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Submetering 930 Apartments: If They Can Do Theirs, You Can Yours!

Carol J. Ott, Habitat Publisher in Board Operations

And found them. Georgetown Mews is now rolling out electrical submetering, a wireless data-communications system, temperature sensors in each apartment, a three-period electrical time-of-use monitor, and boiler and room air-conditioner controls.

When the system is fully in place, shareholders will be able to monitor their own electrical usage and see the cost for each time period, and will each get their individual electric bills. The complex's 16 boilers will be controlled by an algorithm that monitors temperatures in each apartment. All told, the board expects to reduce maintenance charges by at least seven percent.

Better Legislator than Never

The board began its discussion of energy-budget cuts eight years ago. The first step was to amend the proprietary lease, which, like that of many co-ops, stipulated that all expenses be divided on a per-share basis. "That's what we were doing with the fuel," says attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, the complex's counsel, who notes, "If you want to change how you allocate an expense, you have to amend your proprietary lease."

Doing so took months, since with 930 units," says Samson, "anybody who doesn't vote is, in effect, a 'no' vote. So, the board started a letter-writing campaign. It had to send out seven letters." In 2001, the board finally accumulated enough votes.

That was step one. Broader political efforts came next. "Submetering is probably the most difficult energy conservation measure to implement in any residential building," says Herbert Hirschfeld, the professional engineer who oversaw the project, "mainly because of the bureaucratic and regulatory barriers. …[Y]ou have to take preemptive action."

The board did so, inviting local legislators to a meeting at which Hirschfeld presented the pros and cons of submetering — because if even one renter opposed the plan and complained to his or her legislator, the plan would have to go before the Public Service Commission for approval. Since 18 percent of the complex's apartments are rent-stabilized and owned by the co-op, the chances were good that would happen — after which, in most cases, the process fades and dies. Consequently, the board decided to pick up the renters' energy tab.

Eventually, with much funding by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the project cost about $665 per apartment for the individual meters and $144,000 for the heat-distribution controls. The total cost: $762,644, with NYSERDA incentives of well over $300,000.

The integrated system consists of a Web-enabled, building-to-building communications system that transmits individual apartment submetering data in 15-minute intervals. The complex is divided into four sections, each having a separate DSL communications subsystem.

When the roll-out is complete, building staff during the heating season will be able to see on their office computers the real-time temperature in each apartment. In the past when someone complained of cold, "we usually would go to the boiler and turn it up," says Georgetown Mews superintendent Peter Worko. "Now, I can look [up] her apartment and say, 'Ma'am, it's 72 degrees in your apartment.' We don't have to physically go to the boiler room, crank the boiler up, burn all this unnecessary energy just to make one person at the end feel more comfortable."

This January, residents will begin to get electrical bills that reflect actual usage. Until then, they're getting shadow bills so that they can see how much electricity they're using and in which pricing period.

"People are trying to get that kilowatt-hour number to come down every month," says Worko. Some residents, he says, have installed CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) in their apartments, "and noticing the difference. 'Wow,' they say, 'I brought my wattage usage down from 600 kWh to 480 kWh just by changing light bulbs.'"

Additionally, NYSERDA, as part of a research and development effort to help the complex reduce its peak demand, is providing 100 individual through-the-wall room air conditioners that can be controlled wirelessly by the same system used for submetering, as well as by the apartment temperature sensors.

Bottom line, Georgetown Mews does what many co-ops and condos need to do if you're to change the way residents use energy. Board president Fisher says she herself is "becoming a little more conscious of things. Like last night, I waited [until off-peak] to blow-dry my hair."


Adapted from Habitat July / August 2008. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>

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