Just as the heating season got underway in earnest, Bill Pauling spotted a guy looking over the natural gas meter at his downtown Montevideo, Minn., grocery store with a quizzical look on his face.
"I couldn't figure out what the guy was doing," said Pauling, owner of Bill's Supermarket.
The guy was Xcel Energy's meter reader. He couldn't figure out why the store's meter showed zero gas usage for the prior month. He was there to see why.
Pauling should have seen it coming. This was the second time in recent years that the store's natural gas supplier has sent a meter reader on a special visit.
Investments in energy conservation really do pay off, according to Pauling. There are entire months during the heating season when his 13,000-square-foot store is heated only with a heat exchange system. It captures "waste" heat that was otherwise vented outside from the store's refrigeration and cooling equipment.
"We just capture BTUs that we would have normally thrown out the door," said the store owner.
The waste heat from the electrical equipment is now the primary source of heat for the store. Natural gas is a backup, needed only when outside temperatures fall to 5 degrees or lower, he said.
Eight years ago he invested in new refrigeration equipment for the store's frozen and perishable goods. He obtained low-interest financing -- 6 percent at the time -- through an energy conservation program offered by Xcel Energy to engineer the system.
Pauling was also able to cut his electrical usage significantly by replacing the old system with more energy-efficient compressors, and fewer of them. Then he spent another $50,000 to install the heat exchange system.
As promised, he expects the system should pay for itself in about 10 years. He said his heating costs have dropped by anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a year.
Pauling has made energy conservation a priority. He's added energy-efficient lamps, and when he needed a new roof, he installed a white membrane roof that reflects sunlight and reduces his summer cooling needs.
"Every time I do something, I try to upgrade that as much as possible," he said.
WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE WILLMAR, MINN.