Claudia Espino tells Patrick Kocourek about better fridge gaskets.
The flicker-checker

En Español

Burritos were on the menu but light bulbs were the first item on the agenda on a recent morning at El Faro on Folsom and 20th streets. Claudia Espino, an energy auditor with San Francisco Environment, used a sensor and a flicker-checker, two small but handy gadgets, to point out energy-inefficient ballasts—devices that regulate electrical current—to the restaurant’s owners.

Espino has been working for about seven months with the San Francisco Energy Watch program, launched in 2007 as a way to achieve the city’s greenhouse gas reduction goal. A partnership between Pacific Gas and Electric and the city, SF Energy Watch provides free audits and incentives to businesses and multi-family property owners to switch over to energy-efficient lighting and refrigeration. It has served over 2,000 businesses in the city in the past three years.

While solar is the hot item, the city is urging people to go efficient first. And the program is paying off. SF Energy Watch has reduced the city’s electricity demand by over 11 megawatts, said Gabriella Canez, an outreach coordinator at San Francisco Environment, the city agency implementing the program. The reduction works out to an average yearly savings in energy bills of $4,500 per customer.

Raimunda Ramirez, co-owner of El Faro.

The city pays on average over 60 percent of installation costs with money from the “public purpose” fee on every PG&E bill. According to an example provided by SFE, on a bill totaling $989, a customer pays $44. That money gets collected and administered by the California Public Utilities Commission, and goes towards programs like SF Energy Watch.

SFE is reaching out to 250 businesses in each district, using neighborhood campaigns to spread the word about SF Energy Watch. This week is the third in the Mission District, with one more to go.

A native of Mexico, Espino speaks Spanish with the neighborhood’s business owners. She said they aren’t always immediate believers that the program is really going to help them reduce their bill and help pay for the upgrade.

And sometimes it can take years for the investment to pay for itself. That’s why Carla Parada, owner of Norma’s Hair Salon, decided it wasn’t worthwhile adding motion sensors to her already retrofitted Mission Street shop. She would pay $203, the city would pay $197, and she would save only $4 a month.

Energy efficient and inefficient bulbs, side by side at El Faro.

But after Espino’s audit, El Faro owners Patrick Kocourek and Raimunda Ramirez were ready to give the program a try. Their monthly energy bill is $1,600 – more than half of the $2,500 rent they pay for the business they call “the first burrito place in the world.”

“With the savings, we’d be able to pay our bills on time,” said Kocourek, who says he’s constantly trying to cut costs. Composting saved $200 a month in garbage bills. Replacing the “gigantic” old ice machine with a newer, smaller model shaved a grand off their monthly energy bill. Tackling lighting is next.

“I’m saving on every step,” he said. “Like every business, we’re fighting to stay afloat.”

When Kocourek and Ramirez first rented the place three years ago, the high ceilings had old magnetic ballasts — harder to find and sometimes containing PCBs — and larger fluorescent bulbs. They replaced some of the four- and eight-foot lamps with energy- efficient bulbs, but they didn’t realize they needed to swap the magnetic ballast for an electronic one in order to be energy efficient.

Lights will soon be brighter in the El Faro kitchen.

It’s a common misconception, Espino said, that if you only change the bulb, you’re automatically saving energy. In fact, magnetic ballast cause efficient bulbs to burn fast and won’t save as much energy.

In the industrial back kitchen of El Faro, a man cooked carne asada under flickering lamps. Some were already burned out. Part of the problem, according to Kocourek, is the size of the space—so many rooms and such high ceilings.

“Everything they did in the past was extra, extra, extra large,” he said. “We don’t use the whole space.”

Kocourek tries to close the refrigerator doors that stay ajar after customers grab their sodas, but at the height of lunch hour he’s too busy manning the register while the cooks and servers take orders. Espino says just replacing the gaskets on the refrigerator could reduce the monthly bill by at least $100. With the information she collected during the audit, Espino will create a detailed report and bring it back for El Faro’s owners to sign.

SFE’s Canez says that unlike PG&E’s rebate program, in which the customer pays an up front installation cost that is later refunded, SF Energy Watch incentives are applied immediately. When a customer chooses to move forward with the retrofit, the city arranges the installation, drawing on a list of contractors that have been trained by SFE on how to install new equipment and properly recycle the old. The city deducts the incentive from the bill.

Tony Lopez, owner of De Todo Un Poco, at his store.

One happy customer is Tony Lopez, whose store, De Todo Un Poco, on 24th street, sells exactly that—a little bit of everything, from bandannas to kitchen magnets. He hasn’t had to change the new lamps the city installed one-and-a-half years ago and, best of all, his monthly energy bill of $145 has dropped by half.

The owner of Lucky Pork on Mission Street was already planning on retrofitting the lights hanging over a long display of meat cuts when he found out about the city initiative. The current lights cast a dim glow over the raw flesh but he hopes new bulbs will help bring it to life. The skylights overhead could add natural light and save energy, but the owner painted them over to keep the sun from spoiling the food.

Jaime Gonzalez, the owner of Elsy’s Restaurant, on 25th and Mission, signed on this Tuesday when Espino gave him the report showing that he would be saving 83 watts, or $144.96 a year on his energy bills if he changed his inefficient bulbs. The installation costs were $326 but the city will pay $297 of that.

Meat on display at Lucky Pork on Mission Street.

Elsy’s lighting problem was the exact opposite of El Faro’s. Inefficient bulbs were hooked up to efficient electronic ballasts – another bad combination. Espino reminded Gonzalez never to throw old bulbs in the trash because of the mercury they contain, and he thanked her for the information.

“I’m going to die one day and what will I leave behind for my children? A world that I helped contaminate?” asked Gonzalez. “I can do my part helping the environment and saving money.”

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