Improving energy efficiency in multifamily buildings

June 21, 2016

Multifamily residences represent one of the largest potential opportunities for energy efficiency upgrades in the nation. While their structural qualities suggest that – if optimized – they could perform far better than their single-family counterparts, multifamily buildings tend to be older and equipped with less efficient energy systems. For now, this means they are simply underperforming. However, we predict that multifamily housing stock could become nearly 30 percent more efficient by 2020. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, such an improvement could net more than $9 billion in energy savings. Despite this opportunity, multifamily building owners rarely take advantage of the myriad of energy-saving opportunities available to them.

"Multifamily building owners rarely take advantage of energy-saving opportunities."

Why do so many multifamily buildings lag behind?
Although multifamily residences have the potential for vast improvement in their energy performance, building owners rarely invest in the retrofit technology that could make that difference – for many, it simply doesn't seem to make sense. Behind this hesitation are a number of factors unique to the multifamily environment, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy reported. For example, in single-family buildings, homeowners might prioritize energy efficiency upgrades because they can lower their monthly utility bills. In a multifamily residence, on the other hand, individual tenants often pay for their own utilities. Under this arrangement, building owners feel far less of an incentive to invest in energy-efficient retrofits because the effect on their bottom line is less direct.

Of course, the ACEEE noted, landlords who choose to invest in energy upgrades can advertise lower cost of living in their buildings, potentially improving tenant satisfaction and reducing vacancy rates. That being said, this is more the exception than the rule, since it is far easier for building owners and managers to continue running the building the way they always have, especially when the incentive isn't obvious.

Even for building managers who appreciate the value of energy-saving technology, few have the time or resources they need to jumpstart an energy efficiency project, the ACEEE also found. Landlords are busy, and often have their hands full – and wallets empty – undertaking the maintenance projects they need just to keep their buildings operational. Against that backdrop, they have little time and not enough staff to spend the hours applying for efficiency programs. Even if they were approved, it would take an even larger commitment of both time and money to conduct the energy audits required to optimize the project and to provide support throughout its implementation.

Multi-family apartment buildings present unique energy-efficiency challenges.Managing multiple properties can leave landlords without much extra time or cash to invest in energy projects.

How can they catch up? 
For multifamily building owners, pursuing efficient energy solutions may feel like a pipe dream – in the perfect world, every landlord would have the cash on hand to make their buildings as efficient as possible. However, the roadblocks that stand in the way are firmly entrenched in the reality of multifamily building management. For building owners that can navigate these waters and find the resources to undertake an energy efficiency project, the payoff can be significant. Even for those who can't, however, there are a number of energy-saving techniques that cost little to nothing to implement, according to Energy Star:

  • Install lighting controls: Automatic sensors can switch off the lights when rooms are unoccupied or when natural lighting does the trick. These controls can not only save a considerable amount of energy, they are inexpensive to purchase and install.
  • Keep HVAC equipment well-maintained: Clogged air filters, dirty air ducts and loose fans can cause heating and cooling equipment to work well below optimum efficiency. Keeping up with regularly scheduled maintenance is the best way to keep HVAC systems running smoothly. 
  • Reduce pool heating: Saving energy can even be as simple as turning down the thermostat on pools and hot tubs. Some pool owners set their water to hold temperatures of 80º or more, while the American Red Cross marks 78º as the ideal level. Hot tubs, too, tend to run warm. During the summer, consider dropping the heat down to 96º, and never turn the dial up past 102º. 

Multifamily building owners who can master low- or no-cost techniques like these will quickly see just how significant efficiency-based energy savings can be. At the Benningfield Group, we specialize in maximizing sustainable energy solutions for residential, multifamily and commercial buildings. To learn more about our energy consulting services, contact us today.