By Sarah Trefethen
Every day, a member of the facilities staff at 1192 Park Avenue reviews the building’s heating system, from the boiler room to the vents on the roof, recording temperatures, pressures and observations in an iPhone log custom designed by William Waldren, resident manager of the 15-story, pre-war co-op.
“There’s an app for that,” said Waldren, a member of the New York Building Managers Association.
For the property managers and superintendents charged with daily operations in New York’s buildings, the green revolution has brought opportunities to increase efficiency while improving the quality of everything from common area lighting to climate control. But it also brings the perils of any popular trend.
“They have to separate all of the noise of the words ‘green’ and ‘energy efficient’ from what’s really good for them,” said David Kuperberg, chief executive of Cooper Square Realty, the city’s largest property management company. “It all comes down to money and costs.”
When property managers talk about energy efficiency improvements, the key word is payback. If a project is expected to pay for itself through cost reductions within three or four years, most managers say, it’s a good investment.
“You can’t just make an investment because it’s green. You have to have a business case as to why you’re taking on that program,” said Edward Piccinich, executive vice president for management and construction at SL Green. Nonetheless, he said, “tenants today are constantly asking ‘hey, what are you doing for the environment?’ ”
Today, one third of SL Green’s portfolio has an Energy Star rating, according to Piccinich, and the plaques to prove it are prominently displayed in building lobbies.
Christopher De Weaver, national project development manager at FS Energy, the energy consulting arm of Cooper Square Realty, encourages building owners and operators to go for the “small wins.”
“There’s a lot of what I call the un-sexy projects that can save a lot of energy … everyone wants to focus on the sexy: solar, wind, bio-mass,” De Weaver said. “I like to tell people, if you can find six measures where you can make a three percent gain, that’s an 18 percent reduction in your energy use.”
Simply training employees on boiler maintenance and replacing decades-old steam traps on radiators can yield remarkable returns on investment.
“We go to a lot of buildings that have great technology and they’re not efficiently operated,” said Ron Merhige, FS Energy’s chief operating officer.
True improvements come from understanding the often-complex ways that building systems inter-relate.
“The largest mistake buildings make is they do a retrofit in a vacuum, without looking at the holistic way everything fits together,” Kuperberg said. “If you do an oil-to-gas conversion without changing the control system, you should probably have your head examined.”
In many older buildings, he said, one can still find heating systems that turn on and off based on the outside temperature, regardless of what it feels like inside the building.
At the Strand Condominiums at 500 West 43rd Street, heat distribution has always been a problem, according to Cooper Square vice president Jennifer Granda, who manages the building.
“We have 311 units in 44 stories on one of the windiest corners of Manhattan,” she said.
New heat sensors will solve that problem, improving resident comfort while also reducing wasted heat. The Strand also recently took advantage of a grant to help fund a major, three-month long project to switch the heating system from oil to gas, which went online earlier this month.
Not stopping there, Granda and the building’s board has also secured a grant to install a co-generation power plant. With the help of the grant, she said, payback from the building generating a portion of its own electricity should take four or five years; and in the case of a blackout, the building will be able to generate enough power for running hot water and at least one elevator with emergency lighting.
But, again, experts warn that what’s right for one building may not be for everyone.
To take full advantage of a co-generation — a miniature, on-site power plant — a building needs to use not only the electricity generated by the system, but also the heat it puts out, according to De Weaver.
“You need something which can use the heat. If you have a minimum of 150 residential units; you can use that heat to heat your residential hot water,” he said, though that’s not a hard and fast rule. “It may be a luxury building that has a big, heated swimming pool.”
Waldren, who implemented the iPhone logging system at 1192 Park, is an instructor in the Green Supers training program run by the property service workers’ union, 32BJ.
A few years ago, he said, he almost made the mistake of suggesting his building’s board purchase a co-generation system for their 75-unit building. Just in time, an engineering acquaintance calculated the payback would take more than a decade.
“I would have looked like an idiot,” he said.
These days, in his classes, Waldren emphasizes the importance of good boiler operation and light bulbs over major capital improvements.
“I’m a skeptic when it comes to a lot of stuff,” he said. “A sales rep is there to make money, he’s not there to be your friend.”
But Waldren does not shun big projects all together; he just cautions that they must be well thought out. He is working on a proposal for a green roof, with garden space for shareholders and insulating sod that will reduce heat loss in the winter and gain in the summer.
“I’m from the south,” he said. “I miss going around in the grass.”