A Thanksgiving message from our CEO, Jeff Perlman
A few weeks ago, a Bright Power employee attended a tenant meeting at a building that recently completed a heating system upgrade project with us. Tenant meetings can sometimes be like walking into the lions’ den, but in this case, the first thing he received was not a roar but a hug from an elderly lady. “Thank you! My apartment has never been more comfortable – I haven’t had reliable heat in years, until now,” she said.
Moments like this crystalize why we do what we do. Together, we make buildings better, which makes people’s lives better, and, importantly, makes those buildings more valuable and reduces our harmful impacts on the planet. It is a winning proposition all around. And we are thankful that this is the work that we get to do every day.
In this time of Thanksgiving, when we reflect on what is important to us, and especially now, as we try to heal the wounds from a bitter, bruising election season in which facts were often ignored, I want to reaffirm our commitment to some of the basic truths that we live by here at Bright Power.
Climate Change Isn’t Going Anywhere…and Neither Are We
Protecting and preserving our planet has always been and always will be a no-brainer for us. In the last few years, we’ve been fortunate to have strong support from federal and state governments who are committed and connected to our mission of reducing the negative impacts of buildings on the planet. It’s hard to know how the incoming president and his administration will coincide with this mission, and it’s safe to assume that we may encounter some new obstacles. But regardless of what happens at the federal level, states, municipalities and, importantly, the private sector will continue to lead.
We can’t lose sight of the important progress we’ve made. Over the last 8 years, we have largely been able to transform the conversation from “why should we reduce carbon emissions and other negative environmental impacts of our buildings?” to “how can we do better?”
With many major cities, large swaths of people and some of the most valuable property at risk of being submerged (or turned to inhospitable desert) in the coming decades, we need to work hard to prevent the worst outcomes while also planning for the impacts that wilder storms, more severe draughts and more vicious floods will have on business, the economy, humanity and the planet. All of this directly impacts our work and our clients. For example, CBRE has written about how rising sea levels effect real estate developers, Morgan Stanley about how climate change impacts investors, and the head of the Reinsurance Association of America about the climate change impacts on the insurance industry .
Our Work is Good Business
For better or for worse, saving the planet isn’t the sole driver of most decisions. Fortunately, the work we do at Bright Power to save the planet also makes good business sense. Wasting resources like energy and water is bad business and bad for the bottom line – that’s never going to change. And the benefits are more than just saving on operating costs – implementing best energy management practices leads to more comfortable spaces that are easier to lease, longer lasting equipment, and fewer emergencies and unplanned equipment replacements. A building with better indoor air, better light, fewer toxins, on-site clean power generation and lower operating costs is a more desirable building. And a more desirable building is a more valuable building. (In fact, acknowledging and evangelizing the business benefits of our work might just advance our cause with the new president and his administration…)
Resiliency is Key
We talk a lot about resiliency, often in the context of new and exciting backup power technology. But now more than ever, it’s important to talk about resiliency in a broader context. Being resilient means being able to bounce back after a hit, a storm, a change. And times they are a changin’.
Being resilient means being prepared, having a strong foundation, and clear plans and principles to turn to when something unexpected occurs. At Bright Power, we’ve spent the last 12 years building a great track record and a strong network of forward-thinking partners who understand the value of what we do for each other. We are so thankful to get to work with and for you every day. It’s because of our great achievements together that I know we will be able to bounce back from whatever tries to push us off course.
Lastly, I want to put a few things in writing that were always a part of who we are as a company, but seem like they should be made explicit given what we have heard in our national discourse over the past few months.
At Bright Power we celebrate the diversity in our workforce, are proud of our support for working mothers, and aim to create a comfortable and safe working environment for all of our employees regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or country of origin.
We are committed to making this world a better place for everyone: for you, your employees and your residents; for us, our families and our friends; as well as for all the other people and creatures all over the globe whom we may never meet. We believe that this isn’t just the right thing to do – it is the way to build a great, long-lasting and important company.
Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, and how much support we get from the Federal government, we will continue to find opportunities to deliver solid business value that improves our communities and preserves the planet.
Real estate owners and managers are often spooked by energy and water investment projects for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re haunted by unsuccessful past projects or maybe the results are just ghosting them. Whatever the reason may be, success lies in the approach. Below are some of our top tricks that will help you reap the treats of an intelligence-driven approach to energy and water management.
Don’t be Caught by Surprise
There’s nothing like an unsuspected scream or menacing shadow to scare the bejeezus out of you. However, scary situations are often avoidable with careful planning and awareness of your surroundings. For example, locking into a fixed-rate energy procurement contract is a proactive way to manage the cost of energy supply against volatile (and sometimes terrifying) market prices. This is a particularly useful strategy to consider in a mild autumn, when prices are stable. If you’d like to learn more about this winter’s energy market predictions, check out our blog on the subject here.
Survey the Whole Scene (or don’t just grab the first pumpkin that you see)
When you hit the pumpkin patch, you need to survey your options before landing on the perfectly shaped, sized, and inspirational gourd. That’s how we recommend implementing energy projects too, especially across a large portfolio. For example, take government and utility financial incentives: the SoCalRen program is an amazing opportunity to upgrade properties in Southern California at very low cost, but which properties should you choose? By evaluating your entire portfolio, you can assess where your investment dollars will have the biggest impact and show the highest returns.
Don’t be on the Losing End of Dramatic Irony
If only you could explain to the horror movie lead that answering the door is a poor choice because you know what is lurking on the other side. Alas, they can’t see the whole picture. Buildings are complicated environments with sprawling, interrelated systems and you want someone who can think holistically across all of them in order to effectively manage energy and water. Just because there is a heating problem doesn’t mean that the solution is in the boiler room. In fact, sometimes the source of the problem isn’t related to the equipment at all. In multifamily buildings, residents are as important a factor as any to consider when diagnosing any problem. This is why we recommend whole-building audits and continuous energy management services. Having our engineers go inside a building, speak with residents, and examine all of the systems’ functionality is crucial in diagnosing the root of an issue and presenting an informed solution. Providing continuous expertise and energy management lets us help you anticipate problems and recommend how to avoid them. Otherwise you’re liable to be frightened purely because you’re operating with incomplete information.
Don’t Jump to (Scary) Conclusions
As any parent can attest, some of the scariest things are the things that we don’t understand. And the only way to combat that is to probe a bit deeper and to figure out what is actually going on. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when they finally peek behind the curtain…or those big, spooky Halloween displays that make your five-year-old scream and cry until you show him that it is just a toy (with an on-off switch), not a real skeleton coming to life.
For example, one of our clients always found water on the floor of their boiler room. Noticing that it appeared to be leaking from the bottom of their water-tube steam boiler, they called the manufacturer’s representative to come out, drain, and inspect the boiler. When he opened it up and saw corrosion on the tubes, the rep said “it’s all gotta go.” Our client was looking at frightening repair costs, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Before rushing into anything, we helped our client select a nondestructive testing (NDT) company and supervised a more thorough ultrasonic testing of the boiler tubes. When the results came back, they were surprising. The corrosion had looked bad, but there was actually minimal loss of tube wall thickness. When we leak-tested the boiler, there were just two pinhole leaks and a leaking joint. The root cause was likely that this boiler had run much more than the standby boiler, and therefore experienced many more heat up and cooldown cycles. The rep replaced the two leaking tubes, we fixed the control logic so that the lead boiler would rotate weekly, and together we filled, started, and tested the boiler – just in time for heating season.
There is so much to gain from strategic energy and water management. From avoided capital costs to utility bill savings and resident retention, the list of benefits is hard to pass up. But in order to get the treats, it’s important to bear in mind these tricks.
Have you ever heard the old adage, “Sell in May and go away”? It’s a popular one among stock traders since prices often dip during the summer months, but it’s not a rule to live by, especially when it comes to energy purchasing. We prefer the saying, “Prep in October, before winter gets closer”. Now, yes, we did make that up, but for good reason!
Winter weather can impact multifamily real estate owners on so many levels. From site-level crises like freezing pipes (and residents) to portfolio-level energy costs, the only way to manage the changing seasons is to plan ahead, early and often. For tips on how to prepare your actual buildings for winter weather, check out our checklist. For energy purchasing, getting ahead of the weather is key, however, that means your strategy heavily depends on forecasting, historical data, and taking action.
In the last few years, volatile winter weather has rocked New York City and national energy markets on a number of, often cleverly-branded, occasions. In 2014, Con Edison electric supply prices climbed to $.22/kWh after a string of single digit degree days – popularly known as the northeast’s Polar Vortex. In this past, extremely mild winter, Con Edison prices dipped to $.05/kWh. Owners who allow the price they pay to float with the market are susceptible to unexpected swings like this, which is why a pre-season contract often makes the most sense.
Heading into the upcoming winter, energy market prices are looking unstable. Due to an extremely hot summer in 2016, prices are no longer trending downward. Natural gas production has begun to level off and is expected to fall short of consumption in 2017, leading to a deficit in the storage system.. As always, prices are heavily influenced by fluctuations in weather, available supply, and expected demand. In the winter, extremely cold temperatures will cause the use of heaters to rise, drain natural gas supply and, inevitably, prices will go up. In turn, warm weather during the winter months will preserve natural gas and keep prices low. If only we really knew what to expect from Mother Nature!
Accuweather and the Farmers Almanac predict relative warmth in the South and Southwest but a colder-than-usual stretch in the Plains and Northeast.
The NOAA predicts warmer than usual weather across the map.
Ultimately, how you decide to budget and strategize for winter energy spending depends on how much risk you’re willing to take and able to handle. If you are more conservative and want to make sure that your budgets are set and secure each year, locking in a fixed rate for your energy supply before the winter would be your best option. This strategy is very typical in supportive or affordable housing and Co-ops or condos. If you have more ability to take on risk, and have enjoyed the recent low rates in 2015 and 2016, there are a variety of flexible and aggressive strategies to implement that can help you get the lowest rates possible.
No matter which approach you take to energy procurement for your buildings, one thing is certain: now is the time to act.
EnergyScoreCards grades enable users to target their efforts and resources towards the buildings in their portfolio with the greatest potential for savings. This is done by comparing buildings to their ‘peer’ buildings, assigning grades of A, B, C or D according to how their energy and water use stacks up to these peers. Our new algorithm strives to improve on our concept of a ‘peer’ building by more closely comparing buildings to those that have similar needs.
For more information about the new grading algorithm itself please click here.
Why is my building’s grade different?
The new grade is a more accurate picture of how your building is performing compared to peer buildings. You can think of this new grade as a building’s potential for savings. So a C or a D building likely has a lot of ‘low-hanging fruit’ measures that are faster and cheaper to implement, while an A or B building is performing well relative to peer buildings – it may still have opportunities to lower energy and water use, but they may take a bit more investment of time and money.
My building’s grades improved with the new algorithm, what does that mean?
Your building is likely of a type that tends to use more energy, so when it’s compared to other buildings like it, its relative energy use is not quite as substantial. This includes older, small buildings or buildings with lots of amenity space.
My building’s grades got worse with the new algorithm, what does that mean?
Your building likely is the type that tends to use less energy, so when compared to other similar buildings, we can see that there is more room for improvement. These include newer, large buildings without a lot of amenity space and all-tenant-paid garden style complexes.
What does a grade change mean for my site staff and how do I communicate this change to them?
If you’re already using EnergyScoreCards grades to motivate or inform site staff, this shouldn’t be too big of a change. Most grades either won’t change at all or by much. For buildings that do have a larger change in grades, it likely won’t be too much of a surprise to site staff, since they know your buildings best. The most important thing to communicate is that we’re continually updating our models to make the grades more useful, and this latest change is really aimed at making the grades as actionable as possible, so buildings that now have Cs or Ds should have a lot of potential for savings.
Why did the algorithm change?
We’re constantly updating our software and modeling algorithms to incorporate the most state-of-the-art methods possible. This latest change was also driven by a lot of feedback we’ve received from clients, both in terms of grades that didn’t make sense and wanting tighter regional comparison.
Why did only some of my building’s grades change?
Since this upgrade is really a refinement of our current model, many grades won’t change much or at all. It’s also possible that your overall energy grade might stay the same, but end use grades (heating, cooling, baseload electric and baseload fossil fuel) might change. This is because the end-use and overall energy grades are calculated separately, and could differ for many reasons, such as:
- The distribution of energy use (and energy needs) between end-uses is often not equal.
- There can be no energy used for a specific end-use, giving a property an end-use grade of ‘N/A’, but that means less energy overall that will factor into the overall grade.
- You can’t tell if you’re on the border between two grades, so you might be just barely a ‘B’ for end-uses, but just barely an ‘A’ for overall energy.
- Certain types of fuel are more efficient than others, so a property may have an efficient fossil fuel baseload score, but compared to properties that have those end-uses filled by electric, may not be as efficient overall.
- Depending on the payment code, the metrics for end-uses may be measured against different building areas. For example, for TTOO buildings, the cooling index (and grade) is normalized by common area, whereas the overall energy index is normalized by total multi-family area.
How does this impact energy improvement recommendations I’ve already received from Bright Power (such as through an energy audit)?
EnergyScoreCards provides a high level analysis of building energy use. While EnergyScoreCards grades are an important input for our engineers, there are a lot of factors that go into producing the recommendations that go into an energy audit report, including equipment surveys, conversations with site staff, observations from a site visit, energy modeling, and our experience upgrading similar buildings. The energy improvement recommendations (or energy conservation measures) presented in an energy audit were custom created for your building using a lot more data than is available in EnergyScoreCards. EnergyScoreCards is a great place to keep track of these recommendations and to measure the actual energy performance improvements after you have implemented them.
How does this compare to Portfolio Manager’s Energy Star score calculation?
Portfolio Manager also uses a Machine Learning Regression algorithm to calculate their Energy Star score. However, we’re using a different type of algorithm that performs much better with different types of building data, and we’re ‘training’ our algorithm on a much larger database, making it both more accurate and better able to properly model many different types of buildings. We’re also only comparing buildings to those in their climate region, and we have a custom model for each of those regions. The EnergyScoreCards grading model also grades by energy end-uses (heating, cooling, baseload electric and baseload fossil fuel) in addition to total energy and water use, so you can see which parts of your energy consumption have the biggest potential for improvement. Finally, we’re able to grade buildings based on both the owner-paid portion of utility use or whole-building data, whereas whole-building data is required for an Energy Star score.
When is this rolling out?
Will historical grades change to the new algorithm?
Will I be able to access old grades?
Not on the EnergyScoreCards website. Your EnergyScoreCards Energy Analyst can supply you with a spreadsheet showing your Most Recent Year grades before and after the change for reference.
EnergyScoreCards, Bright Power’s premiere utility bill analytics software, is releasing an upgrade to its proprietary grading algorithm in October 2016. With this upgrade comes improved accuracy, refined regional analysis, and a focus on the potential for saving energy and water at every building. We’re excited to release this upgrade and give our clients an even deeper, more sophisticated understanding of energy performance past, present and projected. In this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into our new grading methodology and explore the nuances of multifamily building energy analysis.
Why do we grade buildings?
Making intelligent decisions about how to manage energy and water at the portfolio level requires distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the liability in terms of efficiency. If a property owner has two buildings on the same block with very different energy usage, does that mean that the one using less energy is performing closer to its potential? Is it even worth looking into energy saving measures in the ‘better’ performer? What if the buildings are very different ages or have different types of tenants? Or what if one building is in NYC and the other is in Los Angeles?
EnergyScoreCards grades help answer these types of questions and allow you to understand how efficiently your buildings are performing, and where best to focus your efforts and resources within a portfolio to maximize savings. We do this by comparing energy and water consumption metrics for your properties to those of similar buildings in our database of over 20,000 multifamily buildings.
As anyone who knows multifamily buildings can tell you, defining what “similar buildings” means is easier said than done. Multifamily buildings vary in terms of their location, size, age, construction, system types, amenities provided, the size and configuration of apartments, and many other physical and operational factors. On top of that, a variety of metering and payment structures means that in some cases we have access to whole building data, and in others only the portion of consumption paid for by owners. All of these factors and more must be taken into account in order to develop a meaningful and accurate grading methodology.
As our database grows, we are better able to understand the energy and water needs of all different kinds of multifamily buildings across the country. We also continually update our software to incorporate the most state-of-the-art tools available to provide value for our customers. As such, we have recently updated our EnergyScoreCards grading algorithm and it’s our most substantial change to the grading system yet. Our new model is able to better define the concept of a ‘similar’ building and uses new statistical tools to figure out which characteristics are the most important when it comes to grading. With the new model in effect, grades will be ‘fairer’ and will better indicate potential savings by being based on things that owners can actually change.
The EnergyScoreCards Dataset
Our database includes over 20,000 buildings with 800,000 units grouped into more than 6,000 properties, each with over 30 data fields such as total square feet, building age and resident demographics. By analyzing all of this data, we can figure out which building characteristics have the biggest impact on energy needs, and use these to calculate building grades.
To get an idea of the geographic span of our dataset, here’s a map of the U.S. with bubbles representing properties grouped by location.
Why this matters to you
This recent upgrade to EnergyScoreCards is part of Bright Power’s ongoing efforts to continually improve our data analysis and software to give building owners all of the information and guidance they need to better manage energy and water at their buildings. With improved peer comparison, our grades allow for:
- More targeted audits
- Better distribution of resources across a portfolio
- Continued confidence in our ability to understand your building’s needs
Stay tuned for more improvements, we’ve got so much more on the way!
For more on how we’re better defining building peer groups, read on below:
Which building characteristics affect energy use?
One of the main features of EnergyScoreCards is the building energy grades, which allow property owners to understand how their properties compare to other buildings in terms of energy and water use. But determining a fair way to compare properties to similar buildings can be challenging. Our goal is to figure out what information is relevant to building energy use and how we can use this to group buildings with their peers.
There are many factors which contribute to a building’s energy use. Many of these are permanent factors, such as the age of the building or its size, and many are things that a building owner or manager can change, such as the specific heating, cooling and distribution equipment in the building. Our new algorithm does a better job of normalizing for the permanent features of a building, so that the grade is only based on the things that an owner can change – the fixable factors. So now you can know if the huge electric bill at your 30-story building is because it’s not performing efficiently or if it’s in line with other tall buildings with lots of elevators.
Our new algorithm also breaks up our dataset into more geographic regions that have similar climates and energy use patterns. You can see the new regions in the map below.
But how can we tell which building characteristics are important for determining how much energy a building should use? Fortunately, our new grading model can help answer this question, and ranks building characteristics on how much they impact a building’s energy and water use.
Once we understand what affects energy use, we can look at what types of buildings use more or less energy based on the most predictive characteristics. The graphs below show the Energy Use Index (EUI – kBTU/sqft/yr) vs different building characteristics, for all NYC buildings with owner-paid heat and hot-water. No discernable trends are apparent for any of these characteristics on their own…
…but when we look at the EUI compared to multiple characteristics at once we can find ‘pockets’ of parameter space that stand out. In the graph below, each circle represents a group of buildings binned by average apartment size and the age of the building. The size of the circle represents the number of properties in the bin and the color represents the median EUI of the bin. From this, we can see that old buildings with small average apartment size have the most intense energy use. While buildings with small average apartment size built around the 1960s also have relatively high EUIs, these constitute a relatively small number of properties (as shown by the circle size), and so it’s difficult to tell if this is a strong trend. On average though, energy use becomes more efficient with increasing apartment size for buildings of any age, which makes sense as you have fewer residents occupying the same space.
Similarly, the graph below shows how EUI varies with total building area and the average apartment size, and we see a trend of small buildings with small average apartment size using energy the least efficiently.
These graphs allow us to identify types of buildings that require more or less energy per square foot, even when operating efficiently. We can explore this trend further by looking at the distribution of EUIs for two ‘types’ of buildings:
- Old, small buildings with small apartments
- New, large buildings with large apartments
While there is some overlap in the distributions, there is definitely a tendency for old, small buildings with small apartments to use more energy per sqft. In our model, we want to grade these buildings fairly, so they’ll only be getting C’s and D’s if their use is inefficient compared to buildings like them, and not compared to all buildings.
How do we use this information to grade your buildings?
In order to fairly compare buildings to their peers, we calculate each building’s predicted EUI based on its permanent characteristics using our entire database of buildings. This predicted EUI can be thought of as its peer building’s use. To calculate this predicted EUI, we use a Machine Learning algorithm called a Random Forest Regressor. This algorithm is effective at fitting both numerical characteristics (such as building square feet) and categorical characteristics (such as the type of fuel used for end-uses), and it’s also not as susceptible to overfitting as other types of models (something data scientists always worry about). A Random Forest Regressor is constructed of many decision trees, each of which determines the energy use of a building by traversing through the tree based on all of its characteristics. The final predicted EUI is then calculated from the average predicted value from all of the 200 trees in a given model. Since our grading algorithm uses around 60 models total, that means we’re calculating the predicted EUI for buildings in our database using 12,000 different Decision Trees!
A portion of an example decision tree is shown below.
Example Decision Tree
To determine the predicted EUI for a given property, traverse the tree from left to right. At each node, take the top or bottom branch, depending on whether the statement in the node is true or false. For example, for a property with the following characteristics:
- Average apartment size = 1300 sqft
- Total size = 800,000 sqft
- Number of Units = 250
- Year built = 1950
You would traverse the tree, by answering: TRUE, TRUE, TRUE, FALSE
We then calculate the grades based on how much a building’s actual EUI compares to the predicted EUI, so the grades represent how much a building’s energy use differs from a typical peer building based on changeable factors.
With our improved peer comparison, you can think of your building’s energy grade as its potential for savings. A ‘D’ really just means you could be saving a lot of money! You wouldn’t expect your aging apartment building in Minnesota to ever have the same energy consumption per area as a new garden development in California, but with the right focused effort, it can still get an ‘A’.
To download the pdf version of this article, click here.
As leaves change and summer temperatures begin to wane, you can get away with putting off unpacking your winter coat, but for building owners and operators, now is the time to start transitioning buildings from cooling to heating season. With new September leases settling in, it’s more important than ever to make this transition smooth and successful. But what exactly should your site staff be doing to prepare? To ease the transition, our engineers are here to help. Below is a checklist outlining the most important measures to take as we head into the next season.
Cooling System Shut Down
- If laying up equipment for the winter (summer boilers, chillers, etc.) decide on a dry or wet lay-up. For a wet lay-up, make sure the water is treated properly to prevent corrosion during the off-season.
- Drain cooling towers and check for water in low spots. If they run year-round, check operation of the basin heaters and tower bypass valve.
- If shutting down circulating pumps (such as chilled water) that have variable speed drives, consider running pumps at minimum speed. In some systems – particularly ones with old pipes, many terminal units, and clog-prone terminal unit control valves – this can prevent the strainer plugging and valve clogging that would have occurred when the pumps were restarted.
- Seasonal changeover – many systems require manual valve position changes as part of a seasonal switchover. Failing to make these changes properly can result in poor operation or even equipment damage. Does your staff have an up-to-date accurate valve chart? Is there a written procedure and checklist for switchover?
- For any equipment that operates with glycol, check the glycol concentration. Check that glycol feeder supplies are full and feeder equipment is functional.
Heating System Prep
- If boilers have been shut down, have your service contractor fill and start them. If they were running over the summer, they should be cleaned and re-tuned for winter operation at higher firing rates.
- If your boiler is dual-fuel, make sure the oil tank is full at the beginning of the season, so that you have enough oil for a few days of operation during a cold streak.
- Are controls operating in automatic mode at the beginning of the season? Are the setpoints correct? (Do you have documentation of what the correct setpoints are?)
- Check the operation of all heat-trace systems. These are often neglected and abandoned.
- After starting up systems, check that all indicating devices are working. Replace dirty sight-glasses, blown out pressure gauges, and the like.
- If hot water or steam pipes have not had flow during the summer, blow down suction strainers and boiler/s more frequently for the first week or two of operation.
- Check functionality of all outdoor air dampers and freezestats on air handler. Freezestats can be checked with cheap freeze spray. If the stat can’t shut the fan down and outdoor air dampers can’t close, you risk coil freezing and expensive coil damage, not to mention water damage when the iced-up coil thaws.
- Check all piping exposed to freezing temperatures for “dead legs” – sections of piping that have been isolated or bypassed and have no flow in them. These are a freezing risk.
- Check drain lines from any condensing combustion equipment, especially if it drains outside. Combustion condensate lines will stay open in moderately cold weather and then freeze and shut boilers down when temperatures are at their coldest. In freezing weather, building staff should be checking this every day.
These are just a few of the most crucial steps to take before it gets cold to ensure heating systems perform optimally when they’re needed most. We encourage building owners to talk with their site staff to ensure these steps are being taken and incorporate them into standard procedures and written documentation for seasonal changeover. Consistent and reliable operations and maintenance is the backbone of healthy buildings, happy staff and residents and minimal headaches.
Being pregnant for the first time is tough. Couple that with spending lots of time on construction sites for work, and I experienced one interesting year!
At Bright Power, I am a senior energy engineer on new construction projects. The job involves a lot of (local) travel and construction inspections. I am on project sites from the time of kickoff, to foundation inspections, all the way through to duct blaster testing of leakage from exhaust shafts (and beyond). I love the work I do, but it is not without its challenges – not only does it include physical labor (e.g. lugging heavy test equipment from borough to borough and up and down multi-story buildings), but it also means asserting oneself as an authority in the midst of construction professionals who are mostly men.
Pregnancy has many joys, like feeling your baby kicking inside you, but it also has what lots of women euphemistically refer to as “stuff.”
For starters, there’s having to use the ladies’ room a lot. Let’s just say the closest I come to a “ladies’ room” on a construction site is being granted use of the “special” Port-o-Potty, which comes equipped with a lock and key. Let’s be real: it’s a Port-o-Potty.
And never have I sympathized more with residents of South Bronx food deserts than while pregnant: I seemed to always be extremely far from a restaurant or coffee shop where I could beg for a bathroom break or satisfy my unending hunger. Did I mention being pregnant means being hungry? All. The. Time.
Then there’s the issue of just being huge compared to the size you were at the start of the project, and site supers never quite knowing if they can broach the topic. And though some days I’m totally ready to chat about bringing new life into the world, some days I just don’t feel like it. So, we skip the banter while instead I descend a giant dirt pit on a precarious ladder they’ve pointed me toward that’s been assembled from leftover two-by-fours.
In 18-33 months, this pit below me will be a beautiful building I’ll take much pride in having played a role in. But for now, I’m exhausted, hungry, desperate for a real restroom, and for the life of me (not to mention the little one’s), am trying my hardest not to fall off this ladder!
Elan Klein Brennan was born on 4/25/2016 and is already asking Mama when he will get to join her to play with all the power tools and big trucks.
The value of energy management is often measured in its impact on expenses – how much money are you spending on gas and electric supply, what is the price of your boiler replacement, how much will a solar installation save you in the long run? But for multifamily real estate owners, the value of energy management reaches well beyond the expense side of your P&L into topline revenue.
Keeping occupancy and rents high is one of your core business objectives. But all it takes is one energy-related snafu to send residents running. Energy management – the least talked about most important secret to tenant retention.
Below are some of the most common energy-related frustrations that can cause a good resident to utter those feared four words – “It’s time to move”. Don’t worry, we’ve also included tips for avoiding these sticky situations.
While most residents choose an apartment based upon the base rent, they can get shocked (and steamed) when they start receiving their energy and water bills. Residents may not fully appreciate energy-efficient appliances on the day they move in, but the real cost of inefficient ones shows up in their utility bills, and reduces the chance that they will renew their leases.
Ratio Utility Billing Systems (“RUBS”), may seem like an attractive option for owners who wish to bill residents for utility usage without the costs of submetering. However, when residents are paying a small percentage of the whole property’s usage, their individual actions have a nominal impact on how much they pay. This means that it is incumbent upon you as the owner to implement energy and water efficiency improvements property-wide, or face the ire of residents when renewal time comes around.
Pro Tip: Install energy efficient appliances, clearly communicate billing procedures with residents, consider energy procurement options to increase control and stability over utility prices.
Even renters want to feel like they own their spaces. A big part of that is having their apartments at temperatures that are comfortable for them. But that is often not the case. The building systems that directly impact resident comfort – heating, cooling, ventilation – are often dependent upon ownership’s energy management strategy. There’s not much a resident can do when the apartment feels tropical in December because of an imbalanced steam system. So they open the windows, for awhile. Some people accept and deal with the energy blunders, but many don’t.
Pro Tip: Schedule an energy audit, followed by retrocommissioning, to make sure systems are properly balanced and functioning optimally. This involves a lot more than just tuning the boiler or changing an air conditioner filter – the whole system needs to be checked and tuned to ensure that it can deliver consistent comfort.
For many people, that nice hot shower in the morning really sets the tone for the day… unless of course the hot water never comes on, the temperature swings wildly between hot and cold, or the pressure makes it feel more like a sprinkle than a shower. For the resident, the worst part is that there’s nothing they can do. As an owner or operator, you have the power to bring in an expert to solve what can be a thorny problem with a number of different possible causes. But you should do it before it’s too late and your tenants are already out the door for the last time.
Pro Tip: There are a lot of things that go into delivering a nice hot shower, including the boiler itself, the recirculation pump, the tempering valve, the showerhead, the water booster pump and the pipe condition and configuration. You’ll need an expert to analyze the system, diagnose the problem and propose a solution.
It’s tough to trace any one move-out to an energy or water management problem but when it comes to multifamily, it’s clear that comfort is paramount and energy and water are directly related to some of the most notorious comfort issues. The good news is that these are solvable problems if you bring in an expert who knows what to look for. Just by acknowledging them you’ll show your residents that their comfort and quality of life is important to you. Let the renewals begin!
The sweltering summer shows no signs of slowing down both in temperatures and headlines. We’ve compiled some of our favorite blogs covering many aspects of the heat wave including price spikes, future forecasts, the impact of air conditioning, boosts in solar, and even historic cooling methods. Check ’em out!
California Powers 6 Million Homes With Solar Energy, Slays Record
Believe it or not this heat wave is having at least one positive effect. Huffington Post reports that California solar panels hit a new record for electricity produced, 8,030 megawatts to be exact. And that’s just for large solar plants. Read the full article on Huffington Post here.
The Global Environmental Impact of Air Conditioning is Big and Will Get Even Bigger
The world loves air conditioning. And now, more than ever before, people can afford to have one or several units in their homes. But what does this mean for the global demand for electricity to power those air conditioners? Quartz explores this question in depth. Read the full article here.
New York City Electricity Spot Price Spikes by 1,000%
The heat wave is not confined to outdoor temperatures. A particularly hot streak took its toll on the New York City electricity spot price per megawatt hour which reached $1,042, up from the average price of $94. Electricity bills were not directly affected but the price jump is definitely something to keep an eye on. Read more here.
How Houses Were Cooled Before Air Conditioning
Air conditioning is a relatively modern invention but heat has always been a problem. How did people deal with it before electricity? Curbed goes way back to explain some of the more creative ways to beat the heat. Read the full article here.
Get Used to These Extreme Summer Heat Waves
We’re already on track to surpass the record breaking temperatures of 2015 and scientists says unless we reduce our fossil fuel consumption, we’re looking at the new normal. “If we continue with business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels, and warm the planet by [3 degrees Celsius] by the end of this century, then what we today call ‘extreme heat’ we will instead call ‘mid-summer'”. Read the full article on Huffington Post.
In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.