PASADENA, CA – Honda is hoping to imbue its dealers with its eco-minded corporate philosophy via a new program that helps them reduce their carbon footprint as well as save money.

The “Green Dealer” initiative rolled out late last year and is being spearheaded by American Honda’s Environmental Business Development Office.

Unlike past dealer initiatives, in which Honda might have asked its retailers to perform aesthetic upgrades to buildings or decor, dealers now may be prodded to install solar panels or a living roof.

In the 1990s, “If I would have said, ‘You need to put a rooftop garden in,’ I would have been tarred and feathered, but today you say those things (and) it doesn’t fall upon the same level of ridiculousness,” Steve Center, vice president-Environmental Business Development Office, tells WardsAuto here in an interview.

After working for years to make its manufacturing plants and office buildings more green, American Honda now wants to help its 1,300 independently owned Honda and Acura dealers reduce their facilities’ greenhouse-gas emissions, something also likely to reduce their utility bills.

Utility costs typically make up a large portion of a dealer’s expenses, Center says.

Due to the 9-to-5 nature of their businesses, most auto dealers pay peak utility rates. On top of that they have higher electricity needs than most businesses due to brightly lit showrooms and cavernous parts and service operations.

Maintaining proper interior temperature also can be tricky due to doors opening and closing frequently, and dealerships also use a fair amount of water to wash cars leaving service.

So Honda is sending out energy-efficiency engineers to its U.S. dealerships to perform audits not meant to recommend a specific product or service, but to offer specifications a dealer should try to achieve using a certain type of product.

The energy audits already have produced worthwhile information, Center says.

“We found in some cases, in the service shops, the air-dry systems aren’t really maintained,” he says. “The compressor is running all the time, (so we asked dealers), ‘Can you put a higher efficiency compressor motor in?’ We’re really discovering all kinds of things.”

Water usage also could be better managed, Honda has discovered. Some dealers are needlessly recycling their car-wash water while others should be but aren’t.

“In some places they don’t want you to recycle the water; they want you to return it to the environment,” Center says. “But it needs to be returned properly, so maybe it needs to be filtered.

“These are all kinds of burdensome things for the dealer to learn, so we’re taking it upon ourselves to learn it, and serve up the solutions.”

Dealers participating in Honda’s green program will be eligible for an award from the auto maker at three certification levels, with silver being the lowest level of achievement and platinum the highest.

To qualify for the silver award, dealers must reduce their carbon footprint 10%, while the platinum award recognizes construction of a building granted LEED certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Headquarter Honda of Clermont, FL, is a platinum Honda award recipient and also has earned highest-level platinum certification from LEED. Features of the Central Florida dealership include a living roof, rainwater collection cisterns, photovoltaic panels and smart lighting that is motion-activated.

Honda’s Green Dealer initiative so far is going slowly, with just 10 dealers earning awards.

That low number reflects the need to reduce the cost of audits, Center says. It takes a full day to do an assessment at an individual store, followed by another day or two of data analysis.

“I’m just trying to burn down that time, because those audits can cost up to $15,000 to do it right,” he says.

Costs might be reduced by scaling back from full audits to those that focus on areas where dealers could save the most money.

“We’re trying to find the quick way to go in there and find the high (return-on-investment) savings in terms of carbon (reduction),” Center says.

Honda is aware the cost of facility upgrades, including installing pricey solar panels, may be holding some dealers back, so it is exploring providing financing.

“You’re saving (money), you’re also avoiding the escalation in the utility rates, but people aren’t used to paying for 20 years’ worth of electricity up front,” Center observes.

Cost is one reason why Ronald Rossi, owner of Rossi Honda of Vineland, NJ, believes few Honda or Acura dealers have followed his lead.

Rossi’s updates to his store, a silver Honda award recipient, include the installation of 500 ft. (152 m) of solar canopies that predate the Green Dealer initiative by almost a year, as well as the use of motion-activated lighting and drought-tolerant shrubs.

Although it cost him $1 million, he believes the solar array, which has reduced his summer electric bills from $5,000-$6,000 a month to $500-$600, was a wise business decision.

“Why wouldn’t you do it to save your overhead?” Rossi would ask of dealers on the fence about energy-efficiency upgrades.

Rossi says federal and state tax credits are offsetting the costs of his upgrades.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com