in running Mightybytes?

Tim Frick There have been a number of them. Right after 9/11, I had 10 contractors I was working with and basically had to tell them I had no work. About February of 2002, I basically went down to myself, again, back to freelancing. We had some real struggles with the Illinois budget crisis in 2016 because we do a lot of local work and so many of our clients were reliant on that money and the first thing that goes when nonprofit isn’t getting the money it’s used to is marketing projects. We had a real struggle with that and we had to do some kind of significant pivots in how we do things. We don’t typically reply RFPs anymore and there’s a number of things that we did over the course of the last couple years to do a pivot, but also keep our soul. 2017, we were 18 times more profitable than we were in 2015.

Host That’s awesome.

Tim Frick And even though 2015 was our highest grossing revenue ever, 2017 was short of that by one project, and yet we were much more profitable. That’s definitely some changes that we made for the better.

Host I totally agree with you on the RFP process. Whenever I’m bidding against somebody else, I feel like I’m just a cog. Someone wants to replace the lighting and they’re going to do it anyways. I’m just there to facilitate it. I much prefer to be an organization … I’m like you. I’m more drawn to business development and sales as the owner of a company. I like to go out and educate someone who they weren’t thinking about this, but here’s why and here’s why this’ll-

Tim Frick For sure.

Host Sell for a couple years. I totally agree. RFPs just are … You’re always a year late to that [crosstalk 00:22:37].

Tim Frick In so many levels, it’s a race to the bottom. I mean, if the person issuing them is making a choice solely based on price, someone like my company’s never going to be able to compete on price because we’re 20 years old. We have a ton of experience. We’re not the cheapest thing on the market. We’re not the most expensive either because we’re a small company, but we don’t want to compete on price. We don’t want to do the cheapest job out there. Then there’s also, kind of going back to what you were talking about earlier, an RFP necessitates that you do all this [specing 00:23:08] up front and that you do all of this work upfront that ultimately, you end up throwing away when you start doing continuous learning and Agile practices.

You learn as the project goes along and you’re like, “Oh, well that didn’t work.” It’s just this huge waste of time and on top of that money, too. There’s a guy out of Canada who said that Canada alone estimates that they waste $5 billion a year on responding to RFPs. Companies spend that amount of time responding to RFPs and so they waste $5 billion of their gross national product every year just responding to RFPs. That’s a lot.

Host I see the point why some organizations need to have multiple bids and to get a good idea, but personally, I don’t. We hired a marketing firm last year, it’s called TackleBox, to do kind of a brand manifesto for us. Once I met them and it made sense to us, I didn’t need to shop around. We got to a price that worked and we scaled back the project to where it fit for us, but I don’t even know … I mean, I see the point of RFPs-

Tim Frick For sure.

Host But I couldn’t imagine doing it.

Tim Frick I think the biggest challenge there, at least in what I’ve seen, is with nonprofits because so many … they do RFPs because they’re grant-driven and the grant is a finite amount of money, which kind of necessitates a project fee. What happens is that puts this knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the nonprofit to cram as much as they can possibly cram into that project for the amount of money that they have without, possibly, testing it first. They’ll throw a bunch of features at something and then you launch and it’s like, “Oh. Well, guess what? Half of those things don’t work or the users actually don’t want that. They want this other thing,” and yet the agencies may try to coerce them or help them to kind of better understand a better way of doing things, but if you’re contractually obligated by what you responded to in an RFP, which was all the way upfront, it can be potentially lose-lose.

Host I totally agree. The last question I always ask people is about how you … We’ve talked already a lot about this, but making sustainability a priority within your business. We’ve already talked a little bit about this, but I’m curious. You come from Michigan, right? In the UP?

Tim Frick Yup, indeed.

Host What was it growing up in the UP that drove that into you as a priority?

Tim Frick Proximity to nature. I mean, honestly, that is it through and through. I grew up in the woods. I grew up on a lake in a tiny town in upper Michigan. As much as I didn’t appreciate it growing up, once I turned 18 and was ready to go off to college, I was like, “See ya. I’m out of here,” and wanted to be around urban culture and be in cities and all of that kind of stuff, but it didn’t take too long for me to realize, “Oh, I appreciate cities that have proximity or access to nature.” Chicago’s got a really amazing lakefront, obviously, and a really amazing set of forest preserves and stuff, but to be in big nature, you have to drive for a while. You have to get way out to be in a place where you’re in a lot of nature and I really appreciate that.

I just have always had a kind of conservationist mindset about that kind of stuff and as I became more and more educated on the role business has played in environmental issues over the years, I just became more and more passionate about that and more and more passionate about making sure that I’m not part of the problem, that I’m part of the solution. That was one of the things that seemed B Corp certification and having this benchmarking tool for building a better business, I was like, “The light bulb is on.” I was like, “That. That’s the thing that makes sense and that’s what’s going to fix us.”

Host I would say I don’t find it common, but it’s nice when you’re running a business and occasionally you catch that moment of clarity or connection to something else.

Tim Frick Totally. Absolutely.

Host Well, Tim, we’ve never really gotten a chance to talk much. I’ve known you for a long time superficially and through other people, but I was impressed and I’m glad to have connected.

Tim Frick Awesome. Thank you. Thank you very much for the chat and the talk. Appreciate it.

Host All right. Thanks, Tim.

Why Is a ComEd Thermostat Rebate Available in Illinois?

A ComEd Thermostat Rebate exists for one reason in Illinois – programmable and smart thermostats save energy.  Since 2007, Illinois has been offering ComEd energy efficiency rebates and incentives to help encourage folks to make choices in equipment upgrades that save energy.  Since smart thermostats have become popular in 2016 and 2017, we will focus on those thermostats in this article.  However, programmable thermostats do save energy and are eligible for a ComEd smart thermostat rebate – they just don’t save as much as smart thermostats.

How Do Smart Thermostats Save Money?

Smart thermostats basically save energy by acting like highly intelligent programmable thermostats. In addition, they can accept as many programs as you can think of, for any day of the week. Many of the programmable thermostats only allow a 5-2 program, which means you can set a schedule for Monday through Friday, as well as the weekend.

Setting back the temperature at night is a major way to save money, both on heating and cooling.  Not just when on vacation, but even just for the 8 hours that your home or business is basically unoccupied.  In fact, Energy Star states that you can save 10% by setting back the temperature 7 – 10 degrees for 8 hours at a time. With a Smart or Nest thermostat rebate in Illinois, you can get an energy-efficient thermostat at a lower price.

How Much Do Smart Thermostats Cost?

Smart thermostats basically cost $160 to $400, depending on whether you are looking for a basic home unit or an advanced commercial unit.  After ComEd energy efficiency rebates, the cost can be as little as $60 for a home unit (not including installation) or $75 for a commercial unit (including installation).  Installation can typically be done by the homeowner or business owner unless you have complicated rooftop HVAC units.  Don’t be afraid to try yourself (on a mild day), and don’t feel bad if you need to get help – each unit is different and I’ve seen even the best HVAC technician’s get stumped on what appear to be straightforward installations.  As long as it isn’t December and freezing outside, it is worth giving a shot for yourself.

Can I Get a ComEd Smart Thermostat Rebate and a Gas Utility Rebate on the Same Thermostat?

For residential, the answer is no in 2018.  In the past, there were combined Nest rebates in Illinois from People’s Gas, North Shore Gas, and Nicor Gas.  However, since the ComEd incentive is $100, this is really all you need to offset the cost of a smart thermostat if you don’t require professional installation.  Verde offers residential Nest and Smart thermostat installations for $99, but only if you need us.

For commercial customers in 2018, you are eligible for a combined $300 incentive for 0-100kW rated electric customers, as well as a $100 People’s Gas Incentive or $100 North Shore Gas incentive.  While the unit installed must be the ComEd Ecobee EMS Si with zigbee enabled capacity (a top of the line thermostat) – Verde offers this unit with installation and a 3 year warranty for $75 to businesses in People’s Gas and North Shore Gas territories.  For businesses in Nicor territory, Verde offers the ComEd Ecobee EMS Si for $175, as there currently is not a commercial Nicor Gas incentive for smart thermostats.

2019 IL Grant Guide

Can I Receive the ComEd Smart Thermostat Rebates in Illinois if I Currently Have a Programmable Thermostat?

Unfortunately, the answer is no for commercial at this time. However, if your current programmable thermostat is not working properly, please let your Trade Ally know and they can request an exception for your $300 incentive.  For homeowners, you are eligible for the ComEd smart thermostat rebate incentive regardless of your existing thermostat.

Best Smart Thermostat Incentives in 2018

In Illinois, smart thermostats are hot. There are a lot of options to choose from, and there are great incentives from your local utilities due to the Future Energy Jobs Act that was passed in late 2016.

Smart thermostats save energy, and therefore, qualify for both rebates from the gas companies and the electric utility. Your electric utility is ComEd if you are in the Chicagoland region, with just a few exceptions (Winnetka, St. Charles, and a few others).

Best Smart Thermostat for Home

If you are looking for a smart thermostat for your home, you are eligible for a $100 instant discount through ComEd’s Marketplace. Our choice for home is the Nest 3rd Generation.

best residential smart thermostatThe 3rd Generation Nest is the easiest to install for a home owner, and super easy to hook up to your app and computer. This is key, as the easier to use means the best chance of getting the most savings out of the unit. Nest has a great data platform behind it, so it will let you know when you can try to save more energy with a little leaf on the platform. It also tracks your usage and sends you updates via email on how much energy you are using, and how you could do better.

The Nest also connects with a bunch of other products, like your Google Home or Google Home Mini, the Nest Protect system (which also acts as an additional temperature and occupancy sensor), Nest Hello and Nest Cam systems. The smart home is coming, whether you like it or not, and certainly Nest has an edge up on the product offerings that connect well with the Nest.

Best Smart Thermostat for Business

Hands down, the best commercial smart thermostat on the market in 2018 is the Ecobee EMS Si. There are two simple reasons for this – access to stellar rebates from the utilities, as well as functionality.

best commercial smart thermosat

The EMS Si has all of the same benefits of the residential smart thermostats, although not quite as easy to install. It connects well to smartphones and has learning and occupancy benefits, but it also can control the multi-phase heating and cooling that advanced HVAC systems tend to have in commercial applications.

In addition, the EMS Si has a power extender that can come optional, which can solve the common C wire issue. The C wire provides electricity to the thermostat, helping to charge the battery. If the C wire is lacking or not providing enough energy, the power extender can help resolve this (where other smart thermostats lack a solution without running a C wire).

Available ComEd Rebates

For small to mid-sized businesses, you qualify for a $300 incentive to install the EMS Si smart thermostat. You need to have it professionally installed, but that is recommended regardless for commercial application.

For larger businesses, you do not qualify for this incentive, but the energy savings should be greater and justify a larger investment.

Available Gas Rebates

North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas offer an additional $100 incentive, and this typically covers most businesses that are in Chicago. This can be combined with the $300 for the ComEd Rebate program, and we can install these systems for $75 each thermostat after the combined incentives (including labor, material, and recycling).

Nicor Gas does not currently have any incentives for smart thermostats to combine with the ComEd rebate, but keep on the lookout as that is always changing. They do offer a variety of other incentives for commercial properties.

How to Get My Smart Thermostat

If you are a residential homeowner and are on the hunt for a smart thermostat, you can pick one up now at the ComEd Marketplace and pay a reduced price without any hassle. Give the install a shot on your own, and if you need help – give us a call for a $99 installation.

Ecobee EMS Si Is the Best Smart Thermostat for Your Business

There are a lot of Smart Thermostat Options in 2018 for your business, and this post details why the Ecobee EMS SI is the best option in the Chicagoland territory in 2018. It comes down to one function of the EMS-Si – zigbee enabled.

Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act

ecobee ems siIn 2011, the Illinois legislature passed a law that will modernize our grid, called the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act. This law set aside $2.6 billion to install smart meters throughout Illinois, both in residential and commercial applications. After five years, ComEd publicly states that it has avoided 7.6 million outages and generated $1.4 billion in societal savings.

Whether you agree with this or not, smart meters are here to stay.

Polar Vortex and Smart Thermostats?

The Zigbee enabled functionality of the EMS Si allows the utility to take control directly of the thermostat from the smart meter, which has a lot of societal benefits. This means that brownouts can be avoided, as the utility can preserve the integrity of the grid on days that are incredibly hot or cold (remember the polar vortex?).

At this time, the EMS Si is the only smart meter that has zigbee functionality, and therefore, the only smart thermostat that is eligible for the $300 of incentives in the Small Business Energy Savings program. While more expensive than any other smart thermostat on the market, the product has great functionality and after the incredible incentive, can be installed for as little as $75 when combined with the People’s Gas and North Shore Gas $100 rebate (note there is no Nicor incentive for business as of the time of this publication).

EMS Si Functionality

This commercial unit is able to control higher-end commercial units that can control multi-phase heating and cooling. It can also include a power extender, which can solve the common issue of a lack of power availability to a smart thermostat.

It can be used by a desktop or smartphone app, enabling control of the business heating and cooling from wherever the business owner is (think saving gas usage when lying on a beach in Tahiti).

The unit, like other smart thermostats, enables a high 7-day programmability, occupancy sensors, learning behaviors, as well as great warranty and easy operations.

Customer Satisfaction with the EMS Si

We have found a great deal of satisfaction from customers after installation of the Ecobee EMS Si, and continue to install it in 2018 after hundreds of installations in 2017. It can take some support from tech on your first few installations, but after the learning curve is a very easy product to install. There are some applications where the power extender will not work, such as in multiple rooftop RTUs at the same location. However, in general, it is a great product with great customer satisfaction in a very competitive market.

Due to the available $300 Small Business Energy Savings incentives, as well as the $100 People’s Gas and North Shore Gas incentives, the EMS Si is the best option for commercial installations in Illinois in 2018

The Artist Previously Known As Verde Solutions

In 2010, Verde Sustainable Solutions was created to change the way the world thinks about energy efficiency.  What started as a one-person consulting firm, has evolved over the years to a 25 person team that is driven with a singular purpose of reducing energy usage in Chicagoland.  

In 2017, we underwent a rebranding exercise with Tacklebox Brand Partners.  We have rebranded ourselves to Verde Energy Efficiency Experts, as that is a better descriptor of who we are today.  The product of that work is The Verde Manifesto, and you can read about that transparent process and see the entire work output of Tacklebox.

We have often been called Verde Solutions – which is not a bad name.  However, I have often felt that resembles another strong presence in Chicago – Motorola Solutions.  To me, the term solution is still very relevant for how to approach problems, but it is not a good name for a company.  Or otherwise, the name is outdated.

verde solutions app.jpg” alt=”verde solutions.png”

Solutions can also be relevant for many ways of addressing issues – and is way too broad for what we do.  We are a singularly focused company – we only reduce energy through energy efficiency.

The Verde Solutions Early Days

iPad App – Verde

was the Verde iPad app, which is no longer available in the iTunes store.  Our team does still use the technology internally, but it became difficult to maintain as energy efficiency products change so rapidly.  We also found it difficult to monetize if success when it was free to download.  One of my most proud days was when we ranked ahead of local Groupon in the number of downloads in April 2011 – they had a $5 billion dollar venture ba

Verde R&D – API

We had taken the data behind the iPad app and built out an API to share. The API was basically a way to share energy savings information with other websites, and the hope was that the data would help energy-efficient products have an edge over others if their savings were higher.  

One of the key components of both the iPad app and API was the ability to find your location and find your energy rate, so your calculations could be accurate.  After all, energy rates are highly variable in the United States, from the low rates of the Midwest to the incredibly high rates in Hawaii, California, and Connecticut.  In fact, in January 2018, Illinois rates are $.10 per kWh for commercial customers, whereas Hawaii businesses pay $.30 per kWh – almost 3 times as much according to the EIA.

I had to learn a bit of MySQL coding to get this data into the system, which was fun.  While this data is still so interesting, our business model is really focused on just the local Chicagoland area, which does not have as much fluctuation in energy rates.  

Verde Stopwatch

We took the data a bit further, to demonstrate the instantaneous usage in a visual form that could communicate energy usage of particular products. This app showed a spinning wheel, which was super interesting and fun to code at that time.  We built this app in a “hackathon” over the weekend with a graphic designer, backend developer, and myself.  With little sleep, we had a great time and put a product out that didn’t make a lot of money, but hopefully added value to the world. 

Future Offerings

Perhaps Verde Solutions could be a more fitting term in the future if we begin offering solar panels for our commercial customers as planned in 2019.  When that becomes a reality, we could perhaps spin off another arm called Verde Solar PV Experts.  However, in 2018, we are only laser-focused on energy efficiency and will, therefore, be known as Verde Energy Efficiency Experts. &nbsp

We have also been getting a lot of requests to bring our user-friendly iPad app back to the iTunes store.  Keep an eye out for that in 2019 as well!  Or call us and ask to be on our list for more information.

What is a Verde Certified Company?

If you are visiting businesses in Chicago, you might see more and more converting their lighting to LED, installing smart thermostats like Ecobee and Nest, upgrading their HVAC equipment to the most energy efficient units on the market, or just plain doing great things.

Often, those businesses are a Verde Company.  This means, not only do they care about the environment and make sustainable choices, but that they make smart business decisions.  They do things for the long term, and they are likely to be a business that you can attend for years to come.

Verde Energy Efficiency Window Cling

Verde Company Chicago.png You may see this window cling on their front door – designating a Verde Certified Company.

Verde Company Rebrand

In case you notice a slight change in our name – we used to be referred to as Verde Sustainable Solutions. However, during a recent branding exercise in The Verde Manifesto, we have found that Verde Energy Efficiency Experts is a better description of how we help customers reduce energy exclusively.  Sure we provide our customers with cool reusable bags, reusable waters bottles, as well as LED flashlights – but those are just part of our swag. We are singularly focused on not just recommended changes, but making them for our Chicagoland partners.

Care About a Local Company

Connect them with Verde Energy Efficiency Experts and we will make sure they are spending less money on energy, so they can spend more on their great service or product. Companies that spend less on energy are more likely to be around in the future.

Verde Green Energy iPad App

In 2011, Verde Energy Efficiency Experts produced our first big product – an iPad app that was focused on energy savings information.

While we currently don’t just share recommendations, we make them – it is great to look back to see the solid platform that our data comes from. With over 8 years of experience in calculating energy efficiency savings, we have more experience on the data side than any competitor in the space.

Verde Energy Efficiency iPad App

We initially charged $4.99 for the iPad app and found some small downloads from industry professionals. After a brief promotion to make the iPad app free just prior to Earth Day, we had hundreds of thousands of downloads and some positive reviews from major industry experts, including CNET, TreeHugger, and LifeHacker.

In the end, our iPad app stayed free and we found it difficult to monetize this type of app. If you would like more information about how to access the information and data in the iPad app, please shoot us a note.

alt=”Verde Green Energy Download”>The iPad app starts with a clean download to your iPad, enabling you to walk through your business or home and enter all of the energy-using lights, appliances, heating and cooling equipment, etc.

Verde Energy Rates

Our app is founded on solid data, including the energy rates in your zip code. This data was sourced from the EIA, and while not exact, is important in determining accurate savings. After all, Hawaii businesses pay 3 times the electricity than Chicago, and New York and California pay twice as much. This is essential to determine a Return on Investment (ROI).

Verde Green Energy Rate

Energy Usage

The app then allows data entry of different products in your building, including internal and outside lighting, HVAC, computers, and TVs through Smart Power Strips, and appliances. There is even a section for understanding electric vehicle charging costs, to help influence that decision based on your zip code and energy rate.

Verde Green Energy Data Entry

Verde Final Energy Report and Recommendations

The Verde Green Energy app makes recommendations on where you can save the most energy, helping you make important decisions and really focus on the lowest hanging fruit. For example, why spend $40,000 on an electric vehicle when you still have outdated lighting in your businesses parking lot?

Vede Green Energy Final Report

If you are interested in more information about this free tool to make your business more energy efficient, please reach out to us!  Give us a call at (773) 413-9587 and ask how you can get connected with the Verde Chicago team.

Hear about our journey from Verde Sustainable Solutions to rebrand to Verde Energy Efficiency experts in The Verde Manifesto.

5 Reasons Why an Advisory Board Helped Verde Chicago

In 2010, Verde Chicago was launched to help change the way the world thinks about energy efficiency. We have had a ton of support along the way, including 1871 Chicago, Foundersensei, grants from the University of Illinois at Chicago via the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, mentorship from the Impact Engine staff,as well as countless other opportunities that kept us going.

In 2016, we formed an advisory board at Verde. Out of all of the moves we have made, this might have been the most important and helpful for our growth and trajectory. Here are the 5 reasons why.

Verde Chicago.png

1. tability

I had been running the company for 5 years without an advisory board or any investment, so why make the change? The advisory board brought some consistency to my strategy and planning. It forced some accountability, so if we left a meeting with a plan to hire two more energy efficiency analysts, I better have a good reason why there has not been any progress at the next quarterly board meeting.

Board meetings take a lot of planning and preparation, both things I do not like doing. However, this planning and prep were all around the long-term strategy and growth of the company. Where better to spend my time than on that subject?

2. Long-Term Planning

Advisory board members are not interested in an issue with inventory for one upcoming project. They are concerned with all inventory for the future. Advisory board members are not interested in a crisis related to a customer service issue. They are concerned with a plan for dealing with all customer service issues and the brand around a company. Small business and startup owners can find themselves easily focused on putting out fires, responding from one crisis to the next. An advisory board forces you to put that aside for at least a short time period, so you can look at look term planning.

3. Support

Running a business is a lonely job. You can’t necessarily complain to employees about how hard it can be, as no one wants to listen to their bosses complaints. While there are groups dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, one of the benefits of an advisory board is the intrinsic support it provides. I highly recommend that you add at least one retired entrepreneur to the board, as they have the time and perspective to provide emotional support. They also often are looking for a challenge and way to continue contributing to the ecosystem, and our current retired entrepreneur on our board is Buddy Green from Deerborn Cable and Wire.

4 Connections

Board members can often open up doors that might not otherwise be available to your team. A quick phone call or note from a board member can resolve an issue, open a sales opportunity, or even help gain information crucial to the growth of the business.

We recently were able to develop a relationship with Tacklebox Brand Partners through the network of one of our board member, which created the Verde Manifesto. Without an engaged board member, in Lorraine Herr, we never would have invested in this opportunity.

5. Hard Decision Making

Board members are incredibly good as a team at cutting into an issue. They are looking long-term in almost everything they consider, so it makes it easier for them to use that perspective to analyze a decision. It also helps them to advise a decision, even when it is very difficult.

All entrepreneurs carry a weight, often which they may not share with anyone else. It took me about 3 board meetings for me to feel confident and comfortable to open up to several of our most challenging issues at Verde Chicago. The answers seemed clear and the board was consistent with their support and advice. Afterward I felt like a weight was lifted and the decision was easy to make.

Verde Energy at Work

There are three major principles I find important in growing a team at a startup, including hiring great people, empowering individuals, and making sure the team feels that the workplace is fair. While not perfectly executed by any stretch, here is a bit more about how and why we try to implement this at Verde Energy Efficiency Experts in Chicago.

A lot of this self-reflection was brought about in our recent brand exercise with Tacklebox, which we made public with The Verde Manifesto.

Hiring Great People

Tim Smith (Verde’s CFO) told me the story of David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather. Tim was the Finance Director at Ogivly & Mather, and always talks about the high caliber of people at the company. Here is the quote he shared from David:

“When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him a Matrioshka doll from Gorky. If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Giants at the Workplace of Verde EnergyI have always tried to hire people better than me. I have my strengths, but I try to look for folks that are smarter, more organized, better at communicating or anything that really strikes me. I look for giants, and if you know us at Verde – you know we have quite a few.

People are always impressed and ask me how we find such great people. I think business owners are sometimes threatened by others with great qualities, and find an excuse to not hire those individuals. In fact, one of my friends has a fast-growing firm with over 50 employees. I once asked him who the smartest person at the company and he said, “I am”. While it might be true, my guess is that he isn’t out looking for giants.

I can certainly tell you there are a lot of folks smarter than me at Verde. And yes, most of them are better looking than me too

Empowering Individuals

I recently read the book, “Turn This Ship Around” by David Marquet. It talks a lot about intent based leadership, which is encouraging teams to be empowered by sharing intent, instead of asking for permission. This really resonated with me, as I have never been able to pay attention enough to those around me to micromanage their actions.

Intent-based leadership means that those that you work with will say things like, “I intend to start an initiative for composting in our office”, instead of “Is it OK if we start composting at the office?” This subtle difference creates an empowered situation for the employee, but also still keeps the management aware of the plans before they happen. I am at my worst when I find out about something after it is complete, and am unhappy about it.

This is a huge change to the norm, so it takes work and consistent application of the terminology. We all still fall into our old language at Verde, so we are constantly reminding each other how to practice this correctly. However, it is a huge step in the direction fo building a company of giants, as it will unleash their full potential.

Fair Workplace

Making a workplace that is fair is super important. One of our great team members sent me this link this week, and it really struck a chord with her on why fairness is so important at the workplace.

I have definitely worked at places in the past that I did not feel were fair. I remember feeling like my initiatives and ideas were shot down, just because they came from me. I ended up withdrawing and feeling less active in the workplace – giving less of myself toward the organization.

Out of all of these topics, this is probably the one that is the most challenging to execute 100% correctly. However, that makes it all the more reason to put effort into this to make sure the organization is visibly trying to create a sense of fairness for all employees.

Bringing Energy Efficiency to Lincoln Park

Last Thursday, on one of the more beautiful days weather-wise in Chicago, our team of experts met in Lincoln Park, for week six of outreach.  We all met at the Bourgeois Pig Cafe in order to fuel-up before hitting the road.  The cafe has a very comfortable, homey vibe that is not only a caffeine-addicts dream, but has food options as well!  It’s basically a one-stop-shop for all your working needs in Lincoln Park.  

Splitting into two groups, the outreach groups went business-to-business to let spread the word on energy efficiency.  We were able to cover a lot of ground in the time we had, talking with business owners of a thrift store, body shop, and even a few apartment building owners (don’t forget, apartment buildings qualify for ComEd incentive money as well!). 

After a successful day in the beautiful Lincoln Park area, we ended our day at HopCat for some beer and their famous crack fries.  Full and content, we dispersed back home, re-charging for next weeks outreach adventure!

Did you know we made an energy efficiency checklist for businesses in Cook County that is filled with ways to save money on your energy bill?

Bringing Energy Efficiency to West Ridge

Our fifth outreach took place down Devon Ave in West Ridge, the heart of Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani communities.  We loved taking in the rich culture and bright colors everywhere as we tried to raise awareness to business owners about energy efficiency.

Devon Avenue is home to a few of our already customers, including Raj Jewels and Punjab Sweets.  We are also happy to announce that Devon Avenue was our best outreach day yet!  We were able to talk to a lot of business owners who were very receptive to how energy efficiency could help their business, both aesthetically and financially.  

To end our day we ate at  Udupi Palace, one of our customers.  We absolutely love showing love to our customers, after all, they are basically family!  The food was unbelievable, with us all trying different things on the menu.  From curry to vegetable uttappam, we definitely did not leave hungry.  If you’re looking for a welcoming, friendly environment with great priced and tasting food, we highly recommend checking out Udupi Palace!

Bellies full, we left Devon Avenue and headed home.  We will be back, however, to check in on the great businesses of West Ridge and to keep helping the businesses of Chicagoland save money $$.

Know a neighborhood or business in Cook County (or even your own business!) that could use our expert help? 

< class="hs-cta-wrapper" id="hs-cta-wrapper-681a33a0-4e9b-4486-8f77-87d1746f7f40">< class="hs-cta-node hs-cta-681a33a0-4e9b-4486-8f77-87d1746f7f40" id="hs-cta-681a33a0-4e9b-4486-8f77-87d1746f7f40" style="visibility: visible;" data-hs-drop="true">

Hit Us Up!

The Instant Discount program also has a selected group of distributors that can offer their rebates and is not available to all companies.  Verde is fortunate to be a distributor in the Instant Discount Program.

The Standard Program is open to all Trade allies that meet a minimum level of training in the energy efficiency program.  

The Multi-Family Energy Savings program also has a closed network of trade allies, which are carefully screened for those that can work in common areas of multi-family buildings.  Verde enjoyed participating in this pilot program in 2017, and have great hopes for the savings that can be found in 24-hour common areas. This program provides rebates in conjunction with People’s Gas and North Shore Gas Rebates and requires access to in unit improvement in lighting and reduced water usage.  

The best part of the way this utility program operates is that if you don’t find a good fit with one particular trade ally, you can always reach out to more.  There are lists throughout the program web information, or you can call and ask for a referral from ComEd at 1-855-433-2700.

Energy Efficiency Jobs in Illinois

In 2016, our legislature did the impossible in Illinois – they passed a meaningful law.To show how remarkable this is, at that time, Governor Rauner and the legislature had been in a budget stalemate for two years.This law passing required a compromise between a huge utility monopoly, a democratically controlled legislature, and a republic governor.

This law, commonly referred to as the Future Energy Jobs Act, provides the architecture for the ComEd Energy Efficiency Program in Illinois.It was a strengthening of an existing energy efficiency law in Illinois, which was passed in 2007. The FEJA act not only improved the state of energy efficiency in our state, but it also went further to include renewable energy (solar PV production).

How did this law pass at such a time of indignation and fighting in our state?There were two key words – jobs and nuclear.


There was a huge coalition the pushed for training and job promotion around the already successful energy efficiency program in Illinois.In fact, my company had grown from just myself in 2010 to almost 25 energy efficiency jobs today, and we are 100% built out of this ecosystem from this law.Clean Energy Trust reports over 100,000 Clean Energy Jobs in Illinois in 2018. In a state that had struggled to recover from the Great Recession, this was an important topic of conversation among both parties.Ultimately, this is what I think drove Governor Rauner to support this bill.

Nuclear Power

Illinois has long produced a higher percentage of their power from nuclear energy than a majority of states, with almost 60% of electricity coming from Nuclear power plants in Illinois.While this source of electricity creates no carbon, there is some large debate about the environmental impact of nuclear power.

Exelon is the parent company of ComEd, our local utility monopoly in northern Illinois.Exelon has long had an aggressive nuclear portfolio and recently has had financial constraints after the US has failed to address a carbon tax or cap and trade legislation as expected.Exelon had been seeking financial support from the state to keep two nuclear power plants open, and this law was the opportunity to negotiate those terms.

There were also the normal and expected players at the table that helped negotiate this law, including environmentalists (Environmental Law and Policy Center, Elevate Energy), Democratic and Republican Politicians, as well as black and latino representative groups.

The law increased the already $240,000,000 of annual spending by ComEd in 2017 to $1.4 billion over 3 years from 2018 to 2020.On top of that, there is a minimum of $180,000,000 of spending for renewable energy – strengthening and hopefully fixing our existing renewable power standards.

With any compromise – it isn’t perfect.However, I was personally surprised when this law passed and I feel that nuclear power is an important part of curbing climate change.If electric vehicles continue to penetrate the marketplace, we will need consistent nighttime energy production to charge those batteries, and maximizing existing power plants that do not release carbon is a great plan.In addition, the technology to offset usage to lower cost and lower usage times of day will continue to develop and nuclear power helps support those.

Did you know that Illinois has real-time pricing for residential electricity?Check out more information and sign up at ComEd Real Time Pricing.I’ve used it for about 2 years and have saved around 10% compared to normal pricing by doing simple changes like running the dishwasher and washing machine at night, as well as setting back the AC during surge pricing.

Business Energy Efficiency – Large Facilities

Commercial energy efficiency improvements are a core pillar of the ComEd Energy Efficiency Program in Illinois.  All businesses and public sector programs are available to participate in the Standard Program for energy efficiency program.  

While businesses that are rated 0-100 kW are eligible for their own programs for small business and small facilities public sector, they are also able to participate in the standard program for business energy efficiency if they prefer.  

The Standard program is very versatile and does not require the usage of an ICC Certified Trade Ally to install the product. However, it might be helpful to purchase your products through an Instant Discount distributor such as Verde Energy Efficiency Experts to make sure the products you are installing are Design Light Consortium approved, as are often required for the incentives.   

This program’s incentives, while lower than those targeting smaller facilities, are targeted toward larger facilities that often have a dedicated person to maintain supervision and staff on hand to replace lighting fixtures and advanced controls.  

2018 Highlights of the Program include:


  • $.40 per watt reduced incentives for LED lighting, including Type C Tube and Driver installation
  • $ .18 per watt controlled daylighting plus occupancy controlled sensors
  • Made in Illinois bonus of 10% on any fixture that is at least 50% manufactured and/or assembled in Illinois
  • Opportunities for higher incentives for advanced lighting controls scenarios


  • $4 incentive per square foot walk-in cooler and freezer strip curtains
  • $60 incentive per EC Motor installed in walk-in cooler and freezers
  • $90 incentive per EC Motor installed with evaporative fan speed controls for walk-in cooler and freezers
  • $100 incentive per beverage machine controls


  • $50 per ton of new rooftop HVAC unit installed
  • $50 per ton controlled of economizer installed
  • $10 per bathroom exhaust fan sensor installed
  • $40-$75 per HP controlled Variable Speed Fan

Compressed Air

  • $20 incentive per high-efficiency air nozzle
  • $100 incentive per no loss condensate drain
  • $75 per HP – Integrated VSD on a new air compressor

Want to know your specific eligibility and where you can save energy?  Hit us up and schedule a free energy efficiency walkthrough, which will share a customized report with all of your eligible ComEd rebates.

Energy Efficient Homes

We often get asked about how the Comed Energy Efficiency Program helps homeowners and create a more energy efficient home.  While our company focuses on commercial, we like to point folks in the right direction. A kWh saved is a kWh saved after all!

There are several great programs for residential customers, and here are some highlights (and now to participate).

Smart Thermostats

Illinois has some ambitious goals of installing smart thermostats, as they both save electricity and gas, and will also complement our commitment to smart meters.  You can purchase a smart thermostat, like a Nest or Ecobee, on their online marketplace and receive an instant discount with very little hassle or paperwork. Installing this is fairly straightforward, and can often be done without the help of a trade ally.  

Smart thermostats receive a rebate of $100 and not only help you maximize your scheduling for better performance, but it can also connect to your smartphone and have internal occupancy sensors to push even further savings when you are not at home.

LED Lighting

There are two great ways to take advantage of LED lighting purchases in Illinois for homeowners and renters – either online at their Energy Efficiency Marketplace or at a local retailer (like Ace Hardware or Home Depot).  Both of these options offer instant discounts and are designed for easy usage and little friction.

Energy Efficient Appliances

ComEd offers rebates on residential appliance purchases of the following amounts

  • Air purifier – $50
  • Clothes waster – $50
  • Dehumidifier – $25
  • Freezer – $25
  • Electric Clothes Dryer – $25
  • Refrigerator – $50
  • Room Air Conditioner – $25
  • Ventilation fan – $25
  • Water Dispenser  – $25

Refrigerator and Freezer Recycling

ComEd will come and pick up your extra refrigerator or freezer and pay you $50 to boot.  This has been one of the most popular programs in the energy efficiency program to date and is designed to keep folks from keeping an old refrigerator empty and plugged in just because it is hard to dispose of.  


You also have the option to have someone come out and do an assessment of your home, based off of the popularity of the assessments done by Trade Allies in the Small Business and Standard programs.  

Weatherization and HVAC

You can also now receive up to $600 for an upgrade to your residential AC system, as well as $300 for attic insulation and $400 for wall insulation.  There is also money available for both duct and air sealing, which are important to reduce air leakage in older homes.

Solar Power

After you have maximized your options at reducing, its time to consider renewable power.  You can purchase up to 100% green electricity from your power provider, or you can install your own rooftop solar PV system.  While Verde does not currently offer this to our commercial customers, we hope to in 2018.  Feel free to drop us a line and ask questions for your home solar array, as our analysts deeply care about sustainable solutions for our community.  

Bringing Energy Efficiency to Avondale | Irving Park

Last week the team dispersed all throughout the Avondale in Cook County (home to Polish Village) and Irving Park area to spread the news about energy efficiency.  We were able to stop into a lot of great businesses, including Paws and Feathers and Clearly Cares DentalChief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant was on our radar, but that 4 PM open time made it so we just missed them (next time, though!).

We also passed by two of our customers, J & C Auto Body Inc style=”background-color: transparent; letter-spacing: 0.02em;”> and Taqueria Traspasada.  We love being in communities where we have current customers to go say hi to and check in on!

Feeling hungry, we stopped into another customer of ours, Alps Pancake House, to refuel and get back on the road.  To say their food is absolutely delicious and filling would be an understatement, definitely worth a checkout for yourself.  Warning: You will become addicted to their food.

We ended our outreach at Revolution Brewing to debrief about our day and to drink some great beer (Anti-Hero will forever be a favorite, yum).  Going over our day as a whole, we were able to come together as a group and refine how to be more impactful in our outreach efforts in order to help businesses make the transition to energy efficiency.  We’re hoping for a full energy-efficient neighborhood in the near future with the help of our savvy expert team!

Agilux: The Environmental Impact of International Shipping

(Photo Credit: Agilux)

Kevin Cody and Jamie Johnson discuss Agilux – a flexible and adaptable module LED platform with a ton of opportunities.  Kevin and Jamie discuss international manufacturing, quality of products, as well as environmental impact of international shipping.  

Read the full transcript below of episode 7 of the Chicagoland Small Business Stories Podcast:

Jamie: Welcome back to episode 7 of the Verde podcast. Every week we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand their real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight, but is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago. Today we have Kevin Cody who is the founder of Agilux. I’ve known Kevin for many, many years. We’ve intersected in a couple of different ways and it’s been fun to watch how his product has grown because I’ve always been impressed.

Welcome, Kevin.

Kevin Cody: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Jamie: Glad to connect.

Kevin Cody: I appreciate we could get together again.

Jamie: Yes, it’s always a good time to catch up with someone who knows the pitfalls and glories of running a business, right?

Kevin Cody: It’s always fun.

Jamie: Tell me a little bit about Agilux and what you guys do as a business today and why and how you started the business.

Kevin Cody: Sure. In 2014, I happened to be at trade show for lighting and some other products, and for several years prior to that we had been selling and represent manufacturers of different products. We just had a real heart for the design process, for helping manufacturers bring their product to market. I have a background in retail as well as in manufacturing, and so I enjoy just seeing the whole development process in bringing a product to market.

We were representing manufacturers products and bringing them to market, and realizing that the manufacturers were really benefiting from our experience, and we decided that it was just time for us to go out and develop our own, and really get into the product development process and then own it all the way from start to finish.

Happened to be at a trade show and stumbled upon a product that I thought I would really enjoy potentially developing some derivatives of. Began a conversation with the product development manager who happened to be there in the booth and we ended up talking in the booth for about an hour about all the different options that they offered as a company, the variety of products that they did. I knew them from a previous industry and always had great respect for them, but the product that they were introducing to me seemed to be a little bit too commercial or a little bit too utility oriented, and it wasn’t a direction that we saw ourselves going.

I said this probably … He actually asked us if we’d be interested in selling the product for him, and I said, “You know, this really isn’t something that we think we would do very well for you at. There are other people who play in this sandbox that would probably do much better, but it’s an interesting product and I think that there’s a residential or a DIY version of this product that could at some point happen that’d be really interesting to have. If that opportunity presents itself, we’d love to talk to you further about it.”

At that, he invited me back to the company and invited me into their product development lab. It’s a major electronics company based here in Chicagoland area, and at the time I thought, wow, this is a neat opportunity because I’ll really get to see what a huge company does in the lab.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: They said, “We have this product that we think has merit but we really don’t have a direction for it. We want to be in the LED space, LED lighting space because we know that’s important for all the peripheral products that we make and want to be involved in this, but it’s basically, it’s just a lab, so we’re not sure exactly which direction we’re going to take this but it’s a unique solution.”

We looked at it for probably four or five months and began to develop, just because of experience, some market concepts and possibilities. Began to talk to people about it, looked at all the options that we could potentially use in the product. We regenerated the discussion probably four or five months later and came to the conclusion that there were real opportunities for it and want to pursue it.

Jamie: Fast forward to today. Describe the product that came from that initial meeting and what you guys sell today.

Kevin Cody: Yeah, sure. The brand is Agilux, and it is an LED module, and there’s a lot of different forms that LEDs take today but this is something that can be magnetically attached to a power source and then distributed in a variety of ways. It can be moved around. It’s a super-low profile. It is totally different than anything else that’s on the marketplace today, and it is something that’s very flexible to work with from a product development standpoint.

Jamie: We’re looking at a few of your … You’ve got a couple of different in this conference room that we’re chatting in.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: It’s funny that I’ve seen it since the beginning and how it’s kind of evolved, and it’s beautiful, and something we obviously … You know us and people listening may not.

Kevin Cody: Sure.

Jamie: My company actually installs LED lighting for commercial customers, and I obsess over the size of LEDs, I do. From a logistical standpoint of how you get it from the first port of manufacturing to keep the environmental impact of shipping low, warehouse space low. You can actually deliver a lot more products to an individual customer when it’s … Your product hits all of those better than actually any of the product we buy right now.

It is a beautifully designed low-profile product and I know … Tell us a little bit about, I’ve heard some anecdotes that through beauty supply stores are really taking off and some of the larger I guess retailers you would say would have those kind of booth set-ups are really taking off.

Kevin Cody: Yeah, sure. We intentionally began to develop the product towards some non-mainstream lighting markets, channels, because we felt like we wanted to build a strong base of potential customers, do field tests and things like that before we introduced it to the mainstream market because the profile of the product is such that it really is unique to handle, and for an end consumer that walks into a DIY store today, they pick up a light bulb and screw it into their socket. This is something that’s totally different.

It’s very safe. It works identically in terms of the connectivity of the product but it is not something that anybody would just intuitively use in their home. We wanted to develop applications for it where people would get accustomed to it, that contractors would be able to install it, use it and be comfortable with it, that we could use those experiences for developing the DIY market in the future.

Two that we just kind of, three actually, that we picked to start with were the exhibit industry. The exhibit building industry typically uses a lot of unique applications.

Jamie: I bet.

Kevin Cody: They also need really low profile product and my history prior to starting the company was in manufacturing, selling and actually purchasing as a buyer at a major retailer, track lighting, and so I had a sense of where this could be used in those applications where track lighting was being used today and it was similar. It was natural for me to be able to go toward that market.

Exhibit industry is actually very large, and it is something that could build a nice base of business, so we started there.

Jamie: You know, what’s funny, what strikes me about your experience, and I’ve known you for a long time, is that when I was through my early start-up days, a lot of the teaching is around build a mobile product, it’s mostly software. Build something that’s very minimal, interview a lot of customers an adapt it, and I used a lot of that in interviewing and building our business model. I was very open. I didn’t have a lot of plans and it worked in a lot of ways. It’s challenging and you have one benefit I found is that I always wanted to stay in one space, so it never pulled me out of sustainability because that was what I was focused on.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: You’re one of the rare ones that I’ve met where you almost saw a vision, and it sounds like it’s from your experience being a buyer for so long, that you saw a vision for the low profile. We were talking a little bit earlier before we started the podcast about how the 24-volt, it’s kind of come around to be popular in the last six months, and you saw it years ago. I just wanted to notice that. You’re different than a lot of the entrepreneurs I interview and you’re singularly focused and the market’s coming to catch up to you, which is cool.

Kevin Cody: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to have a partner in the electronic side-

Jamie: Sure.

Kevin Cody: … that knows the same stuff, and had a lot of forward vision built into the product to get us to this point.

Jamie: You’ve got some patience too.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: You’ve not … I often think that a lot of my friends who have started a business and kind of moved on, sometimes I just think if they gave it another couple of years. Not everyone has that luxury in their life to do that though, and that’s not also the same story that if someone’s listening now and they just have an idea and run with it for 20 years, it doesn’t mean it will work.

Kevin Cody: No.

Jamie: Because there’s a lot of things that go on, but patience is definitely a big part of it.

Kevin Cody: Perseverance and a vision, and I think the vision is really what has kept us focused on continuing with this, because there’s been several times along the way that we said, “Is this really worth developing and spending and investing our saved income on?” Yeah, absolutely.

Jamie: If you don’t mind, expand a little bit on that. What was the most challenging time in the four or five years you’ve been with Agilux for you personally? What do you find to have been the point where you were like, “I’m not sure this is worth keeping at.” Tell me a little bit about that.

Kevin Cody: Well, there’s several pieces to the puzzle, and recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and surrounding yourself with people who are going to be able to support those, both sides, is really critical. Recognizing where the product has real opportunity and where it doesn’t, and then balancing cash flow with the requirements of product development.

We have a business already generating the cash that we need, so do we take money out of that business and put it into Agilux? Do we continue to invest in Agilux for the future?

As we talked about very early on, I had a vision for developing a product that we would be able to modify our current model of business with and really have something that would build equity into a company, and that’s where we continued to go back to. Whenever we have a challenge or a question about what we’re doing, is this right for the long term and is it continually worth reinvesting in? [crosstalk 00:13:56]

Jamie: You really serve almost like your own angel investor.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: Your existing business kind of funds the development and the research and the growth of Agilux.

Kevin Cody: Yeah, absolutely.

Jamie: That’s cool.

Kevin Cody: We’re working two jobs at once.

Jamie: Well, I’m sure you’re working twice as hard which is, that’s part of the game.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. It’d be nice at some point in time to have a real investment partner to come along with, but all the while you have to be developing a company that people are going to see a value in. We didn’t think that we’d be able to get there. In some ways, the product itself is so far out that some people would not be able to grasp it, and unless they really see the revenue that it could generate, they’re not going to get behind it.

Jamie: Really, an investment partner definitely comes with strings attached.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: It sounds like patience isn’t always one of those.

Kevin Cody: No. In this world too, there’s some big players.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: They’re constantly, from a regulatory standpoint as well as just a technology standpoint, always putting up roadblocks to prevent smaller guys from coming in.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: We realize that and need to have that perseverance and the vision to keep us going.

Jamie: Yeah, we talked about that. The DLC category of energy efficiency is probably just one of those ways that the big firms-

Kevin Cody: Exactly.

Jamie: … encourage to stop the smaller firms from coming in-

Kevin Cody: Exactly.

Jamie: … with new products.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: What are some of your favorite parts of running Agilux?

Kevin Cody: Realistically, I love product development. It’s kind of like building a house. You buy the sticks. You have a plan. You start to put them together, and in the end, hopefully, if you’ve built it on a strong foundation you will have something that you can call your own for a long time.

That’s the favorite part for me is taking a product from a raw beginning all the way through the end and using the experiences that we’ve had tremendously wonderful opportunities with throughout our business life into developing the product, into developing the package, into learning how to communicate visually to consumers in a way that makes the product appealing, and as different as it is, giving people a comfort level with their use of the product.

Seeing all that come together is really what excites me and keeps me going.

Jamie: How many different products have you developed at Agilux? How many different individual …

Kevin Cody: The core of the product is really the modules.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: Those have not changed at all. We can always tweak the colors. We can always change the lumen levels, the characteristics of the electronics a little bit, but essentially it’s a modular LED and it’s always going to be that way, and that’s what Agilux means, agile light.

I don’t ever see it being a product that has a whole lot of variation to it. It’s a question of how do you mount it differently? How do you house it differently? Are there applications where you need to modify those things to accomplish the objective of whatever you’re lighting? The core of the product, the LED modules will stay the same. I don’t see that changing, but we have tons of opportunity in the other mounting options and form factors housing the product.

Jamie: I see one of those sitting here on the desk, the grow light.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. That’s was the third market we went after, which was grow lights.

Jamie: That’s indoor.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: Indoor growing facilities.

Kevin Cody: Exactly.

Jamie: I’m sure the marijuana boom has probably provided some opportunities.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. Interestingly enough, those growers have their ideas of how they want to grow product and have had some history with particular types of lighting that is going to grow their product better or best. They’re just like everybody else. Change is not something they feel comfortable with oftentimes.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: LEDs are changing that in a big way, from an energy savings standpoint, obviously.

Jamie: Yes.

Kevin Cody: Also the ability to tune the LEDs to modify package of LEDs that is going to give you the best opportunity to grow the product the fastest.

Jamie: The plant doesn’t need visible light, right? It needs different wavelengths, the blues and the reds, I remember.

Kevin Cody: Yes, right.

Jamie: You probably know that better than I do, but do you have products that you take out the visible light and you, or do you-

Kevin Cody: Our product is designed around the spectrum between 450 nanometers and 660 nanometers and that is where plants typically like to grow. You could go above that and many will grow at 750 nanometers, and depending on the type of plant, microgreens for instance, want to grow or like it on the lower end of the spectrum, and flowering plants like it on the upper end of the spectrum, so more red as opposed to more blue with a microgreen or something like that.

There is the ability with our modules to be able to create the environment where people can grow exactly what they want with really great affordability as well as design their own to their liking depending on the type of plants you’re growing.

Jamie: Yeah. That’s great for the indoor gardener, for sure.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. It’s a nice low profile.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: It’s not obtrusive in any ways or obnoxious in any way. It’s easily mountable in a lot of different variations, so depending on what you’re growing, where you’re growing it and how you’re growing it, those are all important things to everybody.

Jamie: Right.

Kevin Cody: We have a lot of different variations that can be done with that.

Jamie: You almost open up an opportunity for everyone to have a residential basement greenhouse.

Kevin Cody: Yeah, sure. Sure.

Jamie: Sweet. I start growing … I’m a big gardener and I’ve always started to try and grow seedlings inside, and they always do fine. They get the moisture right and they get to a certain size and then they never … In the Chicago March, you leave them close to the window and they’ll die. I’m actually going to pick one of these up and give it a shot. I’ll let you know how it goes. We’ll get a follow-up podcast in the year.

Kevin Cody: Fantastic.

Jamie: Talk about how the garden turned out.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: Tell me a little bit about your experience in making sustainability a priority within your business. Obviously your product is a sustainable product, LEDs are. There’s no doubt. It’s pretty mathematical and it’s hard to argue.

What about internally? I saw a little bit of your warehouse. You guys have a much better inventory system than ours, which I’m going to go back and take some notes about. Tell me a little bit about you find and prioritize that within your own business.

Kevin Cody: The people that we’re doing business with, because the product, some of the product components are made in China, we have somebody in our QA within our China suppliers looking at all the things that those companies do to minimize any types of pollution or environmental issues that they might have. There’s a pretty broad, long list of things that we look for in suppliers that are going to qualify them in a way that we feel best suits our company vision, as well as just the total sustainability of the product from start to finish. That’s our power supplies. That’s our packaging. It’s our labeling. It’s everything.

Jamie: Yeah.

Kevin Cody: We have a combination of suppliers from China to the U.S. and all of those are looked at the same way and held to the same standards. I think we have surrounded ourselves with suppliers that do the best job that they can at doing that.

Jamie: How do you weigh … I struggle with this personally, which is why I’m asking.

Kevin Cody: Sure.

Jamie: How do you weigh … Do you always ship by boat when you ship products from China, or do you air freight?

Kevin Cody: No, actually most of ours is at this stage air freight.

Jamie: Yeah, it’s light, small.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: Which is exactly why I brought that up earlier. That’s a big consideration for us.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. You know, one of the decisions for a core component of the product is the aluminum extrusion. One of the decisions that we made early on was that we could tool the product almost anywhere if we wanted to. We chose to have dual tooling in China and in the U.S. when we set up the aluminum extrusion that the modules magnetically attach to. When we did that, set up the cost analysis of what it was going to be doing it in China versus doing it here in the U.S., and preferably in the Midwest specifically.

We, in the process, discovered that in fact while labor costs are less expensive in China, you have freight, you have duties, you have all the other things that go along with that, the movement of the product from one factory location to another, potentially for different milling operation or painting or whatever, and discovered that we could move to a facility in Wisconsin called [Crystal 00:25:22] Finishing that does the aluminum extrusions, mills and paints all under one house, and they’re one of the best suppliers in the entire United States. While the costs were a little bit higher, we could actually save money, and freight, and fuel, and everything else by using a domestic supplier for the extrusion. That’s an example.

Jamie: Yeah. I have two points that I’ll bring up. The first point is the shipping is really hard for a growing business like both of us have to be patient and wait for something to take an extra month to get to you. Even if it’s cheaper, that month or it can get stuck in customs. UPS is pretty good at getting things by air, but it does kill me to do that, and we do about 50/50, and we’re really trying this year to push more towards boat because even though it is cheaper and we can buy more volume, but also the environmental impact is much smaller if you ship via freight by boat.

Kevin Cody: Sure.

Jamie: The other thing, and I just went to Shenzhen for the first time in November, and I know you’ve been to China many times in your career, I just had this really crystal clear vision, and maybe we can partner on this in a couple of years, but of an aluminum can getting used here in Chicago and recycled and down to pure element and then fed into a 3D printer to print a housing. While it sounds so futuristic, to see all of … We’d have to recycle that can here and to ship to China, as gas increases in cost and from an environmental standpoint I hope it does, that cost increases, and so the cost to do it locally here really does go down.

For me, it’s always been a challenge of inventory and how do you predict the future of what you need, and to be able to print something or really manufacture it much more in a lean model here in the U.S. which we haven’t had for, we just never have been good at it.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: The 3D printing model is compelling, especially with the LED that really just has a housing, a driver and a diode, are the three major parts.

Kevin Cody: Yeah. A couple of good points there. The fact that a 3D printer would allow you to create unique designs. If you wanted to be the Pinterest of LED lighting, you could do that pretty easily.

The other thing is looking at the difference between boat and air freight, also depends on the growth stage of your business. We’re at a point where a big spike in business could wipe us out, of inventory, and that was why we chose to keep and stay with the tooling in both locations. So far, we’ve been using Crystal Finishing exclusively and benefit from the ability to cut our lead times down.

Jamie: Oh yeah.

Kevin Cody: Significantly.

Jamie: You could drive out there and pick it up if you had to, right?

Kevin Cody: I did the last order.

Jamie: Did you?

Kevin Cody: Yeah. Also, the inventory levels by being able to turn our inventory a little bit faster.

Jamie: People don’t … I know you go to Wisconsin but people don’t appreciate how much is still made in Chicago. The breadth of it in the variety, Chicago has still got a lot of potential.

Kevin Cody: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jamie: We are still best in class in many different factories when it comes to manufacturing. I get kind of … I spend a lot of my time going on visiting a lot of manufacturing in Chicago and there’s still a lot that’s going on.

Kevin Cody: There’s a ton of lighting component manufacturers in the Midwest here, and particularly in the Chicagoland area, yeah.

Jamie: Good. I’ve, as always, enjoyed talking with you.

Kevin Cody: Yeah.

Jamie: Hearing your story and got to learn a little bit more about it.

Kevin Cody: Great.

Jamie: Thanks for being here.

Kevin Cody: Thanks. I appreciate it. Thanks, Jamie.

Jamie: Take care, Kevin.

Bringing Energy Efficiency to Libertyville, IL

(Photo Credit: Build a Better Burb)

This last Thursday our team went out to Libertyville, IL ( a town in Cook County, 37 miles outside of Chicago) to spread awareness to businesses about energy efficiency!  We started our day by grabbing a quick cup of coffee from the town favorite coffee spot, Hansa Coffee Roasters, while also peeking around and doing an assessment of their building (maybe you’ll see some new TLEDs while sipping your cappuccino sometime soon *wink wink*).  

We picked Libertyville as our first official outreach day for multiple reasons.  For starters, Libertyville is very business-dense and we saw lots of opportunity to help that area reap the benefits that energy efficiency provides.  Another reason was that we have already done business out there before and loved the customers we made, so why not try for more!  Lastly, someone from our staff actually lives in Libertyville, so there was a bit of bias on that one 😉

Dispersing all throughout Libertyville, we were able to stop in to a bunch of the downtown Libertyville businesses, and even performed a few assessments at a jewelry store, animal hospital, and two churches.  We made sure to head to the “outskirts” of Libertyville as well to make sure all businesses got a chance to hear about the energy efficiency savings available to them, and to wave as we passed by our customer Matthews Fans Co. (Hi Chuck!).  &nbspNeeding to refuel, the Verde team made their way over to Pho Kho Gia Lai Vietnamese for some tasty Pho, as well as testing our talents on how to pour Pho into to-go-containers without spilling (spoiler alert: we were not successful). &nbspAt day’s end we all dispersed back home, but fear not!  We have plans to return to try to help Libertyville improve even further on becoming as energy efficient as possible (and save big bucks on their energy bills). &nbspSee ya next time!

Building Your Brand: David Kelbaugh of Tacklebox Podcast

On Jan 15th, David Kelbaugh and Jamie Johnson sit down in David’s home on the north side of Chicago to discuss how and why he left a huge advertising firm in Chicago to build a boutique agency.  With customers like Goose Island and Verde Energy Efficiency Experts, Tacklebox serves a wide variety of customers and focuses on building your brand.

Jamie and David discuss a bit about the venture capital scene in Chicago, and how it impacts growing firms customer development process.   They also discuss the benefits of coworking spaces in early firm development, like 1871 and WeWork.  

Read the full transcript of Episode 6 of the Chicagoland Small Business Stories Podcast below:

Jamie: Welcome back to week six of the Verde Podcast. Every week we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight, but is how actual businesses are built here in Chicago. Today we have David Kelbaugh, who is found of Tacklebox Brand Partners. Welcome, David.

David: Hey, thanks, Jamie. Good to see you.

Jamie: Good to see you again as always. I always like to start these stories, tell me a little bit about Tacklebox Brand Partners, how it started, what drove you. I know you in particular have a lot of big name brand agency experience, and what drove you to start your own company versus the path of growing in a bigger organization?

David: Yeah. That’s a good question. I think I’ve always known exactly what it is that I’m going to do for a living. What I didn’t know is if I would do it for a big ad agency or eventually start my own, and I love branding, love marketing because it allows me to use both side of my brain. As I worked at the larger ad agencies around Chicago, what I quickly learned was they look for well rounded employees that can use both side of the bran, but very rarely can you find a job where you’re permitted to use both side of the brain. The big ad agencies are so large that they have to have a process, they have to have rules and responsibilities. Everybody has their own lane that they have to swim in, and I kind of wanted to jump from one lane to the next because I love every part of this industry. I figured if I started my own company, I could allow myself to get into the lanes that I’m best at or maybe the lanes that I enjoy the most.

Jamie: How much of your time- How old is Tacklebox?

David: Tacklebox is about four years old.

Jamie: Okay.

David: I’ve been in the ad agency world for 15 plus, although I can’t believe it’s been that long, really. We started working with nothing but startups our years ago with the belief that I hired a team that really wanted diversity in projects and clients, and again, you don’t really get that at the big ad agencies. It’s like you’re going to work on Marlboro, you’re going to work on All-State, you’re going to work on Kellogg’s, and who knows? You may spend your entire career pushing nothing but cereal or cigarettes. The team that I’ve built around me didn’t really want that, so we’ve worked with I want to say close to 80 clients now in just four years, and that diversity really keeps us alive.

Jamie: And still today, do you still work with larger companies or is it all startups?

David: Yeah. We’re not actively pursuing the bigger companies, but we’re proud to call Goose Island a client, we’re proud to call Proctor and Gamble a client. Very recently a Berkshire Hathaway company signed on with us, so even though we’re not chasing them, they seem to be finding us, which I’m grateful for.

Jamie: Now that you’re running your own business, do you like the diversity of both the smaller and larger companies as clients, or do you long for a day where you could say no to the bigger clients?

David: I love both. I love the passion of a founder but sort of the textbook marketing perspective of a marketing director at a large company. It’s completely different. Founders oftentimes want their brand to be a reflection of them, and we can debate about the merits of that, but very rarely would a marketing director at a large Fortune 500 company want their brand to be a reflection of them. They’re in for making money, and it’s great to work with both of those types of clients.

Jamie: You do a decent amount of work with venture capital firms and other kind of startup ecosystem folks?

David: Yeah.

Jamie: Do you mind telling me a little bit about them and how they act? I would imagine they act more like a larger corporate client?

David: Yeah. Over the past ten years, I think venture capitalists have done a good job of beating very metric based marketing into the minds of founders and co-founders. Cost per click advertising, cost per acquisition, cost per lead, and I think when you do focus on that lower funnel type marketing that the venture capitalists have encouraged companies to focus on, that leads to a pretty strong disregard for your brand and sort of the softer side of marketing. But what you’ll find is if you do invest and if you do take the time to get your brand right, all of the lower funnel marketing metrics start to perform better. At one point when a company’s path was determined by its cost per conversion rates, now it’s that but now it’s also brand appeal and media coverage. I think this has been a very good time for Tacklebox to work with startups because it’s still metric and data based, but not as much as it used to be. There’s more to it than just cost per acquisition.

Jamie: So I know you know that I came out of 1871 with the first companies that were there, and we actually just interviewed Ryan from Revolutions recently, and that was fun to catch up with someone, because he’s gone through a little bit of funding recently. Last year I think they had a pretty decent sized raise, and we were talking before the podcast a lot of how that’s affected their strategy and their way for growth, and they’re accelerating their customer acquisition. Because they raised the money, they spent that money on customer acquisition, so they have grown in an amazing fashion. I just find this curious because I had a lot of friends of mine that would go through and raise money, and they were so elated that first day they got that funding, and then for the next nine months they were feeling pressure that I had never personally experienced because I’ve never raised money. From a marketing perspective, do you find the startups that are funded by venture capital or outside capital to be willing to take more risk and do more exciting things from a marketing perspective, or do they?

David: We don’t work with a ton of funded startups to be honest with you. We’ve worked with a couple, and I’m trying to think how my experience with them differs from the experience of the others. On occasion, those types will say, “Well how do I justify that to my investors?” So there’s a secondary. Any time we suggest that a client of ours undergoes a marketing initiative, they have to understand how to sell it upward, because on a weekly basis those investors are asking how’s the money being spent. There’s a little bit more extra work, I think, in working with a funded company. It’s good. It shows diligence, but that’s not something we have to deal with with non-funded clients. Other than that, I find there’s not that much difference in terms of risk threshold between funded and non-funded in my opinion.

Jamie: Yeah, I hadn’t mentioned this yet in the podcast, but we actually use you to do our marketing rebranding effort. We had a great experience, which is obviously while we’re still here talking, and a lot of what your approach was to interview our customers, which I thought was pretty brilliant. I would imagine, so what you just described, instead of going to the customers you’ve kind of got to go up, and that kind of would interfere a little bit with the process. That’s something I always, take it from a guy who never sought or got funding, so maybe I’m just jaded in my own way, but I always get worried when people spend too much time pitching their concept to an investor, which is a customer lost, instead of focusing on the customer, which is what we were fortunate to be able to do.

David: Yeah. Money raised seems to be now the holy grail for a company’s success. I sent out a tweet, I don’t know a few months ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I said, “When did the success of a company come to be measured by money raised instead of money earned?” It’s so funny. All the headlines are “so and so raises 80 million dollars from,” but we’re not talking about profitability. I guess a lot of that’s because private companies hold their profitability to themselves, so there’s not much for the press to talk about other than money raised, unless of course you’re a public company in which case profit and revenue is all freely exchanged, but I just guess being funded is a nice way to evaluate the success of your company, but I think that’s a metric that’s overrated personally. If you’ve seen the headlines, the bigger they are the harder they fall, especially recently. I’m like, this is like the best reality I’ve ever seen is the headlines on Cranes and Chicago Tribune. It makes for good reading, but I don’t know. We never raised money either, and it would make me really nervous to do it. I don’t like it.

Jamie: Right. I think I come from a similar place where it’s like I don’t like using other people’s money. I don’t like spending other people’s money, so I think I would’ve been a very terrible entrepreneur using venture funding, however if I do end up raising money in the future, I will delete this, edit this podcast, have that part removed.

David: Yeah. I think there’s, like, if you have a bunch of POs and you need to fund the manufacturing of something, sure, have at it, or a line of credit. I see benefits to that kind of funding, but eek, I don’t need too many cooks in the kitchen.

Jamie: Well, and I do see that there’s definitely a place in the world that capital is important, and we’ve grown through our line of credit where we max it out and it was very painful. We just had to be patient. We couldn’t grow as fast as we wanted about a year and a half ago, and I learned some lessons from that and it was painful, so I could see, especially when it comes to building something like software where there’s very little. You have to build a product and then the ability to execute on one additional customer, the marginal cost is pretty low.

David: Yeah, that’s true.

Jamie: But I think sometimes people forget that business comes down to revenue and customers, and when you get too focused on building this amazing product, you forget about the customers. That’s why I like your approach to marketing so much.

David: Good, thanks.

Jamie: We got a little bit off topic, but it was fun for me.

David: It was fun.

Jamie: I like to commonly complain about venture capital in marketing. What are some of your favorite parts about running your business over the last four years?

David: I think what I love is that I’m now in business producing a product that’s the single best way that I know how to help businesses. I’ve referred to myself as a one trick pony in a way. I cannot help raise money. I cannot help, the one thing I know how to do and the one thing I love to do is help companies show their face to the world in the right way. It’s really rewarding, it’s really gratifying, so I love to see that transformation from a company from what it was to a company that it is. I think there are so many companies that have great products, great services, but if their brand is not equally great or better, they’re never going to reach their full potential. There’s an inordinate amount of energy spent on perfecting the product, perfecting the service, and in my opinion, brand is more important than ever, so if you’re turning your back on taking care of your brand just as you take care of your product, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice. In fact, you saw our process, so you know that we build brands a lot like companies build products. We manufacture it, we test it, we refine it, we create a process or an operations manual to guide it, and then the rest becomes easy because the molds are in place.

Your brand now has a mod and it’s just a matter of manufacturing it and syndicating it through the channels that will help you reach your target audience. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we automate it. That’d be nice, but you can’t automate the creation of a brand, but we do process it. We do build it a lot like a house is built or a product’s built.

Jamie: What’s your favorite part of the, you’re totally right. I saw your process. I can see how it becomes, it’s a playbook, right? You run it and sometimes you make a little few changes, but you come out with a good product over and over again and it’s important. What do you enjoy more, I’m just curious from knowing you. Do you enjoy the sitting with the customer and really closing the deal, communicating the value that Tacklebox Brand Partners brings, or do you like to go back after you get the customer interviews done and creatively whiteboard and just [crosstalk 00:14:26].

David: That’s a great question. Again, I think the reason I never felt at home at a big ad agency is because I like to do all of it.

Jamie: Yeah.

David: I promise you, every single step of the way, I’ve built this company to be what I love to do, and I’ve been able to find people and hire people that love to do the same thing. I love it all. I probably am slightly more biased towards the new business at this point than I am the creative. Part of that’s because I have some people on my team that are better at creative that I am, so I’ll let them do the white boarding, and I’ll kind of come in at the 11th hour and help them understand the difference between the great ideas on the board and the good idea. What do you like to do?

Jamie: I don’t like operations. From our business, it’s really sales and then we have to execute on the sale. If I ever had to go over and start a new company, I always tell people this, do every part of the business but just myself, I would sell the concept, I’d go screw in the lights myself, I would do every part of it myself and not have the whole team, but now that we have the team, again, people that do it a lot better than I do, I don’t like the operational part, so I just like the new business and sales. I like talking to customers and hearing their pain points, because it evolves constantly and it’s a unique qualitative challenge to me, but the playbook, I get kind of boxed in of the same thing over and over again. I never liked that in any of my previous professions, so. We have a lot more customers. We could have a small customer with, we could go through five customers a day basically, which is much different, so that gets much more monotonous. It sounds like you’ve got 80 over four years, so 20 a year. There’d be a lot more. I’d probably be more inclined to be excited about that kind of business.

David: Yeah, right.

Jamie: Yeah, I definitely love new customer acquisition. It’s what I wake up thinking about every day.

David: Yeah, right, because it’s your business. You built the business both to make money, but also to be what you’re passionate about, and who wouldn’t want to convince others that it’s a beautiful thing to do, because it is? Absolutely. That’s great.

Jamie: What is the most challenging time you recall at Tacklebox?

David: Well, two points in our career. I think the first was just starting out when I had zero clients, zero sales. It was me in my basement with my laptop worrying about where the next paycheck would come from.

Jamie: Had you quit your full-time job at that point, right away?

David: Yeah. I had one paying client at the time, and I wasn’t really sure of myself at that point. I had no proof that what I’m doing actually works, so I had a hard time charging fair market value for my time. My wife was like, “How long is this experiment going to happen?” One client became two, became three, became four, so I kind of got over that nervousness, but it took six months I think before I felt like I really had something here, and I’d say the second hardest time is right now. I often refer to Tacklebox as the awkward tweenager. We’re kind of small but kind of big. It’s that scaling. Everyone talks about how hard it is to scale a business, because that’s when you have to make investments, and that’s when you as a founder have to let go and lengthen the leashes to your employees. It’s hard. it’s hard to figure out what that length of leash would be. I guess, honestly, back to our funding conversation, if I got a million bucks in funding, not that I’m looking for it, I think that would make my decision of how long the leash would be a lot easier, because I’d have budget to fund this person and this person and this person and this person. I could more easily put a staffing plan to a stable million dollar check than I could revenue that ebbs and flows. That’s the hardest part.

Jamie: Yeah, we have a similar issue where we get a bit cyclical, so last year there was one month we did over $500,000 revenue, and then we had a couple probably two or three months a different time of year that were more in the half of that size.

David: Wow, yeah.

Jamie: So my biggest fear today is hiring a bunch of team that I’d then have to let go. Sometimes that drives me to make really poor business decisions because of my fear.

David: Yes.

Jamie: I could see how the funding would help you be like, “All right. I’ve got nine months of runway. Better spend it, and let’s go.”

David: Yeah, here’s your goals everybody. If you achieve these objectives, we’re going to be able to pay our money back to our investors, but there’s no black or white when you’re self-funded trying to scale.

Jamie: Yeah, scaling is really tough.

David: Well, you’ve done it well. You seem to be hiring.

Jamie: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve done it well. We’ve done it. I’m not sure I’d describe it as well because I do let fear drive a lot of my decisions, and I have to let those go. I need to go see Yoda in the dark side somewhere to kind of let go of the fears that I have. Every year I get a little bit better where I have an experience to be willing to be like, “Okay. I know.” I was really worried in December and November about having a really slow time. We made things happen, and I have to have more confidence in the team and let that leash go a little bit longer and let them run and trust, and it is hard. It becomes your baby and it’s hard to let other people. I want to be a boss, or I want to be an owner that lets the team run, and I just kind of watch. That’s who I want to be, but who I am in real life is totally different, I’m sure.

David: Oh, I know. It’s so hard, and part of that’s because you spent so much time doing it yourself. I think the first, what, five years you were kind of a solopreneur?

Jamie: Yeah, it was four years.

David: Four years, so you know every little nut and bolt of how things are done. The fact that someone walks in with a nail instead of a screw to solve a particular problem, you’re like, “Um.”

Jamie: The only benefit I’ve got is I’m terrible at paying attention to details, so sometimes things, infrastructure builds around me without me even knowing.

David: That’s good.

Jamie: But I’m pleasantly surprised.

David: Yeah, that’s a good idea.

Jamie: Yeah. So I feel like we could probably talk for 20 more minutes about that, but I’m going to head into my last question for you.

David: Sure.

Jamie: Tell me a little bit about your experience making sustainability a priority in your business and how you operate it? I know that you are a unique business where it’s very service-based and very people based. You don’t need a huge warehouse or a manufacturing facility or a kitchen, so how does that play out in your decision makings of running Tacklebox?

David: Yeah. I call myself a sensible environmentalist. I couldn’t see myself adding an hour and a half to my commute to reduce my carbon footprint a little bit, but at the same time, when I have the choice between taking an Uber or an Uber Share, an Uber Pool or whatever, I’ll do the Uber Pool. That’s a more sensible use of car emissions in my opinion. I’ll turn out the lights when I leave the room. My team and I, we looked at probably 30 offices of our own, and they all felt too big, and I think part of that was because it was the environmentalist in the back of my head thinking this is a lot of space for a team that’s five to ten people. One its biggest day, we’re only ten people, so that’s when we started to look into coworking. You were at 1871. We decided to go with We Work in the West Loop. The office is small, but it’s not more than we need. The lights are shared, the printer’s shared, the paper’s shared, and I’ve tried to think long and hard before I hit print as it relates to paper usage, which is not exactly something you guys work on, but when I have the choice between saving a PDF or printing it, I’ll save it on to my computer.

I’ve always, always been a big public transportation fan. I think despite its ups and downs, the trains and the buses here in this city are really well-run.

Jamie: Especially when you have a day like today when it’s snowing out, being able to hop on that train and not have to worry about the roads being slippery. It’s pretty incredible.

David: Yeah.

Jamie: It’s an incredible asset the city has that doesn’t get discussed. It’s just kind of thankless job the CTA does. Now, the buses aren’t always on time and they’re not great, but the trains run pretty smooth.

David: Agreed.

Jamie: When you’re at We Work, I’m curious if you ever thought about, because 1871 kind of had this number where once you got over five people, it was often cheaper to have your own space. Didn’t mean it was easier, because then you’ve got to maintain your own computers and printers and things like that. Is there a number of staff at Tacklebox where it becomes more cost effective to move out of We Work? Or you would still choose to stay there because of the benefits of shared?

David: The latter. I’ll tell you, I like it there, but my team loves it there. As a company of five to ten people, it’s hard to form a company culture, and that place, We Work comes with a bit of a company culture. It’s social, there’s things to do, it’s loud, it’s cool, so the younger people on my team love it. I wouldn’t want, I’d feel like I’m pulling the rug out from under them if I moved to save a few bucks. Not to say that it won’t happen some day, but I was talking about moving out of it right before Christmas break, and it did not go over well. My team loves it there, and I get it. It is pretty simple living. It’s almost like a retirement community for cool kids where everything’s taken care of. You don’t have to remember to order paper or coffee. It’s cool. We like it a lot.

Jamie: Well, the West Loop is great too because it’s that central hub. All transit is designed to go there, so you can’t have a bad commute getting there.

David: The one gripe is I wish there was less expensive lunch places around there. It’s hard to get a four dollar sub in that neighborhood, so I’ll bring my own lunch most days.

Jamie: Yeah, well, maybe there’s another startup idea there.

David: Yeah.

Jamie: Shared lunch spaces. Non-expensive.

David: Shared plates.

Jamie: Yeah.

David: Yeah. But I will say this Jamie, if I had larger space and if it were space of our own, I would seriously put some thought into your approach to saving money as it relates to electricity, but the fixtures are kind of beyond my control at We Work, and I can’t really adjust the thermostat. I can’t do all the smart things I know that you know are good ideas unfortunately.

Jamie: But you could have a space with the most efficient lighting ever, and at We Work, even if it’s less efficient, if it’s shared it’s by nature more efficient. It’s counter-intuitive sometimes.

David: Right.

Jamie: But I’m sure since they have a usage, I’m sure they’ve probably put some good thought into it.

David: Yeah. I bet they have.

Jamie: Yes. Well, I appreciate you being with us here today, David, and I look forward to sharing this with the world.

David: Sounds good.

Jamie: Thanks for being here.

David: You’re welcome, Jamie. Take care.

Jamie: You too.

Five Ways a Smart Thermostat Will Be Useful for Your Business

Smart thermostats have a lot of features and look nice, but do they do anything valuable? When I recommend them during my work in the ComEd Energy Efficiency Program
, it’s for more of these reasons than just the ComEd Smart Thermostat Rebate

1. Reducing Your Energy Bill

Heat loss is a non-linear function – that means when it’s cold outside, more heat leaks out of your building when it’s 72° than when it’s 58°. The opposite is true in the summertime. So, leaving your building to the elements when you’re not using it will save you money. An intelligent thermostat can sense occupancy and follow a pre-programmed schedule, allowing you to tell it when you use your space and letting it learn how often you stick to that predetermined schedule. When it senses you aren’t around, it will lay off the heat or cool and save you some money.

It’s worth noting that a perfectly programmed programmable thermostat will save just as much as a Nest or Ecobee thermostat. The difference is that programmable thermostats need to be adjusted based on the season, and I don’t come across many business owners to find the time to do so. If you’re on a budget, put in the work – it’s the most cost-effective solution.

2. Giving You Control

If you manage multiple properties (franchisees, real estate managers, corporations, governments, etc.) you can’t manually control the setting of every thermostat in every building across your portfolio. Many (possibly all) smart thermostats come with built-in software that allows you to display operations and diagnostics on a central dashboard that you can look at on a computer or phone. The value here is that you can see the operation of all your heating/cooling systems instantly and succinctly. You can compare energy management strategies or make sure one rogue employee or tenant isn’t overriding a thermostat and costing you money.

I think if you have 5 or more buildings to manage, or the buildings are far enough apart that monitoring these systems in-person isn’t practical, this is a useful feature and is often overlooked.

3. Convenience

An intelligent thermostat saves you energy by turning off when it senses your buildings are unoccupied, but it also makes your life a bit better by anticipating when you will arrive and heating or cooling ahead of time. This is the reason I personally switched to a smart thermostat; the fact that it would automatically reduce temperature while I sleep and then reheat my apartment in anticipation of me waking up is so nice. (Now I have radiators – boooo!)

This is particularly valuable for low-use, high-volume rooms… church sanctuaries anyone? Rather than showing up 2 hours early to turn on your heating system, you can schedule services into your thermostat and it will automatically bring the room to a comfortable temperature in preparation. The same concept can be adapted to a gymnasium, theaters, conference rooms, exhibition halls, etc. Not applicable to everyone, but if it does apply, don’t overlook the value here.

4. Aesthetics

If you are into design, or care about atmosphere to enhance your brand and build top-line revenue, you might find a smart thermostat is a sleek centerpiece for your interior. I can’t recommend much here since my sense of style is about equivalent to an alpaca.

You’ll pay a premium to look good, but when has that ever stopped you before!

5. Preparing You For The Future

The wave of “smart” products is in its infancy, I assure you. Soon, your microwave will talk to your sink, which will just be finishing a conversation with your lightbulbs. Everything is going to be interconnected and something will need to be the central hub for you to interact with all of these fancy gadgets. It will likely either be something voice-based that you can yell at across the room, or it will be your thermostat, which you can easily walk up to and adjust.

They say old dogs can’t learn new tricks, so you may be better off learning how this stuff works now rather than waiting 5 years to figure it out. By then, it may be too late, and you’ve already boxed yourself into being an old dog. I certainly don’t think this is a good reason to go out of your way and get a smart thermostat, but it may be just enough to push you over the edge if you’re on the fence.

Believing in More Than Your Company: Tom Decker and Social Enterprise

Chicago Green Insulation’s warehouse, surrounded by barrels of foam insulation.

Tom has grown a successful enterprise that focuses on hiring underserved individuals in Chicago, such as the low income and those with a previous history of incarceration.  Tom talks about how he believes in second chances, as well as how that has worked in his company’s success.  

Read the full transcript of Episode 5 of the Chicagoland Small Business Stories Podcast below: 

Jamie: Welcome back to Episode 5 of the Verde Podcast. Every week we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn’t make it to the spotlight, but is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago. Today we have Tom Decker, who’s the founder of Chicago Green Insulation. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Decker: Thank you very much, Jamie. I appreciate you having me.

Jamie: Tom and I have known each other for many, many years, and have followed each other along the entrepreneurial journey. I think we’re both still kicking, so that’s good, right?

Tom Decker: That’s it. There’s something to be said for making it beyond the two year mark, and then the three year mark. I’m at almost a decade in foam.

Jamie: Wow.

Tom Decker: What are you at this point?

Jamie: Verde’s about eight years old right now.

Tom Decker: So that’s why it’s such a similar path in terms of timing. I think I’m closer to nine than I am to ten, totally.

Jamie: Each year has its own wrinkle and ulcer that we’ve both inherited along the way.

Tom Decker: I keep a smile on my face because it’s fun. I also keep a smile on my face, when it’s not fun; because people don’t want to be around frowning, angry, miserable people, but entrepreneurship is the right pathway for me.

Jamie: I get that sense from the first time I met you that you were a trailblazer. So tell me a little bit about Chicago Green Insulation. Why you started it, what gave you the idea, and what motivated you to take it from an idea to an actual business?

Tom Decker: As I said, I’ve been in foam for somewhere between nine and ten years. When I got into foam, I was a sales guy. I learned the nuances, ins and outs, and all the technical stuff. I did that for two other organizations for about four and a half years. What was awesome about that is I really got the opportunity to help create, and participate in creating, alter energy efficient single family homes, multi-family homes, businesses. I got to learn a lot about the chemical manufacturers. I got to learn a lot about the equipment manufacturers. I got to know the movers and shakers, the peers, the individuals that when I grow up I want to be like.

And about five years ago, I sat up in bed one night and realized that I had neglected to participate in embracing the first 25 years of my professional life, which is something you and I’ve certainly talked about, but involving individuals with learning disabilities, involving individuals who have been rejected, either directly by society or who have chosen to be away from the rest of society because of learning differences and social differences and those sorts of things. So when I formed Chicago Green Insulation, I formed it from its outset to be a social enterprise to create employment opportunities embracing those individuals who’ve run afoul of the law, embracing those individuals who may not verbally or physically represent themselves as somebody that you want to be next to, but have a good heart and a good head on their shoulders.

Jamie: So going back a little bit, I know you said you were with two other foam companies. What kind of really drove you? Because sales people are hard to come by, and I’m sure you could have made a lot of money going to work for one of these other peers you admired, what really drove you to start your own company versus just-

Tom Decker: I was frustrated with the compromises that I was forced to make when I wasn’t the guy signing the paychecks. You know as well as I do that there’s a lot of stress that comes along with signing the paychecks; but you really get to decide where the can of corn goes in the kitchen, which drawer’s going to have the silverware in it, and where the stove’s going to be oriented in the kitchen. That’s what entrepreneurship offers you, the access to being with that total freedom and total responsibility. My wife regularly comments that it must be nice not to have a boss, and I respond, “I wouldn’t know.” And she’s like, “Well, you own the company.” And I’m like, “Yeah, and every client’s my boss. Every employee’s my boss.”

Jamie: Right.

Tom Decker: So I don’t see myself as above them, and I also don’t want to ever neglect the value that I can learn and offer across the board.

Jamie: Yeah, it’s funny, I had a little bit of a different motivation. But I remember after I started the company, and we didn’t really do much for a year or two. We were doing some software things, which you remember. I remember Chuck Templeton talking about how entrepreneurs are often really terrible employees. I look back at all the different careers I had, and I’m pretty sure my bosses always hated me. You know, like I was a good employee in some ways, but not in the ways I was always bucking the system and creating problems. So it kind of felt good, once I could settle into that role of, “Okay. I’m an entrepreneur; that’s who, apparently I’ve been my whole life. I wasn’t just a bad employee. I just was kind of weird in my own way.”

Tom Decker: Square peg in a round hole?

Jamie: Yes.

Tom Decker: The residential camp where I worked for 15 years, Ramapo Anchorage Camp in Rhinebeck, New York. My mentor and the executive director of the camp, Bernie Kosberg, and I had a number of conversations about how residential programs, where you’re dealing with non-textbook situations and the answers are incumbent on a creative, thoughtful process that does not, generally speaking, lend itself to a correct answer on the first, second, third, or even fourth or fifth try. When you experience those sorts of things, and you understand that your reality is in your hands, I always said the Ramapo made great problem-solvers and lousy employees because we’re quick to identify what those challenges are, and the way that I very much believe, it forces us to be responsible for the solution as well.

That was Bernie’s rule. If you identify a problem, you own the solution. He was incredibly serious about soup to nuts. You’ve got to go out and figure out why it’s happening, what’s going on, what are the reasons that that was the way it was being done, and then why we need to go to option a, b, c, or d; and then, what you were going to do to make a, b, c, and d happen.

Jamie: Right, that kind of thinking doesn’t always fit into today’s corporate culture or where I came from, which is municipal government; because usually, you could even come up with a solution, they’re not going to let you do it anyways.

Tom Decker: Well, and that’s the conversation that I’m currently engaging with, with your old colleague, Tim.

Jamie: Oh, yeah.

Tom Decker: Talking about how you were incredibly adept at the adrenaline aspects of responding in a very kind and very competent and very professional way. And, that the organization was lesser as a result of you not being around though he knew in you that you were bigger than the whole that you were fitting into. So he knew you were headed on to bigger and better things a long time ago, he said.

Jamie: Yeah. He continues to say nice things, even though he shouldn’t, about me. What are some of your favorite parts about running your business? What is unique about your company? What is unique about your style? You already talked a little bit about the special attention you give to unique individuals and working them into your business model. So, what are your favorite parts?

Tom Decker: I love the hiring process that we’ve created. I feel like it’s unique. We offer paid interviews. So you make $13 an hour for eight hours, and the actual interview process is not a resume and sitting across a desk from myself or one of my supervisors. It’s actually a phone screen that covers the core competencies of what we’re looking for then, based upon the results of that phone screen, you’re invited out for an eight hour working interview. That eight hours is paid. If you make it through the first day, you’ll get invited to a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth day.

The actual decision on whether or not you’re extended an offer of full-time employment is the crew, even if the most junior guy on that crew, the Friday before you came in on Monday, was his first day. The look in people’s eyes when I explain that the hiring is done by the crew, they’re amazed. Then you get that buy-in when it comes to their production and their teamwork, because there is no “i” in team. Your most experienced, your most senior individual, and your weakest link, you’re only as good as that weakest link.

Jamie: I’m going to steal that idea Tom. It’s a really … Because we actually do a sit down interview where we talk to them or go to a career fair, or often we go to a college where they have electrical graduates coming out of that program. It’s a brilliant idea. Because we can like them all day long, but if they don’t work well with the team then there’s no-

Tom Decker: Well, that’s where it came from. I had half a dozen different men, who I thought were just going to be rock stars, that didn’t make it to 10 a.m. on their first day. I mean three hours! Come on. This model really takes that off, and takes the pressure off. You have a gap in your resume doesn’t mean that you’re a failure and miserable. You have come through drug and alcohol treatment, or other sorts of challenges, doesn’t mean that you’re judged based upon that.

We certainly work to maintain a clean, drug-free environment, and everybody’s subject to all the drug testing and all that, but your shortcomings and failures don’t have to define you. We talk a lot about how the next several chapters of your life are going to be awesome because we’re going to collaborate together to deliver the finest spray foam insulation in the finest way. The other piece that’s unique is at the end of the job my guys pull out a stencil, and they spray paint onto the foam, and they sign their names the same way the individuals that created the Stradivarius violins signed their names to the inside of those violins, because I want them to have pride in something that no one in our lifetime may ever see again.

Jamie: Yeah, that’s true. That’s really cool. It’s nice to see you inspiring pride in work, because it’s not something that always happens today.

Tom Decker: Our mission at Chicago Green Insulation is by the year 2027 we want the city of Chicago to be the safest and most energy efficient city in the world, and I cannot get there by myself. I am only going to get there as a result of the community that I’m fortunate enough to be a member of and the changes that are going on; because the bloodshed that occurs on the streets of the city of Chicago today does not have to be what happens tomorrow. If every small business out there had one or two more awesome participants on their team, and those individuals instead of standing on a street corner could be at home in bed with money in the bank and a home that they owned, they wake up the next morning, put the kids on the bus, go off to work, and nobody dies.

Jamie: Yeah. We got quite a mess here in the city, and there’s not enough people trying to fix it, that’s for sure.

Tom Decker: Well, I think there’s plenty of people trying to fix it. I think that the ideas that are on the table are limited. One of my clients, his daughter worked for the MacArthur Foundation, and they did a side-by-side study where they dedicated several million dollars to mentoring, and after school programs, and all kinds of resources for one community and then nothing for the next community; and tracked what the outcomes were for various at risk individuals and found only a marginal advantage to the side that they put the money in. When they went back and dissected what happened and why it happened, it came back and said it’s not about any of those things. Those things are awesome. It’s about jobs.

Jamie: Yeah.

Tom Decker: You got to have a job, and not just a job standing at a counter, which may, in fact, be what you want. Okay, then you need a job standing at a counter. But something where you can not only contribute in a high quality way, but feel good about yourself.

Jamie: I don’t remember the stats, but the unemployment of African-American men in Chicago that are in their 20s and 30s is … I remember it was staggering, whatever it was. Close to 50% I believe. And, that’s inspiring to hear business owners, or a business owner, thinking that part of the solution is providing good quality jobs, which is obvious; and yet, I don’t hear people talking about it very often.

Tom Decker: WBEZ did a study with the University of Chicago, and I’m going to be a little vague on the numbers because I don’t have it in front of me, but it was something in the neighborhood of 6,000 young men between the ages of 16 and 28 caused 90% of the violence on the streets of Chicago. Now, I’m not talking about employing those 6,000, I’m talking about employing those other individuals, so that those 6,000 start to see that there’s an option.

Jamie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Decker: So, I don’t offer jobs to the ones that don’t want it, I offer it to the ones that want out.

Jamie: And then give them an opportunity, right? Yeah, that’s cool. Segue a bit, just to move on to keep it focused on … You and I have a passion for social enterprise, which we could talk about all day long, and we have. What is the most challenging time you recall in running your business? You know, the last years that you’ve been doing this, what stands out as the single most challenging time?

Tom Decker: How to get somebody to do something as well, or better than, you would. I mean, I’m pretty humble when it comes down to it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve got a good work ethic. I know a great community of people. I’ve certainly participated in creating those things, but finding salespeople that have that same level of enthusiasm and want to go out there and understand it. That’s the conversation we were having just before the podcast started. How to identify somebody who is going to have the technical savvy, as well as, the get up and go.

Jamie: It’s a big challenge, for sure.

Tom Decker: Yup.

Jamie: And we talked about where you find those people and how you motivate them properly; and there’s great sales people out there, but they’re making six figures for some big company, and it’s hard for us to pay that, for a small business to pay something like that.

Tom Decker: And then on the install side, I use the story of my buddy in North Dakota, who simply has the spray foam insulation done like the one I’m about to hand you here. His job for the last 25 years has been spraying foam insulation using a gun just like that one you’re holding. He earns $100,000 a year. He works four days a week. He works four 12-hour days. He gets four months a year off. He gets a car, health insurance, retirement, all paid for with no contribution required from him., and all he does is pull the trigger. So I don’t have jobs like that that I can offer, but when I start talking about somebody coming into this, there’s 500,000 jobs nationwide being created to install foam over the next five years.

Jamie: That’s crazy. I read a book recently. I’ll try to put a link up to it, but it talks about the growth of the business. In that, really, a lot of the business will ride the strengths of the owner up until a certain point. I don’t remember if that was a million dollars of revenue annually, or if it was twenty employees or what the metric was. But I’ve known you for a long time, your strength is sales. You can sell anything, and that’s the best quality of an entrepreneur, I think, in my experience, is to be able to communicate the vision and drive the sales because that’s what drives the business. Once you go to a certain point, though, this book talked about how then you have to rely on the owner stepping out of their strength, and that’s the even harder part, to accelerate.

Tom Decker: Right, and the owner stepping out of their strength or pairing themselves with others who have the strengths that you don’t have to allow you to continue to pursue that strength and mentor others into that strength.

Jamie: Yes.

Tom Decker: And that’s the transition that I’m currently in the process of working on.

Jamie: You kind of hire for your weakness in the beginning, and then after that, you hire to complement your strengths. They’re both hard, neither one is easy. Hiring people is not easy, and growing a company is not easy.

Tom Decker: If you go online and look at the Google reviews of Tom Decker, Chicago Green Insulation, you see all of these different people who have had me in their house. What I’m looking for is to get somebody that reports to me to have those reviews about them with the quality of the work done on the backside.

Jamie: It’s a challenge. I look forward to sitting down with you in a year or two and hear about the few folks you hired that replace that. So tell me a little bit about your experience in making sustainability a priority in your business, and how does it effect … We were talking a little bit about your Prius that you’ve had since the beginning of business. Just give me a quick read. I know you’re entire core value you offer customers is a very simple product, but internally how do you think about sustainability?

Tom Decker: I see sustainability and environmental stewardship, as well as economic opportunity, all tied together. We’re standing here in my shop around the corner from the Tesla dealership. I don’t drive or own a Tesla, not that I could afford one in fact, if I had the money in the bank. Not that I’d want one, if I had the money in the bank, or currently could afford one.

I see this as a modern, every person opportunity, because the foam insulation at market rate does a great job for single family homes of any size. Where I get most excited is where we can do this in a way that Chicago Bungalow is owned for $80,000 to $100,000 with a near net zero utility bill, and that individual at $13-$15 an hour starting out, going up to $20-$25-$30 an hour, is working for me or you or somebody else, so they’re creating generational wealth. So I see all of those things tied together, and I think we’re at a unique crossroads with the Obama Presidential Center coming and all the economic opportunity that, that’s going to create.

Jamie: Well, Tom, as always, wonderful talking to you. Thanks for being on our episode, and look forward to talking to you again.

Tom Decker: Thank you, Jamie. I appreciate it.

Jamie: Right, take care.