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.
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!
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!