Month: February, 2017
Steam heating systems can be tricky. These ancient systems are deceptively simple and notoriously difficult to regulate. Most owners and managers allocate maintenance budget to the boilers themselves. However, when it comes to the pipes and radiators – the steam distribution system that heats the spaces that your residents actually care about – building maintenance staff are often left to their own devices.
In New York City, you can pretty much tell which buildings have steam heat in the winter without ever going inside — it’s common to see windows wide open in the dead of winter, a consequence of imbalanced steam systems. All that heat flying out of the windows represents dollars flying out of the owners’ pockets.
But, without a comprehensive strategy for making a steam heating system perform its job well – i.e. provide even heating across all occupied spaces in your buildings – you aren’t just negatively impacting your bottom line by paying too much in energy costs, you’re also risking your topline.
Let’s take a look at some of the side effects of a neglected steam heating system.
Anyone who’s lived in a building with steam heat knows there are some unique quirks. One Brooklyn resident I spoke with said that her newborn son is not a fan of their building’s steam heating system. The sputtering and clanking are known to wake people up, and that includes babies. Contrary to popular belief, those noises are not signs that the system is working well: it’s a tip that something is off. But more importantly, it’s a nuisance to residents. Strike one.
Maybe residents are having a tough time getting a hold of their landlord or super, or maybe they think they just know best since the problems are in their homes. Whatever the reason, people often want to take matters into their own hands when it comes to fixing problems caused by their steam heating system.
Case in point: a master-metered San Francisco apartment complex we’re working with is undergoing a major steam heating system retrofit, spurred by exorbitant electricity costs. When their steam heating system wasn’t warming up their apartments like it should, residents decided to buy electric space heaters, sending electricity costs through the roof. Strike two.
Enough is Enough
My own experience with steam heat wasn’t a pleasant one. After roughly 3 years of shoddy heating in my Brooklyn apartment, a frigid winter finally froze our pipes and had me saying enough is enough. Yes, there were other factors that made me want to leave my apartment, but reliable heat was chief among them. I went through all of these phases with my steam system. The noises were annoying, but I got used to them. When I got space heaters I was concerned that they were unsafe and I was not pleased with my electricity bills. But when I had no heat coming into my apartment and an unconcerned landlord, I knew it was time to go. Strike three.
Finding the Right Balance
By no means are we condemning steam heating systems. When maintained properly and routinely, these simple systems effectively deliver heat to all kinds of buildings. However, routine maintenance is key, and often undervalued. Poorly maintained steam systems cost more in energy bills and in emergency repairs, but, perhaps more importantly, they negatively impact your customers, i.e.your residents. If the system is a little wonky, most residents will just deal with it. But when steam heating issues pile up, it can push some residents over the edge, causing them to move, and putting a dent in your topline revenue.
For more information, Building Energy Exchange recently released a great white paper called Better Steam Heat. And, of course, we have many experts in steam heating systems at Bright Power – feel free to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 212.803.5868.
Real Estate executives are all too familiar with those “lowest price at the moment, buy it now” cold calls from energy brokers trying to sell supply contracts. What that broker or consultant (or property manager or supplier) may not be sharing with them, are the answers to key questions like: “what’s behind that price” and “how does the energy supply contract affect the management of my properties?” These are important questions, especially since energy supply contracts are often valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Below is a guide to helping you avoid common and costly mistakes before you sign your next energy supply contract.
Have a Plan
- Define your goals and purchasing strategy. Proactive energy procurement has numerous operational and financial benefits, which can be difficult to attain without clearly defined goals and strategy. Some questions to consider include: Are you more comfortable with the budget control provided by a fixed rate or are you looking to achieve the lowest rates with a risk-tolerant variable-rate product? Do you want each building or legal entity to have a customized strategy, or achieve economies of scale in aggregating your portfolio?
- Set your benchmark. Give yourself something to compare against. Do you want to beat last year’s rates, find a number that fits annual or long term budgets, or try to perform well against the utility supply rate? Pick one or two benchmarks for comparison, and then move forward using them. Over several years and contracts, these benchmarks will help put your costs and processes in context.
- Give yourself time. Since energy markets move on a daily basis and market fundamentals such as weather, supply and demand affect long term price changes, when you buy is as important as what you buy. You or your representative should be watching the markets, and advising when the time may be right. Begin the process 4 to 6 months in advance of the contract end date, and give yourself more flexibility.
Read the Contract and Ask Questions
Insider terminology can make energy contracts confusing and difficult to grasp. However, since the contract creates financial and operational obligations for your company; you should always know the impact of what you’re signing. Energy supply contracts not only identify price, building lists, and payment structure, but also provide instruction for a number of “what if” scenarios.
- What if I sell a building? Every contract has an Early Termination Fee (ETF). If you know a building will be sold during the contract term, exclude the building or ensure the new owner can assume the contract. Alternatively, a short-term and well-timed fixed rate could add value by lowering operating costs before the sale.
- What if there’s a large change in energy usage at a building? Energy contracts can contain provisions that impose penalties when usage changes outside of a specified range, such as due to efficiency upgrades, installation of new equipment or a period when the account will be off line.
- What happens upon contract expiration? Most energy supply contracts typically continue indefinitely with the supplier after a contract expires, but the rate and terms post-expiration can be hidden and unpredictable. These post-expiration terms should, at least, be made clear to you. In practice, you and your broker or consultant should be developing a new plan for renewal months ahead of expiration.
- Which accounts are included? As obvious as this sounds, it very often it isn’t clear. A contract addendum should include account numbers, service address, rate class and annual usage.
- What is the swing or bandwidth? In the cold winters of 2014 and 2015, many Northeast retail energy buyers were hurt with high usages and extra charges. Having a negotiated “swing provision” provides insurance that the supplier will provide the correct amount of energy at the agreed upon rate structure.
Avoid Racing to the Bottom
When someone jumps out and tries to “beat a price” that’s your cue to step back and closely evaluate. Those “great deals” often come at a hidden price and can create an uneven playing field. Many times, what is falsely advertised as the “lowest price” isn’t actually favorable, as suppliers or brokers will add hidden fees and pass along unnecessary risk to the customer in the contract fine print. A trusted “lowest price” is the one which results from your designed process. If you can develop a plan and achieve your benchmarks, you can comfortably execute agreements for your organization on your final RFP contracting day.
In summary, there’s a lot to think about when you’re buying energy. And there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in the energy business who profit on not sharing complete information with their customers. So remember to take the time to: create and execute a plan, read the contract and ask questions, and don’t just jump at what someone says is a great price. Of course, Bright Power’s Energy Procurement Team has a wealth of experience in these areas and is always here to help you.
While my sustainability work (which includes managing project scopes such as Passive House Institute US, Enterprise Green Communities, and LEED for Homes) made me aware of the importance of indoor environmental quality (IEQ), I never cared about it as much as I did once I had a baby. IEQ is a broad term covering the overall effects of a building’s interior on occupant health and well-being.
Healthy IEQ has been linked to improved productivity in the workforce (see The COGfx Study – fascinating!), and it is a key component of the newest iterations of green building standards, like LEED v4 and the WELL Building Standard. But it wasn’t economic output I was concerned about in my apartment – just a healthy infant, since, as studies from the NIH, the DOE, and the WHO (among others) have concluded, IEQ can have a very real impact on health and development. So I set out to learn more about what I could do in my own home to improve IEQ for my family:
At the suggestion of a colleague, we tested our apartment with an analyzer kit sold by Home Air Check. The test we purchased measured VOCs, actively growing mold, and toxic formaldehyde. Our apartment didn’t score well in a couple of these categories, which is why we were especially motivated.
The materials used to make and install carpet (not to mention everything that gets trapped in it!) are usually IEQ nightmares. If you do want carpet (I must say our little guy loves it – despite the rug burn), choose carpet certified by The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) as Green Label Plus. We also made a rule that our apartment be shoe free to reduce what we contribute from outside.
Many of us know by now to buy low (or preferably no) VOC paint. Most of our buildings, however, have layers and layers of painted walls – some of which could contain lead. Before making any holes in the walls, we wet the area with a damp napkin and vacuum the area immediately after.
We tried to find products that were GreenGuard (or, even better, GreenGuard Gold) certified or those made from unfinished wood. Since GreenGuard products tended to exceed our budget, we opted for used items since these have already spent years off-gassing! Our beautiful hand-me-down crib is unfortunately not unfinished, and it has plenty of new paint-chipped bite marks at this point…
NASA’s pioneering study on air-filtering plants in 1980 guided our selection of houseplants. We added a small bamboo, a snake plant, a peace lily, a Chinese evergreen, and a few spider plants to our collection.
Ultimately, the best solution in our apartment (which had been renovated just prior to our purchasing it) was to leave the windows open as much as possible. (Although, we are not far from a highway, so that is another consideration.)
Of course, I wish we lived in a Passive House, so we would have continuous supply air filtered through Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERVs), but we’re not there just yet. So, while I continue to be on the lookout for IEQ issues and resolutions (I’m currently saving up to buy an air purifier), I’m also learning to relax, enjoy my beautiful son, and take deep breaths – even if that means sometimes inhaling a few toxins!
Attention NYS Electric Customers:
Beginning April 1, 2017, New York State Zero Emission Credit (ZEC) charges will be assessed to all NYS customers’ electric bills. The purpose of these charges is to help NYS meet clean air goals set by the Clean Energy Standard (CES). ZEC costs will support cleaner electric generation by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and by keeping certain nuclear generation plants in service. These initiatives support the two NYS goals of reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 40% and of requiring 50% of electric generation to be from renewable sources by 2030.
ZEC charges represent a cost increase of $.003 to $.005/kwh to the electric supply cost for all retail (ESCO) and utility supply customers. This adds approximately 2% to a typical Con Edison electric customer’s bill, when you factor in both supply and delivery charges.
New York State Steps into a Leadership Role
In the last year, the establishment of the CES has helped reinforce NYS as leader in supporting clean air, renewable energy, and slowing climate change. As we enter into a time of uncertain environmental leadership from the federal government, New York continues to move toward a future of energy largely being produced through clean and renewable methods. At Bright Power, we feel these initiatives are in sync with the long term needs of our customers and our planet.