Every year it’s the same thing. The heat goes on in mid-October but Barbara, a cooperator living on the third floor of a four-story brownstone, complains that she’s cold. Almost simultaneously, first-floor owner Lorraine reports that her unit is so hot she has to open her windows. Not surprisingly, board members are frustrated by this annual back-and-forth. What’s more, as fuel costs soar, the board has become increasingly concerned about energy efficiency and the idea of heat literally going out the window has provoked heightened vigilance.
While energy mavens posit a host of suggestions for fuel conservation, one of the simplest sounding ones is the installation of Thermostatic Radiator Valves, or TRVs. TRVs are valves that can be installed on the pipe work of a radiator to allow individuals to set the temperature higher or lower in a given room. They have been around for a long time; the Empire State Building has used them since it was erected in 1931. They can be installed on every radiator in a building, in only one apartment, or simply in rooms that are overheated.
It sounds easy. But do they work? Can they end the “Heat Wars” that plague so many buildings and dominate so many board and annual meetings? Like most things that sound too good to be true, it depends on who you ask. “They worked wonderfully in a four-story, 16-unit building in Brooklyn,” reports Chris Kelly, principal of CK Engineering, who has installed TRVs in both residential and institutional settings. “But before we installed them, we re-piped the building so each apartment line had an individual heat supply and an individual return. I’ve found that they work well on hot water and two-pipe steam systems, but for one-pipe steam systems, the results are mixed.” Kelly also cautions that installation can be difficult. “Mistakes can be made,” he says. “You need to know the trick to orient the valve.” Yet, once installed, he states that TRVs are generally effective and maintenance free. “This is not to say that they won’t eventually fail, but as long as you don’t kick them or crush them, they last.”
Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, recently had TRVs installed in three garden apartment complexes on Long Island; like Kelly, he sings their praises. “The boards of these co-ops sent out letters saying, ‘Here’s the price: $400 per valve.’ We got the house plumber to install TRVs for those residents who wanted them. About 25 to 30 percent of the units elected to install them and most did some mixing-and-matching. Some put them throughout the apartment; others put them here and there, or only in the bedroom.”
Michael Herzog, board president of the Cedarhurst Park Corporation, took advantage of the offer. “We get a lot of heat and I’d turned off my kitchen radiator four or five years ago,” he says. “Last winter, it was so cold I tried to turn it back on and couldn’t. I installed a TRV to make it easier to turn the heat on and off in this room and it’s been great.”
Despite such success stories, architectural engineer George Zaky of Alan Margolin & Associates, has seen numerous TRV failures. “Some buildings rely on TRVs to answer all their heat problems and they are not always the answer,” he says. “In a system where some units or rooms are overheating, it will give the resident some control. But if your radiator is too small it will never help you and even in buildings where they work, they offer a modicum of relief, at best. With the right application, they stop overheating, but they will never give the cooperator more than marginal control.”
Zaky advises boards considering TRVs to contact an engineer before installing the devices. “An experienced person should always check that a control valve will work. If a TRV is not the right application for your system, it can be a disaster,” he warns, citing a complex in the Bronx that installed TRVs only to discover that they were dysfunctional. “They seldom work with steam heating with vacuum returns, which this building had,” he says. The upshot? The residents had to rip the TRVs out and go back to their previous heating system.
So what does Zaky recommend? “If you add more insulation, buy brand-new, well-sealed windows, close vents in the elevator shaft where heat spews out, and get the building really tight, everyone will be happier,” he says. “You’ll use less fuel and the heat will be more even. But getting a building to this point can cost a fortune. I understand that boards feel like they have to do something, but the addition of TRVs is usually not the solution. Maybe they’ll work in conjunction with other conservation measures, but they rarely do much if they’re used alone.”
Dan Wurtzel, chief operating officer at Cooper Square Realty, agrees. “We’ve been putting sensors throughout our buildings to send varying indoor temperature readings to the boiler,” he says. “We’ve found them to be more efficient than TRVs. Sensors deal with the flaw of uneven heat where the apartments closest to the boiler are warm and those farthest away are cool. If there’s too much heat, the boiler will not go into cycle; if there’s too little heat, it will go on more frequently. Sensors are wireless and the cost depends on how many you put in. In a building of 200 units, there will be a $30,000 to $40,000 initial expense. They then need to be calibrated by the service provider once a year when the system is turned on.”
Will either sensors or TRVs do the trick for Barbara and Lorraine? The board is presently consulting experts about the options.