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The Big Payback

When it comes to energy savings,
a Queens condo is all clued in.

 

Brook Haberman’s board is pretty savvy. At least, that’s what David Grumet thinks. Grumet is the director of operations at iAG Energy, a firm that performs energy audits, and he should know. He’s dealt with dozens of boards in the last year doing what he did for Haberman’s building: tracking down energy failings in accordance with recent laws.

The condo, at 143-51 Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, is of relatively recent vintage: it was built in 1987 and houses mostly singles or working couples who recognize the condominium is, in Haberman’s words, “very, very well located.” It is within walking distance of the subway and a short ride to Manhattan. A 24-hour concierge guards the door of the 15-story, 135-unit building.

Three Clues

If its background is fairly typical of a certain type of New York high-rise, its board’s philosophy is anything but. The first clue: although it wasn’t yet required, the condo board went ahead anyway and performed its energy audit and also the retro-commissioning process (i.e., implementing the findings of the audit).

The second clue is that the building is in good shape, which Grumet attributes to the conscientiousness of the board in this self-managed property. Although they have a full-time superintendent and porter, the board members are involved in everything. That includes the care and upkeep of the structure.

“They definitely are very careful in making sure things are up to city standards and up to energy-efficient standards,” Grumet notes. “The obvious things – the elevator motors, the boiler, and things like that – are all in good shape and mostly everything has really got a passing grade. There are very few things that they have to change.”

And the final clue is the unusual attitude of the board, as articulated by Haberman, the 14-year veteran board member: “We decided it would be prudent to go through the process now [ahead of a city-imposed deadline] to see if are cost savings on whatever it is that they find.”

That isn’t to say they have unlimited financial reserves. By managing the property themselves, they save on third-party management fees, and they employ a part-time accountant as their “back office” to keep on top of bills. But Haberman admits: “It’s a balancing act; we are always trying to stay ahead of the problems” by paying for preventive maintenance with a combination of common-charge increases, assessments on the unit-owners, and state grant money. “We would rather do regular tune-ups of the boiler than not because, invariably, boilers break down on Christmas Eve at midnight, and you have to bring in a repairman at double the normal rates because it’s an emergency.”

DIY Benchmarking

That sort of thinking led to the board doing the required energy benchmarking in-house instead of bringing in an outsider, as most properties do. “The benchmarking software is not as user-friendly as the city claims, but we did it ourselves,” says Haberman, who adds that the board had been active in energy saving even before the city unveiled its Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP) a few years ago.

GGBP is laid out in Local Law 84 (LL84) and Local Law 87 (LL87), which require owners of large buildings to “benchmark” the energy use of their buildings every year. The next step in the process is addressed by LL87: every 10 years, a building must conduct an energy audit to find out where the problem areas are, submit an energy efficiency report to the city, and then retro-commission the property. In layman’s terms, that means designing a plan to fix the failings revealed in the audit. “It’s like tuning up a car; you’re tuning up the building to optimize its energy efficiency,” says Jon Colatrella, senior manager at Howard Zimmerman Architects.

According to the city’s website, energy auditors and retro-commissioners conducting work for LL87 must have an approved energy auditor certification (such certifications include “Certified Energy Auditor,” “Certified Energy Manager,” and nine others, any one of which would be adequate). “It requires a skill set that is above and beyond a regular architect or engineer’s skill set, requiring additional qualifications to conduct the energy audit,” says Colatrella. The building reports are staggered so that not every one is due in the same year.

So what about that savvy Queens board? It hired iAG Energy (for a fee of just under $15,000) to audit “everything, from roof to basement,” Haberman says. “They shared the findings with us. [Grumet] gave us a working draft and said, ‘It hasn’t been finished yet but, you may want to do some projects before the winter that are not costly.’”

Such suggestions are actually part of the job of the person doing the audit, explains Colatrella, who was not affiliated with the Queens project. The auditor is supposed to identify “some low-cost or no-cost improvements, some middle-level improvements, and some higher-ticket items that can be done to improve the building’s overall energy efficiency. The auditor’s role is to outline some recommendations,” giving upfront and payback figures. “The auditor should identify things that are practical for the building to do that have a good return on investment,” he adds.

The concerns that Grumet raised in the Queens condo had to do with weatherstripping and applying sealants on the corridors and the building exteriors to keep out cold air, and insulating the hot water pipes – two relatively inexpensive jobs. The weatherproofing cost roughly $7,000 and should see a payback within three years (with an estimated savings of $3,200 per year), while insulating the pipes was a no-brainer, and cheap to boot. It cost a whopping $188 and is estimated to save the property $600 a year.

Crazy Talk

“We jumped on all the stuff that could be done in-house or where we just needed a service call to a heating contractor or a plumber, stuff that was fairly reasonable in price and on which you could see what the [immediate] impact would be,” explains Haberman. “Anything that you can do inexpensively, you’d be crazy not to do. As to the rest, it’s a matter of budgeting cost and benefits-type of analysis.”

True to form, the board reviewed the audit report and sought out additional, bigger-ticket work that would save the building energy. One improvement that the condo is planning to implement: low-flow water aerators for showerheads, sinks, and toilets in individual apartments, with an installation cost of $8,500 and an estimated payback of two and a half years.

The recent local laws have pushed everything to the forefront. “It’s not like you can just go ahead and say, ‘It’s great, I will get to it one of these days.’ At some point, you are going to have to do it. So in our particular case, if we have to do it anyway, let’s take advantage of [doing it before it is mandated],” says Haberman, making it sound as though this were the most natural idea in the world, and not something that many boards avoid until the deadline looms. “If we do find some savings, let’s go ahead and do it. Using a tool to save energy makes sense for any operation, whether it’s a condo, a co-op, a rental, or a private house. The question is how you juggle it all together, and then going ahead and doing it.”

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