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Master Meter to Submeter: Convincing Residents to Pay for Their Own Electricity

Ronda Kaysen in Building Operations on April 11, 2013

Tower East, 190 E. 72nd Street, Upper East Side

April 11, 2013

There are ways to do it, even though, as Dean Zias, a project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), who oversaw the Tower East project, puts it, "People with master-meter buildings have never faced an electric bill in their lives. They think it's a God-given right, and therefore they will use as much as they want."

Although submetering tends to reduce a building's energy usage by 20 percent, convincing a board and shareholders to take on such a project is no easy feat. Often, residents balk at the idea of paying for their own usage because it could mean their bill will go up – and for about 20 percent of them, it usually does. (Another 20 percent usually see an immediate savings, says Zias; for the rest, the bill remains about the same.)

Another obstacle is convincing shareholders that installing a meter in their apartments won't damage their walls or add an unsightly piece of equipment to their living space.

First Time Fizzled

The 35-story building first considered the project in 2007, when the co-op conducted a feasibility study that estimated annual savings close to $40,000 a year and payback in less than two years. However, the board rejected the idea.

In 2011, things changed. Believing that the current system was unfair to shareholders who tried to conserve energy, new leaders on the board were eager to pursue submetering again. Still, some members were reluctant to take on a project that would cost nearly $90,000 up front and require accessing every unit. Individual apartments accounted for only 40 percent of the building's overall electricity bill, so even after the project, the building would still be responsible for the remaining 60 percent.

Hebert E. Hirschfeld, a Glen Cove, N.Y., engineer who conducted a feasibility study for the property convinced members that if electric costs were reduced by 40 percent (or $188,000, according to Hirschfeld's estimates), maintenance fees would be lower for all the shareholders, and that, says co-op board president Richard Miller, would up the value of the apartments. This seemed to convince wary members.

In October 2011, the board selected AMPS-ELEMCO to design, install, and manage the billing of the new system. But in order to move forward, the board needed a majority approval of the shareholders.

Light Up the Board

The board had AMPS-ELEMCO president Robert Friess present the idea to shareholders at the co-op's annual meeting. Most questions focused on how billing would work. Recalls Miller: "They loved the fact that they didn't have to pay for their neighbors, and [that] they have the ability to reduce their costs."

Ultimately, the measure squeaked by with a slim majority. Once the shareholders had approved the program, Friess sent a letter to Con Ed, letting the company know about the project, and then submitted a proposal to NYSERDA so it could be eligible for a $34,000 rebate. The building paid for the $89,941 project out of its reserve funds. By March 2012, work was set to begin.

Although the Tower East board sees the approval process it underwent as fast — from the time it reconsidered the submetering idea, the project sped along — Hirschfeld wonders, "Was it fast? I look at the [starting] time [as] when they first contacted me six years ago." By not acting immediately, he argues, the building missed several years of savings.

To see what's involved in a typical switch from master meter to submeter read part two or pick up the April issue of Habitat.

 

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