New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Watt Math

Every night, Zoltan Papp would watch the sun go down from his office at an 100-unit Greenwich Village cooperative and the floodlights in the backyard flicker on. They would stay on all night, casting chiaroscuro shadows in the empty outdoor space until a timer switched them off at dawn the next morning.

Needless to say, the monthly electricity bill was an eyesore. With lights on around the clock in the lobby, corridors, elevators, and staircases of 51 Fifth Avenue, it was obvious to the building superintendent that no one had ever seriously looked at what the building could do to eliminate the unnecessary electricity costs.

It was after taking a course on energy efficiency offered through the Local 32BJ union training fund that Papp decided to take the first step. He proposed an in-house project that would replace incandescent bulbs with more cost-effective varieties throughout the building and install dim-down lights in the staircases and motion detectors in the backyard. A couple of years down the road, the old-style bulbs are almost completely phased out of the building’s public spaces, and the building is seeing dramatic changes in its monthly electricity bill.

But the folks at 51 Fifth aren’t the only ones on this bandwagon. “It’s a mathematical fact,” says Bennett Lincoff, board president at the 250-unit Normandy, located at 140 Riverside Drive on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “You can count up the number of watts and compare it to the lower number of watts for lights that are on 365 days of the year. You do the math and it’s always going to be good.”

Lincoff’s building also recently phased out its old-style bulbs. Convincing the other board members it was a good idea was easier than screwing in a light bulb. The fact is, according to energy experts and building managers, if you still have incandescent lighting in your building’s public spaces, you have a problem on your hands that needs solving.

Starting Simple: Changing the Bulbs

There’s a chandelier in the lobby of the 88-unit 418 Central Park West that contains nothing but compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) – and it’s beautiful! “We’re all converting now, so soon every building will have CFLs,” comments the building’s managing agent, Ellen Kornfeld, vice president at The Lovett Group.

Manufacturers of CFLs have come a long way since they first started producing the coiled fluorescent bulbs that could fit into the same sockets as incandescents. The CFLs currently on the market use between one-seventh and one-third of the power standard incandescents use, but their biggest benefit is that they can be slipped seamlessly into the same fixtures without any added installation costs. In fact, Kornfeld says, “the only time I work with a board is if we’re doing a building-wide project.”

Indeed, a building-wide retrofitting project was exactly the step Papp wanted to take to tackle soaring electricity costs. He looked into LEDs as an even more cost-effective option over the long term than CFLs. Unlike CFLs, LEDs do not contain hazardous mercury, and once installed, the bulbs last up to 25,000 hours (10 times longer than halogens) and produce significantly less heat. Papp installed LED strips behind the crown molding in his building’s two elevators, where the lights are on around the clock.

According to Ian Shapiro, president of Taitem Engineering, elevators, corridors, lobbies, and other places where lights are on all the time are where most buildings are installing LEDs. Shapiro is the founder of the Ithaca-based engineering company, which specializes in energy audits, research, and quality assurance for multifamily buildings.

“LED technology is changing so fast that within a year, we’ll be seeing much more of it than we are even right now,” he says. Until recently, Shapiro admits, he was more in favor of CFLs, but as manufacturing improves and brands become more reliable in independent testing, he is convinced LEDs may be opening a window into the future.

Taking It One Notch Up: Dim Down

It’s a habit most of us learn not to question from the time we’re tall enough to reach the switch next to the door: when you leave the room, turn the lights off. The same principle was behind the project Papp took on in his building’s staircases and basement areas. Previously, the staircases at 51 Fifth had two separate fixtures: an emergency light and a regular one. But the building staff replaced both with a single “dim-down” light on each floor.

Papp did the installation in two phases to allow board members to observe the initial energy savings and then decide if they wanted to complete the project. This was an excellent way to warm them to the idea and lighten the burden of the upfront investment on the dim-down fixtures. Con Ed even offered a rebate of $75 per $225 fixture, which means that the building is already enjoying returns on its investment from electricity reduction alone. “The lighting lasts longer, it costs less money, and we save electricity,” says Papp.

Papp makes a good case for why all buildings should consider dim-down lighting, an umbrella term that refers to a broad swath of lighting controls that lower and raise the light level as activity is detected in the room. Timers, motion sensors, and photocells all fall into this category (photocells allow lights to turn off during the day when natural light is sufficient).

One thing to be cautious about, according to Shapiro, is the time delay set by the manufacturer. “If the time delay in a motion sensor is 15 or 30 minutes, then depending on the foot traffic, the lights might never go out,” he warns.

Seeking Guidance?

Not all buildings have the resources and know-how to take on a large-scale lighting project on their own. For example, Lincoff, the board president, explains that it wasn’t until he attended a conference with the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums that he found the right connections to propose changes in his building. There, he met Lewis Kwit of Energy Investment Systems, who helped his building initiate a comprehensive energy-reduction project, of which lighting has been a key element. “I learned a lot, and not only about energy issues,” Lincoff says.

The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) also offers a program for multifamily buildings to cut their energy costs through a variety of heating and electricity changes.

Carnegie House at 100 West 57th Street recently celebrated its successful participation in the NYSERDA program. In early February, residents of Carnegie gathered under several dozen LED lights in the building’s lobby and chatted about the changes they’ve made throughout the building and the savings they’ve cashed in on.

According to Cameron Bard, a NYSERDA project manager for the building, the reductions in lighting costs alone have already made a significant difference in Carnegie’s overall energy bills. “Lighting is a high priority because of its cost-effectiveness,” says Bard. “Even if it’s not always the number-one contributor to energy-reduction goals, its upfront investment to its end-result savings is very high.”

The main lesson from the evening’s celebration was simple: the incentives are attractive and the expertise is out there to help along the way.

Lighting the Path Ahead

It’s not hard for board members like Larry Weinstein to remember a time when incandescent bulbs were ubiquitous across New York’s residential buildings. He was part of an initiative in his 428-unit Kew Gardens cond-op that installed 420 fixtures with energy-efficient bulbs – only 7½ watts each – to illuminate the hallways. “We got a rebate based on the amount of fixtures of between $25,000 and $30,000, which brought our savings close to $60,000,” Weinstein says.

In part because of initiatives undertaken by board members and in part because of the series of innovative greening laws passed by the city, incandescent bulbs will soon be part of an energy-inefficient past. Papp’s project at 51 Fifth Avenue is now almost complete, and rebates from Con Ed are already arriving in the mail. Instead of dreading the electricity bill every month, Papp now takes great pleasure in seeing it dwindle. So, he observes, if a building hasn’t already looked into energy-efficient lighting options, it’s missing out on “mind-boggling savings.”

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