Behavior: The Problem That Could Be Our Solution


Do you ever think about why we have toilets that automatically flush? Sure, it’s more hygienic and it certainly plays to the Trekky in all of us, but those are only byproducts to the real reason. The truth is that people weren’t flushing public toilets. They’d use it and walk away without flushing. It sounds ridiculous, but actually, it’s the solution that is truly ridiculous. Instead of addressing the issue (people walking away without flushing), we decided to address the result of the issue (an unflushed toilet). We slapped lipstick on the pig and walked away. We believed it was easier to create a new technology instead of changing our behavior. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of using the same method to help solve the issue of energy conservation.


The Auto-Flush Light Switch

Occupancy sensors are a neat little device. The sensor is installed in place of a manual light switch and turn lights on when it detects movement and off after a specified period of inactivity. They’ve become a “sustainable best practice” for infrequently used places like restrooms, storage closets, walk-in refrigerators, and even private offices. Why are those places great applications? Because they are the most likely areas for people to walk in, turn the light on, do what they need to and walk out without turning the light off – potentially not returning for hours. So to combat this issue of lights being left on, we took the automatic flush approach and designed a technology that would target the result of the issue instead of the issue itself. We began supporting a low-cost technology substitute in place of fostering human behavior.

Fact: a manual light switch can save more energy than a motion-sensor light switch (i.e. an occupancy switch). It’s true. Let’s say you have a restroom that is used about twelve times a day and contains roughly 200 watts of lighting. An occupancy sensor is installed that turns the lights off after five minutes of inactivity. That means each time someone walks out of the restroom, the lights remain on for an additional five minutes before turning off. On a typical day, that’s about one hour of unnecessary lighting. That equals roughly 70 kWh of wasted energy each year. And that’s only one small restroom. Now compare it to a manual light switch that is appropriately used. The lights are turned off every time someone walks out of the restroom. No unnecessary lighting. No wasted energy use. No cost.


How can we foster sustainable behavior

But what if customers or coworkers in your place of business don’t have ideal behaviors for conserving energy? It’s true, in those instances an occupancy sensor will in fact reduce wasted energy consumption when the alternative is a manual light switch being left on after people leave the room. But it’s not the only option. We can work to change the core issue – human behavior. When harnessed correctly, human behavior can be the most powerful, untapped energy conservation resource available. And although it sounds difficult, there are some simple ways to foster sustainable behavior in your place of business:

  • Social norms: In many cases, norms serve to guide how we should behave. If we see others acting sustainably, we are more likely to act in the same way. If we view someone picking up a piece of litter on the sidewalk, we are more likely to do the same thing when we encounter the next piece of litter. Fostering sustainable behavior starts with creating a culture of aware individuals. Set an example and it will catch on.
  • Signage: Prompts and signage can be a powerful tool when used correctly. The most important element to remember is that prompts should be used to remind, not to educate. Sometimes people just forget, like forgetting to turn off the light. Signage can be used to remind them of an action they already know. Because of this, signage should always be placed in close proximity to the intended behavior (in this case, place a “please turn off the lights before leaving” sticker next to the light switch, not above the sink).
  • Commitment: Making a simple, small commitment, such as making a commitment to turn lights off before leaving a room, can have a big impact. There are two likely, pyschological reasons for this. First, when people commit to a request it alters their self-perception, or in other words, it changes the way that people see themselves. Second, people do not like to be seen as being inconsistent. For this reason, people who are asked to wear a button that says “I (heart) recycling” will not want to be seen throwing a soda can on the ground.

Technological advancements are incredibly impactful in our efforts to use resources more efficiently. But we can’t solely rely on technology and we have to be careful when using technology in place of smart behaviors. Because people will always be the most powerful, cost-effective tool that we have access to in our campaign for a more sustainable world.