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My Master Metered Condo and Its Energy Priorities

Adam Siegel's picture
Partner GESN/ITA

Adam Siegel is an entrepreneurial analyst working at the intersection of energy, climate, national security, and business affairs. He has worked with/for government agencies, think tanks...

  • Member since 2013
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  • Sep 1, 2011

This is a guest post by J. Siegel.

The over 40-year-old condo building my husband and I bought into has lots of plusses ….

  • A spacious and sunny apartment  (perfect for an indoor herb garden)
  • A  short walk to a Metro station and a walk to a range of shopping (from great bagels to a grocery store, to 100s of stores)
  • An outdoor swimming pool that’s practically a private pool;

But, it has drawbacks too. Among those drawbacks is a relatively common and costly problem:

  • It is a master-metered building.

A simple reality: most people don’t give a hoot about energy conservation. Master meters exacerbate the problem as occupants (owners and renters) think they’ve got a bargain because they think they “don’t pay for utilities” (a comment sadly heard from too many of my neighbors). The opposite, of course, is true. People in master metered buildings often pay an extra 25% and more for utilities as part of their condo fee or rent. And, well, the conscientious energy ‘misers’ end up, seriously, subsidizing the energy spendthrifts. As has been documented, converting to individual meters ends in significant savings for all but the worst energy spendthrifts as most people end up using less energy then before and that extra 25 percent usage dissipates and ends up with money in the pocket.  (NYSERDA, for example, estimates 15-30 percent savings via transitioning to submetering.)

Another problem with our building is it’s old. Old means most of the units still have original plumbing…not the now universally installed low flow shower heads and toilets. And things break and wear out…like the 22 vertical risers. There are periodic and serious leaks so the risers must be repaired, and at great cost…approximately $1.5 million. The work must be done. Each leak is hugely costly and threatens the condo’s insurance.

The Energy Conservation Grant

After our energy audit (funded by a State of Maryland grant), the board voted to fund a portion of the recommended upgrades at a cost of about $30,000 with matching funds anticipated from the local electric  power company (PEPCO). Last year,  Montgomery County announced its Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant Program using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA — “Stimulus Act”) through the U.S. Department of Energy. The County solicited applications from businesses, not-for-profit organizations and multi-family communities. The grants would cover 50% of  project cost (up to $150,000 in project costs).

This presented our condo with an opportunity to undertake more of the audit recommendations than originally authorized. Our Board applied and won a grant. Now the work has to be done.

Upgrades that will increase energy efficiency

While changing the behavior of the residents of our 220 unit, 16 floor building is a challenge and an on-going project, there are common systems that are operating inefficiently and that’s what the grant funded work will tackle. Often, management companies are so involved in the day-to-day hassles of the building’s operations they don’t think (have the energy, resources, motivation) to look at improving system efficiency. Just keeping them running is an accomplishment. Without a professional audit, we wouldn’t have known about cost-effective changes and the Board would have been unlikely to have funded those changes without the PEPCO incentives.

With the audit’s recommendations and the PEPCO’s incentives, reinforced with the County assistance, have led the Board to approve these five steps:

  1. Improve air handling (1): Installation of equipment for calibration of a common air handling unit with a digital control system. The will reduce the amount of air that needs to be conditioned and put in controls to provide a function to make maximum use of outside air for cooling when the outside temperatures allow for it
  2. Improve air handling (2): Replace two 15 HP motors powering the cooling tower fans and one 50 HP motor to better match actual loads.
  3. Improve air conditioning efficiency: Install automatic temperature control for the HVAC system’s two chillers to optimize system demand. This is currently done manually.  This automatic control will occur when staff is not on site (evenings and weekends).
  4. Lighting (1): The two levels of indoor garages now use 72 T-12 fxtures with magnetic ballast. Since there’s no daylight the bulbs are used 24/7. They will be replaced with T-8 bulbs with electronic ballast and equipped with occupancy sensors on 2/3 of the fixtures. (Note that simply replacing T-12s with T-8s can cut energy use by over 35 percent while improving lighting …  The occupancy sensors will lead to total electricity savings of well over 50 percent compared to current usage.)
  5. Lighting (2). Occupancy sensors will be installed  in 16 trash rooms and 16 laundry rooms and the existing T-12s will be replaced by T-8s.

Moving past that, the next lighting step might be moving to LEDs (and potential OLEDs) for the buildings 50+ exit signs.

Here’s where priorities and the building’s age come into play. There is an interest in looking at the feasibility of solar hot water.  However, the old building has a serious water piping problem and the staff is totally occupied with the riser replacements and the work involved with the energy efficiency grant with little spare energy or resources to look to ‘next steps’ and opportunities. Of course, thinking about ’solar’ raises issues. For example, can this old roof support solar  panels and related equipment? Structural engineers will have to take a good look at that. I hope we find it’s possible, but not, that’s not the priority.

Taking the estimates from the audit, our building should expect annual savings of more than $35,000 of an electric bill that was $291,311 in 2010.  A total savings, without even beginning to address individual unit energy use and without any behavioral change, of about 12%.  Hmmm … that doesn’t seem that bad as a first step.   Maybe we’ll do better as we try to raise resident awareness.  Turning off lights does matter, after all.  And, perhaps the Board will move forward with solar hot water (heating hot water costs an average 13% of a household’s  utility costs).  And, in this building, windows are actually a serious problem and perhaps we’ll get more people to install energy conserving windows (about 75% are new windows).  And, perhaps the board will take steps for common sharing of the costs to fix leaky faucets and update bathrooms with low-flow shower heads …  In other words, that $35,000 in annual savings (some $175 per household) is simply a first step.  There is lots of work left to be done and lots of savings to be had in this old master-metered building ….

Photo by VancouverSun.

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