Co-ops and condos routinely undertake major capital projects to improve and update their physical plant with the hopes of both increasing value and cutting expenses. But how about more modest programs to save money in areas that are often overlooked? Perhaps a boiler replacement – a major expense for any building – can be delayed or averted altogether by focusing on improving boiler performance or cutting energy waste in individual units. And that's just one possible example. Here are some areas to consider to make your building more efficient and to save money.
Where to Look
Broadly, boards and managers should be looking at any building system that uses energy or can affect the efficiency of their building's envelope. The building envelope is, for all intents and purposes, the physical separator between the climate-conditioned and climate-unconditioned portions of the building, including resistance to air, water, heat, light and noise transfer. In simple terms, it’s the exterior structure: the walls, roof, and foundation that create the cube we call our home. The most obvious systems to focus on are heating and air conditioning (known as HVAC when it’s one unit), insulation (including the roof and exterior walls), the boiler, interior lighting, and any gaps in the structure such as doors and garages that may add to air movement and energy loss.
Uncontrolled Air Flow
According to Allison McSherry, an architect and associate at Klein & Hoffman, an architecture and engineering firm with offices in Chicago and Philadelphia, an easy concept to understand – and a good place to start hunting down sneaky energy waste – is uncontrolled air flow. “Old window systems, particularly operative windows, may have missing or failed gaskets,” she says. Gaskets are the strips of rubberized or brush-like material at the top and bottom of the windows that when the window is properly closed, act as a sealant against air entering from outside the building. “The solution can be a simple as replacing the gaskets on the windows,” says McSherry. “They don’t have a super long life and often are not in very good shape.” Unlike the window itself, the gasket has a useful life of years, not decades. “Gaskets should be replaced on a regular basis,” she continues. “You’ll hear about the problem from the residents when there are drafts. That’s the time to replace them.”
Most older buildings have central boilers, and even as late as the early 1980s, were built with hot water radiator systems. These systems are by nature extremely inefficient, designed for a time when energy was cheap and plentiful. McSherry describes radiator-generated heating as a big source of energy loss and inefficiency. “Opening windows in winter to control heat is a big problem,” she says. “Residents do this because they can’t or don’t understand how to control a radiator.”
One relatively inexpensive method of reducing energy waste from radiator heat is to install radiator controls. Depending on the system, these controls can be simple temperature dials to open and close the radiators more efficiently than the old knobs on the bottom of the radiators that were both inexact and hard to reach. There is now the additional option of complex, computer-based ‘smart’ controls. More on that later.