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Board Boldness: From Oil to Heat Pumps

Because of its small size, the five-story, 10-unit co-op on the Upper West Side was exempt from the Climate Mobilization Act and isn’t facing any looming fines in 2024. But with the building’s 40-year-old oil-fired boiler requiring endless repairs, the board was tired of throwing good money after bad. The co-op’s treasurer, Lisa Harrison, wanted to replace the boiler with something that would reduce the building’s carbon emissions by leaving fossil fuels behind and going electric. When she began researching the alternatives and learned about air-source heat pumps, Harrison thought she had found the ideal retrofit for her building.


Air-source heat pumps move heat energy from one place to another — from indoor air to outdoor air during the cooling season and outdoors to indoors during the heating season. Because they move heat energy rather than create heat energy through combustion, the best heat pumps can be much more efficient than a typical steam heating system. For an individual apartment, an air-source heat pump will usually consist of one or two outdoor condenser and evaporator units, which can be installed on the walls or rooftop, plus multiple indoor units mounted on the walls or floors of apartments. Each indoor unit has its own hand-held remote control, allowing users to set different temperatures for different rooms. The system eliminates the need for window air conditioners — and also eliminates overheating, the bane of almost every multifamily building in New York City.


But Harrison’s fellow board members were not convinced. “We had many meetings about it, and everyone’s biggest concerns were cost and that it wouldn’t work in a cold climate,” she says. The Housing Development Fund Corporation co-op had modest reserves, and converting its central oil-fired steam heating system to electricity-powered heat pumps in each apartment would require taking out a loan and most likely raising maintenance or imposing an assessment. 


“Our last maintenance increase was in 2017, and there was a 12-month assessment in 2019 when we did a window replacement,” Harrison says. “Doing either of those again would have been a real burden on our shareholders.” 


But Harrison, a retired technical writer, was undaunted. She reached out to NYC Accelerator, a city program that advises buildings on energy retrofits, and it put her in touch with Valerie Corbett of Intelligreen Partners, an energy-efficiency consultancy. Corbett told Harrison that she knew two people who were partnering up on a project to demonstrate that converting from oil boilers to heat pumps could be done at a reasonable cost and yield significant energy savings. They were looking for a relatively small building so that the job would not be too expensive but one that was not so small that the results couldn’t be applied to a wide range of building sizes. “She asked if I was interested,” Harrison recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, give me their numbers.’”


The partners were Tom Sahagian, an energy-efficiency consultant, and Ian Shapiro, the founder of Taitem Engineering and a green building specialist. After Harrison gave Sahagian a tour of the building and was told it met the project’s criteria, she relayed the details to the board. 


“I told them we had the opportunity to be a test case in this study and that the project would be partly subsidized, although it wasn’t clear exactly how much,” Harrison says. Then came another round of meetings, first between board members and then with shareholders, to try to reach a consensus — but that was business as usual when it comes to making decisions at the co-op. “Technically we have four board members, but really all the shareholders are like board members,” Harrison says. “Because we’re so small and self-managed, we’re a tight community.” 


After much back-and-forth, all the shareholders decided to proceed. The installation, which began in June 2020, did have some hiccups. The indoor and outdoor units are connected by refrigerant lines and power wires. “They had to cut pretty big holes in the outside wall for the lines and wires, and there were rain leaks coming into the apartments before they were sealed up,” Harrison says. “It got a little messy.” Inside, the same lines are typically run behind walls and in the ceiling. But in many of the apartments, there wasn’t enough room to install the lines between the joists or the vertical studs, which meant they had to be run along the walls and covered with Sheetrock. 


The system also required multiple pressure and vacuum tests before it was finally up and running, further trying the shareholders’ patience. But the board kept residents informed every step of the way on the co-op’s WhatsApp account, by phone and in person. “We reassured them that setbacks are normal and that it would all work out just fine,” Harrison says. “In the end, everyone was pretty understanding.”


After the installation was completed in August 2020, additional equipment was placed in each apartment to monitor the building’s energy consumption. The results of the year-long data-gathering process have been impressive. The entire project cost a relatively modest $230,000, minus $72,000 in incentives from Con Edison. Comparing the amount of oil and electricity used with the oil-fired boiler against the electricity used for the heat pumps, the building saved 2% in energy costs in 2021 and also reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 60%.


“I’m thrilled,” says Sahagian, the energy consultant. “This building’s oil usage was on the low side to begin with, which means that buildings with typical oil usage could see even bigger savings. If heat pumps can save energy here, they can save energy almost anywhere.”


With each apartment paying for its own heating and cooling, shareholders have seen higher electricity bills, especially in the winter months. “Even though we told them that was to be expected, there have been some complaints,” Harrison says. “But we’ve explained that the increase in electricity bills will be offset in the long run by the decrease in our oil bills, which may allow us to lower the maintenance in the future.” Today’s high electric bills are expected to come down in the future, as the electric grid moves from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources — wind, solar and hydroelectric — to generate electricity.


While there has also been some grumbling about the basement laundry room being too cold now that the boiler is gone, it’s minor compared to the changes inside apartments. “People really love having the heat pumps and being able to control the temperature in their living space,” Harrison says. “They’ve also been able to get rid of their window air conditioners, and the building looks so much nicer without them. All in all, everyone’s happy.”

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