When global competition threatened the future of a North Carolina plumbing supply manufacturer, a SWAT team of NC State professors and graduate students visited the plant. They found ways for managers to reduce their energy bills by thousands of dollars a year, helping the plant become more competitive and likely saving dozens of jobs.

The plant is among the hundreds of small and mid-sized companies the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has helped become more energy efficient over the past 14 years. Tweaks to production processes and equipment upgrades have helped conserve electricity and natural gas, saving the companies $2 million to $3 million annually, says Dr. Herb Eckerlin, who founded the IAC and now serves as assistant director. “We help increase productivity, reduce waste and reduce energy costs,” he says. “That adds up to increased profits.”

The IAC is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as a Center of Excellence.Teams of NC State professors and students, led by IAC Director Dr. Jim Leach, conduct about two dozen audits a year, checking boilers, HVAC systems, and lighting for wasted energy. In addition to helping companies that are often major employers in small North Carolina communities, Eckerlin says the program gives students valuable training. “We’re educating the next generation of energy engineers,” he says. “The IAC has immediate and long-term impacts.”

Doctoral student Lynn Albers is a member of the IAC audit teams. A former Nortel Networks project manager, Albers is such a disciple of energy efficiency that she once gave her friends and family fluorescent light bulbs for Christmas. She even does the energy audits just for fun. “I love the idea that you can save energy and help with the bottom line,” she says. “Even if the plant stays open for just one additional year, that’s another year people can put food on the table for their families.”

Having had a passion for solar energy since she was a child, Albers is also trying to instill energy efficiency into the minds of some Raleigh youngsters. She teaches a third-grade class of inner-city students as part of the National Science Foundation-funded RAMP-UP program (Recognizing Accelerated Math Potential in Underrepresented People), and she plans to incorporate solar-powered cars and renewable energy projects into the lessons. “We try to inspire the kids to love math and science,” she says, “and if they can learn about renewable energy or conservation as well, that’s even better.”

For more information, please visit www.mae.ncsu.edu/centers/iac