Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Government data provides us with telling characteristics of the 21 million apartments in the U.S., but there is much less data available on how apartment residents live in their homes and how those habits affect their energy consumption.

Appliance Usage and Energy Consumption

Presence of Appliances/Features In Apartment Households

Presence of Appliances/Features In Apartment Households

There are almost 21 million apartment units in the United States, spanning a variety of ages, locations and renter characteristics. Government data provides us with telling characteristics of where these units are located and who lives in them, but there is much less data available on how apartment residents live in their homes and how those habits affect their energy consumption. 

This is a critical issue for property owners and managers because it affects both the dollars going into a property and the dollars going out. Appliances are a big-ticket item. They are expensive to purchase, service and replace. How often a resident uses an appliance can provide apartment firms with direction on what appliances and appliance features are worth the investment.

Moreover, appliances use a significant amount of energy, affecting operating costs for either the resident or the apartment firm. Regardless of who foots the bill, this usage information is increasingly under scrutiny due to growing pressure and incentives to achieve broader reductions in energy consumption.

To those ends, recently released summary results from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) may provide some insight. The RECS includes data for three main categories of in-unit features related to energy usage: household appliances, electronics and space heating/cooling. Because apartment owners and managers have little control over the use of personal electronics, we focused on household appliances and space heating/cooling for this analysis.

Appliance lowdown

The first thing to consider was what appliances apartment residents had in their apartments (defined as rented units in buildings with two or more units). Some features—such as heating, stove/oven, microwave and refrigerator—were present in almost all apartment units. However, the data also provides some additional detail.

More than three-quarters of refrigerators in apartments, for example, are two-door with the freezer on top; bottom freezer and side-by-side models are much less prevalent, accounting for 3 percent and 7 percent of all refrigerators found in apartments, respectively. This is important because not all models operate at the same efficiency; according to Energy Star information, top-mounted freezers use notably less energy than their side-mounted or bottom-mounted freezer counterparts.

While these appliances are commonplace, other appliances are much less widespread. Air conditioning, as one might expect given the vast geographic distribution of apartments, is not standard across the country—only 83 percent of apartment households reported using air conditioning. And among those households with air conditioning, more than half have a central system, with the remainder utilizing individual systems like window units.

Moreover, some appliances that are considered nearly essential in new developments are much less prevalent across the apartment stock universe. Many apartment buildings lack in-unit laundry facilities, for example. Only 39 percent of apartment households have a washing machine in their unit (38 percent have a dryer). And of those with in-unit washers, 84 percent have top-loading machines. 

Usage patterns

The survey data also contains some interesting information about how often apartment residents use their appliances. For example, three-quarters of apartment households cook hot meals at least once per day; how those hot meals are prepared varies, however. More than half (51 percent) use their oven one to three times per week, although they tend to use the stove cooktop more frequently (46 percent reported using their cooktop four to seven times per week).

We were also curious about dishwasher usage. Of the 53 percent of apartment households that have a dishwasher, 28 percent say they use it two to three times a week. However, another 31 percent say they use it less than once a week. Moreover, the most-used dishwashing cycle was the machine’s normal or default cycle with heated drying. In fact, apartment residents were 20 times more likely to use this setting rather than the machine’s energy saver option (if it exists on their unit).

And those households that do have in-unit washing machines? More than three-quarters (76 percent) of them use it one to three times per week.

Beyond frequency of use, the data contains information on the various appliances and features that apartment residents can control or adjust themselves depending on their individual preferences. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of apartment dwellers have a thermostat, although more than half (56 percent) of those households are unable to program it themselves. For those who can adjust thermostat settings, roughly half just set it and forget it, leaving the thermostat at one temperature most of the time.

This compares with the less than one-quarter of apartment households (24 percent) that can and do choose to manually adjust the temperature setting at night or when no one is at home. This is similar to households with central air conditioning, among which just one-quarter manually adjust the temperature.

Key takeaways

These results from the RECS suggest that many of the appliances and features often considered standard in new apartment communities are much less common than thought in the overall apartment stock, and some are used infrequently. Together, this information can offer a snapshot of what appliances and features the average apartment resident values most.

This data can also provide a deeper understanding of what activities are likely to be driving the bulk of energy bills. While this information is arguably most helpful in cases where utilities are included in rent, there are a growing number of reasons apartment owners and managers should expand their knowledge about residents’ energy consumption even when bill-back and submetering programs are in place.

Residents are expressing more interest in energy-efficient living, but a changing regulatory environment, growth in energy benchmarking programs and more commitments from local governments to reduce energy consumption suggest that apartment owners and managers are still going to have to have a handle on how their residents use energy at home even if residents are directly responsible for these expenses. 

Caitlin Walter

Caitlin Walter

Caitlin Walter is the senior director of research at the National Multifamily Housing Council in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cwalter@nmhc.org.

Originally appearing in the October 2017 issue of MHN.