Lights are often left on in unoccupied rooms, unless Eddie gives people a gentle reminder.

Saving Energy Through Environmental Communication

Steinbeis experts coordinate initiative looking at the energy efficiency of care homes

Senior care homes do not put much thought into energy issues. Understandably so – they have plenty of other topics demanding the attention of care workers, in all kinds of areas. As a result, it is normal for radiators to be left running while somebody quickly opens a window to air a room. Heated meal delivery carts are often switched on at the start of the day, mainly out of habit, even though they will not be used until later. It’s precisely these little things that an initiative called Energy Efficiency at Care Homes has been looking at. The project was launched in 2015 by the Steinbeis Research Center for Solar and Sustainable Thermal Energy Systems (Solites) in collaboration with the Stuttgart Department of Environmental Protection and the consulting company Nowak. The project, which is being supported and financed by the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) in Osnabruck, supports organizations with the introduction of energy-saving measures. Eleven senior care homes and clinics from Baden-Wuerttemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia took part in the initiative. The outcome: Up to 21% of heat and 12% of both electricity and water could be saved in 2017 thanks to simple and straightforward measures.

According to a number of studies, people living in care homes require up to four times more energy and up to six times more electricity than people living in the average four-person household. With approximately 800,000 people living in such institutions in Germany, that points to some major potential to protect the environment. As the results of the initiative show, just by thinking more consciously about what you do and introducing some simple processes or technical measures, a significant amount of energy can be saved.

Unfortunately, care homes have little incentive to cut their energy consumption. This is because their energy outlays are covered by so-called nursing rates, so if they do save money, that’s not noticed within the institution itself. Also, investing in efficient equipment pushes up the costs that have to be met by the people in care, so this is difficult to implement. Effective incentives to use energy more efficiently can only be introduced in the care industry by changing underlying processes.

“There’s so little room for maneuvering,” concludes Steinbeis project manager Magdalena Berberich, “so we focus on energy-aware behavior and low-investment measures.” This means in particular focusing on employees. Of course, nothing should be done that will affect the comfort of those in care. “Many people in care have physical or mental impediments that prevent them from helping. But some are actually quite interested in what we’re doing and already have suggestions up their sleeves,” says Berberich.

There are also restrictions in place that affect how the equipment in homes can be used. For the managers of a care home, the building technology is just one of many topics. There is often only one worker with 50% of their hours for supervising facilities, so homes tend to depend on external service providers. The problem is that some care home heating systems are highly complex, so they require frequent maintenance and adjustment. They are often found to be running inefficiently. There is rarely a good overview of the energy consumption of a building, and it is not uncommon for bills to be merged and sent to the operators who oversee homes. “To work out where there’s potential to save money or where there are technical issues, it’s really important to know how much energy a home is using and monitor it regularly,” says Dr. Jürgen Görres, director of energy at the environmental protection office of Stuttgart city government. The environmental protection office has been working closely with municipal care facilities for many years. By continuously managing energy, care homes can be regularly updated on fluctuations in energy consumption and given detailed advice on running facilities energy-efficiently. As part of the project, this long track record has been tapped in order to plan energy management at the care homes involved in the pilot study.

The team has now been working with these care homes to develop an environmental communication concept with the aim of raising awareness of energy consumption in care homes. It is also hoped to reduce energy use by encouraging people to behave differently, introduce low-investment technology, and change organizational procedures. The concept entails an initial analysis of building technology and energy consumption levels, staff training, a campaign to create more sensitivity, and workshops for people to talk about their experiences with energy efficiency drives. All in all, the aim of the concept is to make it easier to manage energy in the long term.

The initiative even has a mascot, Eddie, part of an “energy makes people happy” campaign featured on light switches, windows, and meal delivery carts, with friendly tips on using energy efficiently.

To track progress, energy data is being continuously captured and analyzed. Care homes are asked to enter monthly meter readings into a protected area on a special website. The portal automatically evaluates data and compares it to previous months and years. The care homes are also shown graphs, allowing them for the first time to get a feel for their own energy consumption.

The concept was piloted in a variety of homes for two years, and it became obvious that even the smallest changes can help save money. For example, in 2017 no less than 380 tons of carbon dioxide emissions were avoided compared to the same periods in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The amount of energy saved is the equivalent of the heating requirements of 11 four-person households, the water consumption of 26 households, and the electricity use of 55 households.

The care facilities that took part in the pilot study said that something did change as a result of the campaign and people now think and talk more about energy use. They also said that the opportunity to share experiences with other care homes in the pilot study had been extremely important because it resulted in more ideas. The meeting was a chance to discuss things like the common practice of drying cleaning cloths for hygiene reasons before using them again later the same day. The system has now been adapted and cloths are now washed in the morning and used again immediately. This saves one care home twelve laundry drying cycles per week. Depending on the situation and possibilities on site, each care home has introduced a variety of individual measures. Employees have been provided with regular updates on using energy consciously, for example when using the heating, airing rooms, switching on lights, or operating electrical equipment. In addition to thinking more carefully about energy use, savings were also made by turning the heating down, using a hydraulic adjustment device on room heaters, and introducing LED lighting.

“It takes time to change things, but it’s worth every effort,” concludes Berberich. The German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) is also highly satisfied with the results. “Energy consumption in senior citizens’ homes and care homes can be reduced without major investments if the people involved think consciously about their energy use,” says DBU department manager Verena Exner. The project ran until the end of October, and the plan now is to extend the concept tested in the pilot homes to other institutions.

The Eddie mascot and project team at the closing session on September 25, 2018 in Mulheim an der Ruhr.


To see an evaluation of energy data from the eleven homes and examples of the measures that were introduced, go to (German only).

Magdalena Berberich
Steinbeis Research Center Solar and Sustainable Thermial Energy Systems (Solites) (Stuttgart))