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Saying Goodbye To Steam

Though it was still working well, the chiller had surpassed its life expectancy at Lincoln Plaza Tower, a 135-unit co-op at West 62nd Street and Columbus Avenue. The co-op board was, understandably, getting nervous. Chillers cool the water for central air-conditioning systems, and no co-op board wants the AC to go down during a swampy New York City heat wave.

In addition to its age, the chiller had another liability: it was powered by costly Con Edison steam. So the board went for the trifecta, and now it’s saying hello to a new modular electric chiller and a gas-powered boiler, and goodbye to Con Edison steam.

“What encouraged us are the savings this new system will generate, because we will be off Con Ed’s steam,” says Michael Groll, board president. “We could’ve just replaced the chiller, but then there wouldn’t have been as much savings, or more efficiency. The new chiller will rely on electricity instead of steam, and that alone will save us money. I told the board we should do it immediately because every year we rely on Con Ed steam, we’re missing out on savings. So why wait?”

The co-op activated the Multistack chiller in April. A mobile boiler will be brought in to heat domestic hot water over the summer while crews rip out the steam pipes and assemble the new gas-fired boiler, which is expected to be up and running by mid-November.

“Any building that is on Con Ed steam should seriously think about a divorce,” says Ed Ermler of the co-op’s management company, Midboro Management. “The costs for steam heating and cooling are just obscene, and it’s wasteful. Steam was designed for buildings back when oil was five cents a gallon, or they used coal, and people really didn’t care about efficiencies or savings. Today it would be theoretically possible to make a steam system more efficient and more reliable, but the cost for that kind of retrofit is prohibitive.”

The board and management are also considering a combined heat and power, or cogen, system that would provide the electricity to run the chiller while reducing buildingwide electric costs and providing heat and domestic hot water.  “We couldn’t do both at the same time; it would’ve been too much,” says Groll. “Cogen is also complicated because there are so many options. In addition, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is now taking away all grants for the kind of cogen we were looking at. We were rushing to move to cogen because we wanted the grant. We don’t necessarily believe the grant is a make-or-break deal. If you’re saving money, you’re saving money. It’s just that the payback period is a little longer.”

The chiller project cost about $1.6 million. The co-op will finance these projects with money from its operations fund and, if needed, an existing line of credit.

“This is the right thing to do, because steam would be three to four times more expensive than the new system,” says Ermler. “I always tell people: if you’re spending a million dollars and it’s paying for itself in four years, where else can you get that kind of investment? Nowhere.”

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