Installing a backup generator sounds good.
So why aren’t more buildings doing it?
At Morgan Court, a 22-story condo in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, a balky, old generator stood sentry in a courtyard for decades. It provided some power to the building during the August 2003 blackout but then failed to function during routine maintenance checks. The board sporadically talked about fixing or replacing it but never did.
Then, the big storm hit.
It was October 29, 2012, and Morgan Court faced the consequences of procrastination. The emergency generator didn’t operate in the kind of emergency it was designed to battle. The 40-unit property, like much of the city, was without power for five days – no computers, spoiled food, long walks up the stairs – a situation that could have been prevented if the board had followed the Boy Scouts’ motto.
According to board president Dennis B. Sprung, that incident was a wake-up call. The condo decided to install a new backup generator. “It’s like an insurance policy,” he says. “You don’t need it until you need it.”
After Sandy, everyone seemed to be getting into backup. One year later, however, only a handful of buildings are considering taking the plunge. One of those is the board at 16 West 16th Street, which asked the architectural and engineering firm Lawless & Mangione to come up with aa feasibility report.
This plan called for a diesel generator, about 150 to 175 kilowatts, located in a courtyard that serves as a roof to the building’s garage. The project would cost approximately $250,000 to $300,000, which means the average apartment would be assessed roughly $650.
In October, the board polled its residents to gauge their interest in such a machine, reports Judith Goldstein, an onsite management executive at Akam Associates. “There was such an overwhelmingly favorable response,” she says, noting that about two-thirds of the 485 residents participated in the survey. The building has not inked the deal, but it seems very likely.
Yet, 16 West 16th Street is more an exception than the rule. More typical are the properties handled by Midboro Management, ten of which lost power during Hurricane Sandy and asked the firm to look into portable backup generators. One year later, none of them has bought one, according to Michael Wolfe, principal of the company.
How expensive is installing a backup generator? The first step is to commission a feasibility study. Dave Brijlall, energy team leader for Rand Engineering & Architecture, estimates that a good study can run between $7,000 and $10,000. According to engineers who do this type of work in New York City, generators for a condo or co-op are about the size of a suburban parking space, and roughly six to seven feet tall. In an emergency, they would probably fuel common area lighting, water pumps (to keep toilets flushing), elevators, and perhaps heating inside apartments. Installation can cost $200,000 to $300,000. “It’s a big number for an occasional event,” says Eric Cowley, president of Cowley Engineering.
Moreover, there are serious logistical issues about where to put a generator. If you’re in a flood zone, you would think twice about putting it in the basement. If you can locate it elsewhere, it does no good if the rest of your electrical systems are in a flood-prone basement.
If a building is not vulnerable to flooding, the basement is a possible location, but there might not be enough room for a generator that meets basic needs. The roof is a possibility, but that can require structural improvements. Rooftop generators also have to be tied into electrical systems down on lower floors, adding to bottom-line costs.
Another complication comes from buildings with Con Edison steam heat, carried in pipes running through the basement. “They usually don’t have the infrastructure needed for venting, and creating one can be very expensive, so that sometimes kills the deal,” says Doug Lane, owner of Lane Engineering Consulting. Venting is required when installing a generator to make sure that toxic fumes don’t enter living spaces.
Buildings with boilers that provide steam heat are often good candidates because their chimneys are designed and built larger than needed, he adds. In those cases, the chimneys still must be inspected and evaluated.
In addition, if the generator runs on gas, the chimney flue may need to be lined to prevent fires and toxic gas leaks. This makes installing one a costly proposition. If it runs on diesel or oil, a place to store fuel is required. “Noise cancellation” enclosures will also be needed to comply with city noise codes, adding to the expense.
One Sale Here
Despite such issues, Morgan Court is going ahead with its plans. The condo has a large courtyard area to accommodate the apparatus. The 150-kilowatt generator will keep common areas lit, run two elevators, maintain water pumps for toilets, and operate the boiler for heating the apartments. It will also run a pump to maintain proper water pressure in the sprinkler systems in case of a fire during a blackout.
The machine will run on No. 2 fuel oil, says Dino Parisi, owner of Maximum Electric Corp., which is handling the installation. The condo already had a 300-gallon oil tank in the courtyard and is installing a second 275-gallon oil tank inside the building that will connect to the generator. The old equipment will be removed, a support pad will be put in to hold the new generator, a soundproofing enclosure will be added, and electrical work – including updated transfer switches – will be done inside. The total bill of about $150,000 will be paid through an assessment spread over three months. Work is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
According to city code, a hard-wired emergency generator must be able to keep certain building systems running: emergency lighting; at least one elevator in each building or section; emergency communications equipment, if it exists; and under certain conditions, the pumps that operate fire sprinklers, says Christopher Hartnett, principal at Lawless & Mangione.
Some buildings opt for more features to be wired to the generator, but wiring even just the essential functions can require extensive electrical work. While the code requires only emergency lighting, it is almost always cheaper and easier to wire all common areas to the generator, Hartnett says. In the event of a blackout, a transfer switch senses that power is going down and signals the generator to start up. Once power starts flowing back from the utility, the generator shuts down.
Boards also have to weigh whether the generator will run on natural gas or No. 2 oil/diesel, which is a combination of almost identical fuels. City code allows only residential multi-family buildings the option to go with gas, says Keenan Nolan, a sales engineer for generator distributor Huntington Power Equipment. While part of the concern about gas is the possibility of a service interruption, the opposite has proved true, according to Nolan. “During Sandy, our diesel customers couldn’t get fuel but our natural gas customers did just fine,” he says.
Considering the Situation
Hartnett almost always recommends a diesel generator, because the fuel is stored on site. Also, gas-fired generators usually cost about 50 percent more than their diesel counterparts. Sometimes if a building is already using gas to power its boiler, it can make sense to use a gas-fired generator, but this option can also require a booster pump to upgrade the gas service line from the street, he adds.
“Gas-fired generators are also slightly more expensive because you need a larger one to do the same amount of work as a diesel one,” says Hartnett. “Diesel generators are better at starting loads from scratch.”
Wolfe, of Midboro, says he has talked to some of his boards about buying a small, portable generator that could be kept in the basement for use in a blackout. Such a machine could power some common area lighting, a critical pump, and perhaps a charging station in a lobby, according to Rand’s Brijlall, making it suitable for smaller residential housing. “You’re looking at maybe a six-story building, or perhaps a garden-style apartment,” he says.
This generator could even be parked in an interior courtyard during an emergency, and city laws would allow the condo or co-op to keep a small amount of diesel fuel on hand, Brijlall adds. A portable model of the home-improvement-store variety tops out at 20 kilowatts of power (versus its hard-wired cousin’s 100 kilowatts) and is far less expensive.
That may sound appealing, but apparently not to boards. Within the Midboro portfolio, for instance, not a single condo or co-op has taken steps toward buying any type of generator. “It’s expensive,” says Wolfe. “And the boards think that something like Sandy probably won’t happen again.”
Talking ’Bout Cogeneration
A Step by Step Guide
Cold water from the building’s heating system enters the cogeneration unit at approximately 22 gallons per minute.
The cold building water is first used to cool the engine oil/lubricant needed to keep the engine running properly. It is then fed to the engine jacket and up to the exhaust gas heat exchanger.
Natural gas is fed into the engine to fuel the cogeneration system. It is purchased from the utility at a reduced rate because it is being used for on-site generation.
Natural gas is used to power the engine, which turns the shaft in the generator, creating electricity. This unit produces 60 kW of electricity.
Hot exhaust from the engine is directed through the catalytic converter to reduce emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and total hydrocarbons by more than 90 percent.
The cleaned exhaust gas is sent into the heat recovery/heat exchanger, where it heats the cold building water and reduces the air exhaust temperature.
If needed, hot water from the exhaust gas heat exchanger is combined with boiler-generated hot water, to meet the heat load of the building, and then sent through the building’s hydronic heating system. The cogeneration unit is expected to produce enough hot water to meet approximately 80 percent of the building’s heating needs.
One way to get the benefit of a backup generator and save money routinely on energy costs is through a combined heat and power arrangement called a cogeneration system. While “cogen” is not a backup generator in itself, it has the capacity to act as one should the need arise, says Doug Lane, owner of Lane Engineering Consulting.
A cogeneration system works like this: a generator powered by natural gas creates electricity to power a portion of the building’s needs. As a by-product of that process, it creates heat that is captured and used for the building’s heating and hot water needs. Now, if the electricity goes out in an emergency, those gas-powered generators continue to operate and provide backup power.
Advocates of cogen say it is a more efficient producer of electricity, releases fewer pollutants, and reduces demand on traditional power plants. But it is expensive.
One building whose cogen system worked as a backup generator during Hurricane Sandy is the Brevoort, a 20-story, 267-unit co-op in Greenwich Village. The system was installed in 2011, as part of the building’s commitment to going green. It cost $3.2 million, offset by about $1.1 million in state and federal grants. Although the primary goal was to save money on fuel expenses, it was “absolutely” a consideration that the system could operate as a backup generator, says Diane C. Nardone, president of the board.
During the storm, while millions citywide were without any power for days, the Brevoort’s cogen provided about 80 to 85 percent of its power usage. “If you looked up and down Fifth Avenue, we were the only one lit up,” says Nardone. Residents helped friends and relatives with hot showers, and strangers came in from the street to charge cell phones in the co-op’s lobby.
Although the project was massive and expensive, Nardone says the payoff was satisfying. “I went from being a villain to a hero overnight,” she says with a laugh. “Who knows if we will ever have an event like that again?” —JVH