Switch on to efficiency

If you think energy is a fixed cost you can’t do much about, think again. In the fourth article in our series of six taking a detailed look at the PIVIT (Pig Improvement Via Information Technology) Project, which is funded by the Rural Development Programme for England, we find that continually monitoring energy consumption can help cut waste, find potential savings and improve efficiency

The pig industry understands the importance of minimising its environmental impact and producers have been eager to embrace ‘green’ energy generation with solar power, wind turbines, biomass burners and biodigesters now used by many businesses. However, improving energy efficiency and reducing the actual amount of electricity pig units use tends to be more of a challenge.

By monitoring energy consumption and analysing the data collected, producers will get a better idea of what they use and when they use it, and therefore some idea of the operating costs of environmentally controlled production systems. This information helps to establish what’s “normal” for particular buildings, and allows operators to control and manage the energy they use within them.

Ultimately, better control is the key to energy waste reduction: if you use less and use it more effectively, savings will be made. Continuous monitoring also tends to alter human behaviour; when presented with the facts, people soon begin to switch things off and turn things down.

The PIVIT group has found that the exposure to energy use on a daily basis modifies management. For example, when you begin to talk about setting up rooms to use less electricity, the fact there’s data available tends to support the discussion and people will make changes to see what happens.

“Most producers may think they know all they need to about energy use on their units, but once they start to monitor and record it they soon realise there’s much more to learn and that they can change what they do to make far better use of this valuable and expensive resource,” says PIVIT Co-ordinator Hugh Crabtree.

Figure 1 gives some idea of energy use and the potential available to improve it. The graph compares the cumulative electricity used in monitored farrow-to-finish accommodation to typical industry figures.

These figures emerged from a BPEX/Farmex energy project carried out in 2007/8, and the results are surprising. Importantly, these considerable differences have notable cost implications. Figures compiled by building supplier ARM for new buildings using PIVIT monitoring throughout the pig production process have shown electricity consumption running at 16kWh/pig compared to the industry average of 40kWh.

Challenge routine

Most farms operate routines that have been in use for years without challenge just because they produce acceptable results. But what PIVIT is suggesting, and its findings are revealing, is that improvements are possible that can add value to the production process.

“If those operating the system learn more about the relationship between inputs and production efficiency, they can then learn to control it more effectively, which in turn offers performance benefits and savings,” Mr Crabtree explains.

Pig producers don’t generally understand how energy is used on their units and it’s unusual for them to monitor individual buildings, with one bill covering all electricity use. However, by using building-by-building monitoring it’s possible to allocate energy costs more accurately, and even to each batch of pigs produced. This is beginning to happen with some of the PIVIT farms.

“Monitoring energy used per building supports the need to make sure systems are set up and operated correctly so “normal” consumption for that building is matched. If it’s not, then investigations begin,” Mr Crabtree says.

Tracking energy use in a pig production system is simple and cost effective. Meters to monitor inputs can be located per room or pen and are easily set up and networked to a data collection and recording system. This allows producers to keep an eye on the energy that’s actually being consumed per batch of pigs, as well as other important factors.

Doing this can also provide a good indication of how ventilation is working, for example. The faster the fan speed, the higher the ventilation rate and the more power that’s used. There’s a clear and simple relationship here and some businesses are now realising the potential for intelligent monitoring of energy inputs.

A number of US pig businesses are now using this technology as a tool to monitor fan/ventilation efficiency and safety. If the energy use changes significantly from the norm, it indicates that fans are running faster or slower than usual and then automatically raises an alert in case the pigs are at risk.

The principal purpose of continuous monitoring is precision control, and by keeping track of a stable working system you can ensure it stays that way and any problems are identified and rectified quickly. But the biggest hurdle here is convincing producers that a system won’t automatically look after itself, as most assume that once an improvement has been made, it will be sustained.

“This isn’t the case, because maintaining performance at a desired level requires continual monitoring and frequent measurement,” Mr Crabtree says. “For pig production processes, this necessitates automated observations and data collection, and the tools are already there to do this very cost effectively.”

The data collected by the PIVIT project (now totalling some 70 million records) is freely available to any research institute that wants it – contact Hugh Crabtree ([email protected]) for more information.

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