Winter Energy Costs

5 min read

Strategies to optimize your building’s performance and bottom line

For apartment managers in cold climates, ensuring that heat is evenly distributed throughout their buildings is one of the most difficult challenges they face. Not only is this distribution crucial to guaranteeing resident comfort, but it can also be the solution to improving the bottom line. Experts explain that the key to decreasing energy costs in the winter is efficiency.

“When you deal with heat in the winter, [energy] is the only controllable variable cost that owners have to worry about,” says David Unger, chief operating officer at U.S. Energy Group, a New York-based firm that develops and integrates energy control, monitoring and analysis systems for large residential and commercial properties. “The biggest concern with managing energy in the winter is to get to a place to be fully distributed when dealing with an old system.”

In older buildings designed when oil was cheaper than water, there wasn’t any real attention focused on designing for efficiency. “Compound that with an aging system and how long radiators have been operating, and you have a situation where it’s highly unbalanced,” notes Unger. “Most landlords don’t take the proper amount of time that is required to balance the buildings and get systems tuned,” which, he says, involves dealing with radiator valves to know they work and properly heat-shielding radiators.

The most important thing for operators to do, says Unger, is to control any variable expenses—particularly in centrally heated buildings, where the cost is not passed onto the residents. He adds, “in the winter, in a 30- to 40-unit building, heating oil or gas costs could be $40,000 to $50,000. To provide heat and hot water are second [only] to taxes in variables to operate a building.”

Energy management systems

This is where energy management systems (EMS) come in—where the payback period can be as short as two years. For a building that has between 40 to 50 units, for example, a system is estimated to cost approximately $10,000 to $12,000. But an EMS can help give owners and operators more control of the building’s indoor temperature, and, as Unger points out, reducing a building’s temperature by just three degrees can save between 12 to 15 percent on annual energy costs.

An energy management system can also provide an owner or operator with the information needed to analyze building performance and determine insulation and balancing issues, providing insight into where the next investment should be focused. It is also important to identify where and how a building is overheated, as well as to run the boiler only as much as needed to keep the building at a comfortable temperature.

Another big concern in unbalanced buildings is when some apartments are too cold while residents in other apartments are opening windows because their units are overheated. “A lot of multifamily buildings don’t have central heat, but those that have it tend to overheat them,” notes Andy Padian, vice president for energy initiatives, The Community Preservation Corporation. “If one person is feeling cold, go to the apartment and see what the problem is.” Padian also suggests turning the heat down at night, which, he says, is not against code, provides residents with more comfortable sleeping conditions and keeps utility bills in check.

The problem, as Unger notes, is that most buildings are operated by an outdoor reset, which is typically a heat timer that continuously cycles the boiler based on the outside temperature, without regard to the indoor temperature. He points out that an energy management system, however, “will provide you with knowledge that you’re overheating, and if you look at the indoor temperature distributed throughout the building, you’ll know where you are providing too much or too little heat.”

Testing energy efficiency

An efficiency test on a building’s heating equipment is also crucial, particularly if that building has an especially large boiler, Padian adds. Even if you purchase an efficient boiler, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s running efficiently. Padian suggests either having an efficiency test done by an independent contractor or buying a combustion kit and teaching onsite maintenance how to use it.

“If you own 1,000 units and pay $2,000 for efficiency equipment and save 1 percent in heating costs, that could be a savings of $10,000 in year one in heating fuel costs for a typical building,” Padian notes. And the kits only cost $1,000 to $3,500.

Another potential problem is that many systems regularly lose water. “If you have a steam system that is not very tight and steam is escaping, you lose water on an ongoing basis. The more water you lose, the more you have to return to the boiler, which means you’re returning tap water to the boiler, and you have to reheat it to get it up to temperature,” Unger explains. “It’s a big energy efficiency loss if you’re not running a tight system.”

To ensure a tight system, check for any condensation return leaks, Unger suggests. A leak can result in the stack reaching too high a temperature. Unger notes that the temperature on an oil system should not be higher than 650 degrees, while gas systems should not reach temperatures higher than 500 degrees. If the system reaches these temperatures, the tubes need to be cleaned or else operators could face water loss resulting in thousands of dollars every year.

Once the system is running properly, boiler maintenance is key. “What happens is, as the boiler is running more, it may be more efficient while it’s running, but because it’s been running, the oil and gas you burn may put a slight coating of film on the inside of the heating equipment,” says Padian, who notes that a central oil boiler should be cleaned every other year, while a standard central boiler should be cleaned at the beginning and end of the season. Boilers using number four or number six oil should be cleaned more frequently.

Now that oil prices are on the rise and will likely continue this upward swing, some owners are thinking about converting to natural gas. “What I’ve heard about natural gas is, there is an overabundance in the U.S. so the prices should stay fairly stable,” Unger notes. “Owners should think about how they plan and manage their conversions to natural gas. They need to look at that—that will help control costs even more.”

To comment, e-mail Erika Schnitzer at [email protected]

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