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Jun. 26, 2012

Behind Closed Doors

By Barbra Murray, Contributing Editor 

Property owners may not know it, but they may be literally throwing wads of money right out of the windows of their apartment buildings. It’s all about energy conservation, or the lack thereof. A surefire way to determine the source of the losses is to conduct a building audit, specifically, a building audit that incorporates in-unit audits. An energy efficiency assessment is incomplete without taking the oft-overlooked step of surveying a building’s residential units.

As noted in a report released by urban sustainability organization CNT Energy and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in January 2012, cost-effective energy upgrades to the nation’s multifamily portfolio would result in an annual savings of approximately $3.4 billion. Options for efficiency opportunities are plentiful and an energy check-up can point an owner in the right direction.

In a whole-building audit, an inspection of the basement and roof cavity, for example, may uncover a need for air sealing and insulation. A look at the property’s hot water heater may reveal that a retrofit or replacement would prove beneficial, particularly given that, according to CNT Energy, 14 to 25 percent of the energy consumed in a building can be attributed to water heating. Lighting, which typically accounts for 15 percent of the electric bill, can prove a source for savings, too. A simple switch to lower-wattage bulbs in the lobby and community room would help; add to that a change in lighting within the units, and maximum efficiency is within closer reach.

“Typically as part of the whole-building multifamily audit process, you would conduct an audit of a select sample of apartment units themselves, because any efficiency opportunities or deficiencies that you see in the units can generally be applied to the building as a whole,” Paula Cino, director of energy and environmental policy for the National Multi Housing Council, asserts.

Perhaps in a perfect world, a multifamily property energy audit would encompass the structure from head to toe, inside and out, all residences included. In reality, however, the sampling process is more commonly employed. “You really just want to get to that point where you’re able to recognize the patterns and what are the common themes and the common opportunities among all the apartments,” says Cameron Bard, assistant project manager with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The combination approach is more practical, yet some building owners may still be inclined to skip knocking on even a few doors. While acting on the results of a whole-building and limited in-unit energy audit will conserve energy and, therefore, save money, the initial investment in an audit can frequently be a deterrent. Alas, many opt to stick with the singular whole-building method, sans units.

“I think that whole-building approaches tend to be more cost effective,” Anne Evens, director of CNT Energy, notes. “[The decision usually] depends on ownership, metering and who pays for what, because that’s usually the driver, of course.” But ultimately, she adds, the auditing of both building and units should be a package deal. “I think a good multifamily assessment, even if it’s a master-metered rental situation where owners pay the heat, does include audits of representative units so that you understand how the building is performing for the people who live there.”

Yet, financial issues can lead to the less common practice of in-unit auditing, minus the whole-building audit.  “If you just aren’t going to have the financing or the capability of making building-wide retrofits, possibly, as units turn, you can perform those in-unit audits and see what you could do in an individual unit to improve the energy,” NMHC’s Cino explains.

To help address any financial fears in the pursuit of energy efficiency through auditing, various associations and state and local government agencies across the country are luring building owners into performing energy audits by providing incentives and special programs. For its program in Chicago, CNT Energy actually offers free audits-—followed by financial guidance, construction oversight and annual performance monitoring—and those audits include a sampling of the residences.

The degree to which in-unit audits play a role in the overall auditing picture varies from asset to asset. “It’s really going to be driven by the design of those individual properties,” says Cino.

“It’s going to matter if you have individual HVAC equipment in individual units or whether that’s a central system; whether or not you have a building that has central mechanical systems—or are those all in the units themselves. That’s going to be a big decider of where those efficiency upgrade opportunities really are.”

As it currently stands, in terms of energy efficiency program regulations, no consistent practice exists countrywide. Chicago, New York and Boston are among the cities with programs that mandate the incorporation of in-unit audits with the whole-building assessment.  And there is still work to be done to encourage multi-family energy audits in general.

“Something we really try to emphasize for our building owners is that industry standards or industry assumptions are great to try to help get people off the couch and start making decisions to get those upgrades done,” Bard of NYSERDA says. “But not until you have an onsite, building-specific audit done or energy assessment performed are you going to be able to let the analysis drive the decisions.”

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