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The Little Engine that…

“Boil, boil, toil and trouble…” Or so, perhaps, thought the seven board members at 504-510 West 110th Street in Manhattan, a 148-unit co-op near Amsterdam Avenue. Their 40-year-old boiler had, in fact, been giving them a great deal of toil and trouble, and they had doubts about its continued viability. After a boiler inspection by Rand Engineering, the news was not good. Engineer Young Suh confirmed that the boiler should have been replaced years earlier and was only still running because of the ministrations of the co-op’s dedicated super.

But the replacement posed complications. First, the boiler room contained not only the co-op’s boiler but also the building’s condemned, coal-fired and unused boiler dating from 1909, which would have to be dismantled. Second, water was seeping in via an underground stream that was slowly surfacing. And finally, the equipment was lined with asbestos, requiring extra precautions in the necessary work.

Replace or repair? Upgrade or maintain? Those were the questions facing this co-op and other similarly positioned properties in Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island. And how they coped offers lessons for all buildings, large and small, whose aging equipment is bringing them to the boiling point.

 

Boilerplate

Boilers are the critical circulatory systems of buildings, and repairing, retrofitting, and replacing them can be among the larger projects a co-op or condo can tackle. With a lifespan of anywhere from 30 to 60 years, a boiler may not need to be replaced by your current board, but it’s sure to be an issue that will crop up down the road. The high cost of fuel may spur a retrofit with an electronic control device to monitor and control temperature fluctuations. Or simple maintenance may be all that’s needed – cleaning soot from inside the tubes that heat the water. Or a board may elect to leave the boiler untouched as long as it’s performing within operational limits.

Indeed, most boards remove and replace boilers only as a last resort. It’s not only the replacement figure that has to be considered ($20,000 and up) but also the associated costs of disassembling and carting away the old equipment and the likely need to install a new heat timer and control panel. A boiler has two main components: the “tea kettle,” where the water is heated for circulation, and the burner (or furnace), which burns oil or gas and generates the heat that boils the water.

One might think of comparing a boiler that heats a multi-unit apartment building to a commercial kitchen in which the cook ladles out a warm bowl of soup to each customer. Everyone waits in line (just as each apartment is connected to the heating system via a network of pipes to get their heat). But, says mechanical engineer Henry Gifford, who works with noted New York-based environmental architect Chris Benedict, there is an even more accurate analogy: picture a taxicab where the driver is in charge but every passenger wants to go a different way. One apartment is too hot, another is too cold, another is just right. The driver must make compromises, which won’t really please everyone. But the passengers more or less get where they want to go.

Hot water heat is easiest to control, says Gifford, because a $500 electrical box called an “outdoor reset control” can manipulate the temperature. This outdoor sensor tells the system to send very hot water to the apartments when the outside temperature is very cold and warm water when it’s warmer outside.

Another advantage of hot water – but one that hardly anyone in the U.S. exploits – is that it’s possible to put a thermostat in each apartment (or better, in each room) that uses a separate supply-and-return pipe and precisely regulates the water flowing through each radiator (see photos, above). In contemplating such a system for new construction, “the benefits in terms of comfort and energy conservation of this approach far outweigh the small additional associated cost of installation,” Gifford says. “But retrofitting an existing hot-water-heat system to have thermostats in every room is often made difficult by limitations inherent in the way the system was originally set up.”

 

In with the New, Backing Up with the Old

In dealing with the aging, rundown boiler and its ancillary problems at 504-510 West 110th Street, engineer Young Suh began a program of site visits and regular reports to the board, putting together a comprehensive plan that ultimately called for the demolition of the 1909 boiler, the refurbishment of the current boiler as a backup, plus the installation of a new unit and the digging of trenches outfitted with sump pumps to deal with the water in the basement.

One issue was the control of steam heat, which was installed in almost all buildings built before World War II (such as 504-510 West 110th Street). It has a major disadvantage: the temperature of the steam can’t be altered since it is always produced at the same point that water begins to boil. To control the temperature levels, a steam system is repeatedly cycled on and off, building-wide, to achieve the desired heating. To use another analogy, steam heat is like placing a brick on your car’s accelerator and running it by turning the ignition key on and off.

To increase boiler efficiency at 504-510, Suh recommended that the five dozen or so two-inch tubes that bring heat from the burner into the boiler’s water tank be cleaned of the soot that had lined them during the boiler’s operation. But, since the old boiler would now be used only as a backup unit, he didn’t recommend a burner replacement, which could have cost $10,000.

The price of the job was projected to be around $300,000. Bids were requested from three boiler installation companies in October, and the project was well under way when shareholders met in November for their annual meeting.

The board liked Suh’s approach from the start, says David Estrin, the president, because “he didn’t seem to be telling us what he thought we wanted to hear.” The directors picked the winning bidder on the boiler job, Controlled Combustion, for similar reasons. “They seemed to be less positive,” Estrin says. “The other firm we considered said that everything was going to be perfect, and we knew it likely wouldn’t be.” By contrast, says Estrin, Controlled Combustion was matter-of-fact about possible problems and direct about how it would handle them.

Today, the co-op’s new boiler is in place and running, a trench has been dug, sump pumps have been installed to drain incoming water, and the old boiler is being renovated. The board is “ecstatic” about how the work has been going. Suh has written 11 progress reports to the board, which Estrin describes as “a very cohesive unit. Although I’m the president, I’m simply the first among equals. All of our decisions are made by consensus, and I consider us very lucky for that.”

 

Other People’s Money: Interest-Free Loan

To repair or replace became an issue at another property. In Far Rockaway, the board of the 65-unit Nameoke Court Condominium knew it had to replace an antiquated boiler system that featured a series of boilers operating in tandem. Observes board president Mark Wiseman: “It was a poor design and a poor application.”

Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Realty, says Nameoke Court had another problem: “The building was in real financial hardship; they just didn’t have any money.” The 1960s-era modular oil burner just wasn’t cutting it. Money was being wasted on repairs, and ongoing violations added to the pain. “We had a ton of shutdowns, and, when we did have the boiler running, it overheated the building. We looked at our various options, and we didn’t have any. The board refused to raise common charges, so there was nothing we could do except try to get a loan, which looked impossible.”

Investors with a business interest in the property spurred the board and Greenbaum to keep looking until they found a five-year interest-free loan option from KeySpan. Nameoke Court replaced the burner, keeping the “tea kettle,” which boils the water, and converted to gas heat. The job was done by Abilene, a major Brooklyn-based boiler installation firm, and the board hired engineer Ronald Krigsman of Lawrence, New York, to supervise the work and draw up design specs.

The new system at Nameoke, says Krigsman, “is controlled by one overall unit that senses when heating has started and that also senses the heat of the water on its return to the boiler.” The boiler cycles on and off depending on the desired temperature of the circulating water. Greenbaum considers it “mission accomplished.”

 

Operational Assist: Making the System Run Better

Boilers generally turn on and off when outside temperature rises and falls, or when a given apartment’s thermostat calls for heat. “That one cold apartment is the reason why the rest of the building has the windows open,” Gifford says. This is the problem that electronic monitoring systems aim to correct.

Equalizing such temperatures was the issue at Deepdale Gardens, a 69-building cooperative in Little Neck, New York. The board wanted to make the existing boiler system run better, i.e., cheaper.

That task fell to Herb Flachner, Deepdale’s director of operations. In the building maintenance business for 40 years, he has recently become a believer in the microprocessor-controlled fuel-saving device called IntelliCon-CHW, which was installed on each of the 25 boilers at Deepdale in 2006. He says that the gadgets, which monitor circulating water temperature and strategically turn furnaces on and off, saved Deepdale 18 percent on its annual fuel bill of over a million dollars in 2007. Each unit cost $5,500, Flachner says, so “it paid for itself in the first year.”

An advocate of “try before you buy,” Flachner had two of the CHW units installed on two boilers as a test before ordering a full complement. Last summer, he conducted an additional study by operating boilers with and without the IntelliCon system and saw a savings of about $150 per week per boiler on the production of hot water.

Paul Mazza, president of Energy Conservation Service, a company that sells IntelliCon-CHW, says that his system can generally reduce fuel costs by at least one-fifth and that “payback on installation is never more than six months.” The system works by measuring the rate of change of the temperature of circulating water as many as three times each second, delaying the firing of burners as much as two-thirds of the time. The IntelliCon-CHW increases the length of time water is circulating without the addition of more heat.

 

Heat Cycling: Reducing It Wirelessly

Temperature balancing was also an issue at another Long Island property. Sharon Messier, resident manager of Forest Green Luxury Apartments in Islip, New York, oversees a 257-unit house complex, ranging from 16 to 39 units apiece, which are fed by 12 boilers. In 2005, she faced that all-too-common problem — some apartments were chronically overheated while other tenants could never get warm enough. Strong ocean breezes were part of the problem. The issue wasn’t the boiler, however, but simply the way the circulating heat was being distributed.

Working with the Peconic Energy and Environmental Corporation of Garden City Park, Forest Green’s board asked Messier to oversee the installation of the Energuard Wireless Heat Computer and the placing of sensors at strategic points throughout the property to take into account temperature variations for different exposures. The sensors tally temperatures across the co-op and a computer uses the different inputs to calculate when to fire the boiler. To get back to the taxicab analogy, Energuard asks each passenger if he or she is hot or cold and then uses its judgment to create a compromise.

The system allows for minute control over temperature and boiler running time. Says Messier: “During the nighttime hours, we have the boiler set to roll back to 68 degrees. Daytime, when residents are returning home, we allow the temperatures to go up to between 71 and 72 for [people taking] showers and getting ready for bed. At about 4 A.M., we turn the temperatures back up again.”

Messier keeps tabs on the system using a laptop in her office, “which gives us readings throughout the day and night of the temperatures in the apartments, when the boilers came on, and how long they ran for. The best part is that even if the equipment is old and antiquated, the sensors shut it down, decreasing run time and saving money.”

Elaine Bovick, board president at the time Energuard was installed, says the decision was a matter of necessity: “We were burdened with several older boilers, and we were looking to make the fuel go as far as possible, to economize. Two board members and our property manager visited two or three different buildings using the Energuard system.”

William Rattmer, one of those members, toured a large building in Manhattan, where Energuard was already on line, along with Allan Richman of Peconic Energy. “Richman made a couple of presentations, and we went to two buildings, one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx,” Rattmer says. “The one in Manhattan takes up a whole city block, where Forest Green is spread out across 18 acres. But we thought it could work and we did test cases in two of our buildings.” He adds that it took the board about two years of such research to decide to have the control system installed and that the rising price of oil was a major factor in the final decision.

Before buying, however, they tested it. The trial pitted Energuard in one building against standard boiler operations in another comparable one in the complex. The result, says Messier, was a 46 percent savings in fuel consumption and a similar reduction in the number of heat cycles in the controlled building. “People were skeptical,” Rattmer says, “but before this system, uneven heating was rampant. Everybody would keep their thermostats up all the way, and some people were roasting while in other apartments it was 40 degrees.”

As part of the upgrade, Forest Green replaced five old boilers with new ones and installed water heaters so that the boilers would not have to run in the summer to provide hot water only. “People are people,” says Bovick, “and sometimes it’s a lot easier to open a window than it is to turn down the heat. With this temperature control system, there’s a lot more control over the amount of heat that’s going to each building. Sharon can look at the computer and tell where the boilers are firing, and, yes, we can tell if somebody is abusing the system.”

 

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