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Vending machines can be found at almost every recreation center in the United States. They are an amenity our customers cannot live without. How can we be more environmentally responsible in operating these machines that bear liquid and edible refreshments? And, with many states now raising utility rates, how can vending machines be operated in the black? Electrical consumption--now more than ever--plays a key role in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of a vending machine.

With so many avenues available now for parks and recreation professionals to conserve energy in the workplace, why not reevaluate a machine’s electrical consumption? I can still remember, during the summer months, listening to two old vending machines outside my office window, cycling on and off feverishly, attempting to keep the soda chilled. I never gave a thought as to how much electricity was wasted to keep a few drinks cold. At the very least, I would have moved the machines inside or under the roof of the building to limit the electrical demand incurred by the heat of the afternoon sun.

Less Is More

The conditions surrounding a vending machine have a direct effect on how much energy it draws. The location of the machine (outside or inside a building), the use and the surrounding climate all have a hand in the equation. Infrared occupancy sensors can help manage one of the major factors in electrical consumption: use. Because the sensor shuts down a machine when it is not in use, it saves the owner money by reducing hard compressor start-ups and shut-downs while still maintaining a set temperature. This is done by allowing the compressor to run through a complete cycle.

Additionally, lighting costs can be reduced by using sensors because they are only turned on when someone is present. According to Jim Brinton, Chairman of the Board, National Automatic Merchandising Association, electrical savings by de-lamping, or reducing the amount of time lights are on, “depends on the machine. As an industry we are moving towards LED bulbs as they have shown a 50-percent savings in comparison to standard florescent bulbs. They also save the customer money in that they have a much longer life span, up to 15 years in comparison to one to two years for standard florescent bulbs.”

One possible downside to de-lamping a machine or using occupancy sensors is that the public may be under the impression the machine is out of order, or turned off at times. In an effort to keep the lights on, the vending machine industry, according to Brinton, “is now looking at the strategic placement of lighting fixtures in vending machines.”

Instead of lighting an entire machine, specifically placed LEDs can light what is needed to sell the product inside. For example, some snack machines require two 40-watt florescent bulbs to operate the front panel for a cost of $15 per month. Those bulbs can now be replaced, according to Brinton, “with a strategically placed 14-watt LED, with a monthly cost of $2.38.” This amounts to a large annual savings even with only a few vending machines.

Another sign that vendors are seeking to reduce energy costs is the labels now appearing on vending machines with occupancy sensors. These labels, according to Brain Allen, Senior Director and Counsel for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, simply state, “I’m still working even though my lights are off to conserve energy.”

Calculating The Costs

What does it cost to operate a vending machine? Many times, the exact cost is never fully accounted for because the amount of electricity used gets lost in a monthly utility bill. It is very difficult to distinguish how much electricity a square-dance rental uses each month in comparison to a snack machine. They both pull electricity from the same meter on the side of a building. One option is to attach a kilowatt-monitoring device to record daily, weekly and monthly electricity consumption.

Vending machines can use up to 4,200 kilowatt hours (KWh) annually, depending on the type of machine, location and any energy-efficient measures used with a specific machine. Simple math indicates that if the rate per KWh is the national average of 9.49 cents, and a respectable 3,750 KWh were used last year, the annual bill would be approximately $350. Unfortunately, we do not all live in Idaho, where the average KWh rate is 5.28 cents, the lowest nationally. Oddly enough, I now have one item on my list of reasons not to move to Hawaii (the average KWh is 28 cents, yikes!).

After the cost of the product, a vendor’s time and a department’s commission or location fee, the profit margin can be razor-thin at times. Regardless of profit, why should taxpayers pay to keep snacks and drinks cold for a small, almost immeasurable, segment of the population? It is as if the general public is paying for part of every soda that is purchased at any given machine.

A vending machine only becomes profitable when the commission or location fee out-paces electrical consumption. Where above that black line do you want to be? Having staff make change and perform other customer-service tasks in relation to a snack machine for a net annual profit of $1 is not economically viable. The key is to work with a vendor closely to assure you are getting as much out of the machine as the vendor- and the public are, while being environmentally responsible.

How to reduce costs and retain more profits from a vending machine:

· Share electrical costs for operating a machine with the vending machine company/owner.

· When applicable, use passive infrared-occupancy sensors to lower electrical consumption.

· Configure the cost of operating the vending machine into the percentage you retain from any profits.

· Have a low-use machine--or one in an area where there is little or no return--taken out or moved to another location

· Monitor the electrical consumption each month, and charge it back to the vending contractor.

· De-lamp, or retrofit, a machine with an energy-efficient lamp.

The objective is to understand more clearly the cost of operating a vending machine and reducing the utility bill. These methods may not be applicable in all situations and contracts, but should create new or further existing dialog with your vendor.

In some cases a vending machine is as much a necessity as a drinking fountain, but it can be a burden financially and environmentally on a municipality when not managed correctly. Why should an entire community unknowingly subsidize the cost of operating a vending machine for a small fraction of the population?

Apply the technology currently on the market. While there will be some initial start-up cost, over time you will recoup that by reducing your utility bill. Lastly, work with your vendor regularly to understand how the machine operates and, most of all, to keep the contract/agreement financially equitable for both parties.

Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at syeskulsky@verizon.net

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