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Co-ops and Condos Are Still Major Energy Wasters

Marianne Schaefer in Green Ideas on March 22, 2018

New York City

Dirty Dozen

Buildings are the biggest polluters in New York City (photo by Marianne Schaefer).

March 22, 2018

Buildings are the biggest polluters in New York City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the city’s biggest buildings cut their energy use by almost 10 percent and their overall emissions by nearly 14 percent from 2010 to 2015. Now for more bad news. 

“The typical large co-op or condo building uses almost 60 percent more electricity than the typical large rental multifamily building in New York,” says Sean Brennan, associate director for research at Urban Green Council, a non-profit working to transform New York City buildings for a sustainable future. 

The council’s recently released New York City Energy and Water Use Report for 2017 states that half of the declines in building emissions are due to a cleaner electrical grid and more efficient steam generation. Now that most New York State electricity has transitioned from coal and oil to natural gas and renewables, the report states, New York City building owners, especially co-ops and condos, will have to dig deeper into energy efficiency to keep up the pace. 

“The worst [polluters] are midsize co-ops built in the 1940s and 1950s,” says Brennan. “But your typical co-op built in the 1980s is also using more energy than average.” While he’s reluctant to speculate on the reasons for co-ops’ greater energy consumption, he suspects it’s a byproduct of boards taking the short view. “They don’t want to spend the money for upgrades,” Brennan says. “They should really take the long view, which will save money long term.”

The most energy-intensive co-ops in the city are located in the Financial District, according to Brennan’s research. These buildings rely heavily on ConEd steam for their heating and hot water, and this fuel choice means they use more source energy. “These co-ops use 70 percent of their energy for space heating and hot water compared to the typical multifamily building that uses just over half of its source energy for these end uses,” says Brennan. 

Midtown East co-ops take second place and Upper East Side co-ops take third place for energy intensity. The culprits in these buildings are older lighting technologies such as incandescent bulbs, T12 fluorescents, and halogen bulbs. In addition, many of these buildings still use through-wall heating and cooling units, which are notorious for leaking air and wasting energy. 

The fourth-worst problem area is located in eastern Queens – Glen Oaks, Little Neck, and Oakland Gardens. These post-war buildings are almost all heated by one-pipe steam, and their boilers do double duty to provide space heating and hot water. This creates inefficiencies in the summer when the boiler fires up only to produce hot water, Brennan says. The study also found that all multifamily buildings with master electric meters used 20 percent more electricity than those that were direct-metered or submetered. Bottom line: boards that worry about short-term costs instead of long-term savings wind up wasting energy – and money. 

“Auditors had hundreds of suggestions for these buildings,” says Brennan. These include LED lighting upgrades; improvements to the domestic hot water system (DHW) by insulating the distribution pipes, lowering the water temperature, and separating the DHW from the main boiler; upgrading to digital technology to control pumps that regulate the building’s water flow; and controlling boilers based on interior rather than exterior temperatures. 

The Urban Green Council recommends that these energy-wasting buildings should contact NYC Retrofit Accelerator, which has excellent online tools for finding incentives.  

Boards should remember that beginning in 2020, buildings will have to post letter grades by their entrances – similar to sanitation grades in restaurants – that reflect the building’s energy efficiency. Just as nobody wants to eat in a C-graded restaurant, it’s unlikely many people will want to buy into – or live in – a building with a C energy-efficiency grade. Now is the time for co-op and condo boards to start taking the long view.

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