“One Stop Shops” for Energy Retrofits: Minimize hassle while saving money

6 min read

An estimated 70 percent of multi-family, affordable housing (MFAH) in western Pennsylvania is more than 30 years old—and most of these units are wasting as much as half the energy they use.

Similar statistics describe virtually every part of the country. “Multi-family, affordable housing has, for the most part, not yet benefited from tremendous advances in energy efficiency made in the past ten, twentyyears, and which continue at a fast pace today,” says Anne Evens, Chief Executive Officer of Elevate Energy, which is located in Chicago.

Elevate Energy now offers a new solution: “One-Stop shopping” that empowers MFAH owners to get everything, including financial help, needed for an energy retrofit—also known as, among other things, “green rehab,” “weatherization,” and just plain “upgrade.”

While their central focus is usually energy, these retrofits often include efficiency in water usage, and health-promoting goals such as combatting and preventing mold. They may also address safety issues, such as properly venting hot water boilers to prevent possible carbon monoxide poisoning.

Evens explains: “The first hurdle comes when property owners and managers ask, ‘Are significant dollar savings from a retrofit really possible?’  Then comes the second hurdle, ‘Is it worth the hassle?,’ and that’s when the benefits of One-Stop become clear.”

Another energy efficiency specialist, Kathryn Fantauzzi, One-Stop Program Manager of ACTION-Housing, based in Pittsburgh and primarily serving western Pennsylvania, provides a typical example of savings: To insulate and seal ducts on a roof on one particular building cost $3,000 and cut energy bills by $3211 in first year alone. This project paid for itself or (payback) in less than a year. In a recent project in a high-rise senior building, the One Stop recommended replacing outdated fluorescent lighting in hallways and community spaces to high performance fluorescent lighting and switching high-pressure sodium flood lights with LED (light-emitting diodes). This retrofit would cost $6,752 and save $7,596 a year. It would also reduce maintenance costs because LEDs last longer and thus need not be changed as frequently.

Of course, time required for paybacks is subject to energy prices and weather, but can be easily documented and tracked.

While many efficiency retrofits, particularly lighting upgrades and water conservation measures, can pay back in two years or less, paybacks for recommended energy-focused retrofits in MFAH are usually five-seven years, and often involve far more than cost savings.  Some recommendations, by addressing equipment that is not working, may add to energy usage while improving living conditions. Fantauzzi provides this example from a “one stop” document submitted recently to a client:

[The Property] currently has heating distribution problems, causing the upper floors to become very hot and the lower floors to be cold. Residents in the upper floors tend to open the windows to relieve the heat. This draws heat from the lower floors and out of the windows, causing the lower floors to become even colder.

This issue is known as “stack effect.” To remedy this, we recommend installing new rooftop air handlers…. outside air will be pulled into the building, creating positive pressure that will push the hot air on the top floors down into the lower floors, reducing heat distribution issues. This will also help keep doors from slamming shut in the building.

In addition, because the current rooftop units are not working there is very little fresh air coming into the building.

For this building, the payoff would include cutting back on tenant complaints, and attracting and keeping good tenants.

Awareness of such non-monetary payoffs is essential when you have “‘split incentives,’ where the tenant and not the property owner pays utility bills,” says Ravi Malhotra, Founder and President of  ICAST (International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology), which offers One-Stop to MFAH clients in Colorado and New Mex-ico through its ResourceSmart program.

Because  retrofits have such clear benefits, says Elevate Energy CEO Evens, “conversations almost always get past ‘Is it real?’ to ‘is it worth the hassle?’”

Hassle is key. The people who own and manage these buildings “are extremely busy,” Evens explains. “They have to focus on tenancy rates, maintenance, paying utility bills, and countless other pressures.  They’re not looking for new things to worry about.” Ravi of ICAST puts it this way: “Doing nothing is often the easiest thing to do. This is a win-win situation, but it can be overwhelming, especially in the beginning.  Hence, One-Stop.”

The first step is usually to develop some kind of baseline, a precise-as-possible documentation of current energy uses and costs. Baseline numbers, and the patterns they reveal, can be so persuasive many companies offer them to prospective MFAH clients free of charge.

Next come the other elements of One-Stop, which usually include, in one form or another:

  • a benchmark comparison to other MFAHs;
  • an energy audit that locates sites and sources of waste;
  • delineation of cost-effective upgrades, including equipment (may be done for typical buildings, with findings projected onto similar structures);
  • funding and financial assistance (which can include grants, low-interest loans, utility rebates);
  • selection of contractor(s); and
  • project management.

“But work does not end with the retrofit,” says Evens. “Awareness among tenants needs to be raised, and maintenance staff need training. Managers must maintain equipment and monitor costs to make sure that nothing has gone off track. Smart meters and real-time information need attention. Elevate Energy usually stays involved for about two years after the actual work is done.”

Elevate Energy is partnering with nonprofit organizations in other parts of the country to develop and expand multi-family energy efficiency programs that offer One-Stop energy retrofit to multi-family affordable housing. The defining task for such organizations is to help clients curb utility bills and save money. But in doing so they also have goals such as curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants; strengthening the affordable housing sector; and providing educational and training opportunities in energy and conservation oriented fields.

“Our ultimate  goal is that after perhaps five or six times working with us, clients can continue doing it themselves and no longer need us,” says Evens. “That’s wonderful. It’s better for all of us.  We want to do things for them that are replicable and scalable without us. Only a very small percentage of multi-family affordable housing is being served in terms of promoting and providing energy efficiency. Every client that goes off on their own and continues to retrofit without, frees our people to work with someone else.”