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An Electric Success Story

We recently worked with a pre-war building of about 130 units where the maintenance for each apartment included a charge for electricity. These charges were based on the number of shares owned. What that meant was that the people who used less electricity were subsidizing the people who used more, so there were some obvious winners and losers. The board hired us to implement submetering, which is when you meter every resident’s individual electricity usage. One of the benefits of submetering is that the board can remove the electric charges from the building’s operating budget and thus reduce maintenance. When an owner sells his or her unit, maintenance will now be more comparable to buildings where units are directly metered, and not arbitrarily higher. Additionally, when owners start to see accurate electric bills, they start to think twice about how much they are paying. Generally speaking, we find that residents reduce their electrical usage anywhere from 20 to 25 percent as a result of a submeter conversion.

The process of submetering has some challenges. One of the first hurdles is that you have to get regulatory approval from the New York Public Service Commission (PSC). It needs to approve the type of submeters that can be installed and make sure the metering system is revenue-grade. This means that the metering system has to accurately record the electricity being used, and it has to meet the standards expected from a utility company. The approval process typically takes between six and 12 months.

There’s a short list of meters approved for residential submetering in New York State, and we were further limited in our choice of meters because we had to install in-unit ones because of the building’s configuration. At the time we were seeking approval, there were three different meters to choose from, and we chose the Intech21. This meter not only records the electricity consumption but it can also monitor the temperature of the unit. This additional capability, which will be Phase 2, will allow the building to incorporate the in-unit temperature sensing to better control the building’s heating system.

Once we got PSC approval, we could begin installation. For in-unit jobs, the meters are typically installed directly above or below the circuit breaker panel in each apartment. But in some apartments this was not possible because of cabinet placements or other renovations, so we sat down with the board and building staff to come up with a plan. The building ended up providing some extra labor so we could do the installation, and if a resident needed even more accommodation, it was provided at an additional cost to the owner.

There were also scheduling challenges. We needed access to all apartments, and we had to work around vacations and other timing issues. Some people wanted to be present during the submeter installation, and they were accommodated. We had to notify residents, in advance, of the installation schedule and coordinate timing. The board issued a number of notices and communications during the entire process to keep residents informed.

Once the meters were installed, the board began fielding questions from residents. “What does this all mean? What is a kilowatt/hour, and what is a kilowatt? How is the bill calculated? How do I read this bill? How do I read my meter?” We scheduled several educational sessions to answer these questions, and we also explained what kind of things affected electrical consumption. We went over the items that were easy to change – like switching from incandescent to LED bulbs – as well as the more costly upgrades that would save electricity.

Generally, installations like this are pretty standard, but in this building it would have been better to spend more time doing a pre-installation walk-through to identify the additional requirements. This isn’t a brand-new technology, but it would have made things smoother if the installation conditions were better mapped out. That said, the project is complete, and all the meters are working and being read. This is definitely a success story.

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