New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



A Delicate Balance

Being green means conserving energy. And there are a number of tried and true ways to save energy – and dollars – if co-op.condo boards are willing to take a calculated risk. That’s what Mitchel Levine’s co-op did. And the energy-conserving, green-related measures have paid off. Big time.

“Even with today’s crazy prices, we will actually spend less in today’s dollars on heating oil than we spent in 1982,” says Mitchel Levine, treasurer of the board at the Upper West Side Schwab House in Manhattan.

How is that possible? Levine credits energy efficiency measures that the 625-unit Riverside Drive building has been enacting for years. But one of the key moves came about two years ago when the co-op paid $125,000 to install a climate control system called Energuard to balance the heat distribution.

In 1982, the building bought 509,000 gallons of heating oil. Levine projects the property will use only 220,000 gallons in 2007. Think of it this way: the No. 6 oil used by The Schwab House runs about $2.15 a gallon. If they had to buy that extra fuel oil, it would have cost them about $500,000.

Heat is an even hotter issue for buildings that rely solely on the more commonly used No. 2 fuel oil. Fuel prices are expected to top $3.06 a gallon in January in the Northeast – that’s 66 cents higher than last winter, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And, the New York City Oil Heating Association says that for this season many suppliers did not offer fixed prices because of the market’s volatility.

Several companies in the area provide systems and technology to balance out the heat in a building. It basically works by installing wireless sensors in some units in the building that can read the inside temperature. In a traditional building, a boiler will kick on at a set outside temperature and keep supplying heat, even if the inside temperature is within a normal, comfortable range. At The Schwab House, the wireless sensors send information to a computer in resident manager John Walpole’s office. If the sensors report inside temperatures below or above a set level, the computer sends a signal to the nearest riser to increase or decrease heat to that part of the building.

“While technology to balance heat in a building has been available for several years it has only been in the last three years or so – when oil prices surged – that the service has really taken off,” says Allan Richman, president of Peconic Energy Products Company (PEPCO), the firm that installed the Energuard system at The Schwab House.

“When it hit $50 a barrel we sent out mailings and got a lot of business,” says Richman. “Now the next plateau is $100 a barrel and we’ll hit that mark before Thanksgiving.”

PEPCO has systems in about 100 buildings and complexes in the area, about 60 percent of which are co-ops and condos and about 40 percent of which are rentals.

Richman says a system at the Forest Green co-op in Islip has allowed the building to reduce its fuel consumption by 41.9 percent. The 237-unit building spent about $110,000 to install the system last year, he says.

Aside from saving money, The Schwab House’s Levine says the system allows the building to operate more effectively for residents’ comfort. Apartments closer to Riverside Drive tend to be colder so the equipment can be programmed to send more heat in that direction, Levine explains, adding: “What we’re also able to do is deliver the heat where it’s needed.”

U.S. Energy Group provides a heat- balancing system called the Energy Management System (EMS) to about 2,000 buildings citywide. “Operating a building without an EMS is like driving a Hummer in Manhattan traffic,” says Warren Zaretsky, the company’s vice president of marketing. “It’s just wasteful.”

The EMS works when wireless sensors in apartments communicate to a device on the boiler, telling it to kick on if the inside temperate is below a set level or to cut back if it is above a fixed level. EMS also involves placing sensors inside key heating elements like the chimney stack and boiler coils. “It provides information about all this preventive maintenance so your equipment lasts longer because you can maintain it properly.”

Zaretsky estimates that it would cost between $8,000 and $10,000 to install the EMS in an 80-unit building. The company guarantees that a building will save at least 15 percent on its fuel consumption. “The return on investment is almost always less than two years,” he says.

The company also offers a digital fuel gauge called The Verifier that uses a sonar-like device to measure the oil in your tank within one-tenth of an inch. The typical device, called a Petrometer, can be off by between five and ten percent, Zaretsky says. The Verifier, which costs about $3,200, ensures that you get all the oil you are paying for, he says. In addition, U.S. Energy Group sells a computer program that allows managing agents to review heating and other energy data from multiple buildings. That costs between $50 and $90 a month. PEPCO sells a similar device.

Despite the seemingly rosy outlook on heat-balancing systems, some managers say that condos and co-ops have been slow to take the leap toward using them. Kaled Management manages a cross section of 50 co-ops, condos, and rentals and owns and manages another 18 rental properties. Five of those 18 have an EMS. The system cost about $9,000 for one building, a 58-unit rental in Forest Hills, Queens, reports Jordan Platt, vice president of operations at Kaled. In 2006, before installing it, the company spent $89,000 for heating bills from January to November 2006. Now that the system is in place, a comparable heating bill is $41,000 less.

As for co-ops and condos, “they all say that it sounds great on paper,” says Peter Lehr, director of management at Kaled. “You tell them that you can recapture your costs within a year, but what they see is that they have to write a check.”

Platt uses the company’s experience at rentals in attempts to convince co-ops and condos. He’s given the information to some boards, but so far none have bitten. Lehr guesses that boards may not go for it because of the sort of things that derail other projects: different personalities, agendas, and priorities.

Levine, from The Schwab House, says he’s not surprised that other condos and co-ops have been slow to adopt heat-balancing systems. Convincing Schwab’s shareholders to foot the initial bill is probably easier because the building is so large. “It’s the economy of scale,” he says, noting that the co-op’s annual budget is $9 million. He also believes it is easier to get big projects accomplished because the building is self-managed. “There is more direct contact between the board and the people who manage the property,” he says.

David Welz, the longtime president of the board at The Vermont, a 100-unit building in Rego Park, has a simple response when asked why his Queens co-op installed EMS about two years ago: “Money.” He adds: “It’s a cost-savings measure, and it’s totally automatic. People are still comfortable, and we save money.”

The Vermont, which has a dual-heating system that can run off oil or gas, spent about $12,000 to install the energy control system. Building manager Julio Villas, of Vision Enterprises, estimates that the building has cut down on consumption by at least 15 percent.

About half of the company’s 40 buildings – mostly rentals – have EMS, Villas says. While some boards need to be talked into spending now to save later, Welz notes that wasn’t a problem at The Vermont. “As long as you say you can save money, they’ll do anything.”

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