How do we get people in apartment buildings to save energy? (Now there's a good question! )

Published: June 28, 2012 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating, Green, Troubled Heating Systems

Hells Kitchen Apartment Buildings

Energy Mismanagement 

So I’m in Europe and telling these nice guys about my 83-year-old Aunt Lucy and how she moved into her studio apartment on Second Avenue in New York City back when J.F.K. was just taking the oath of office.

“Guess what she pays,” I said. They both shook their heads. “Three-hundred and fifty dollars a month. And that includes the heat. She has steam heat.”

Now steam heat is a mystery to most Europeans, but these guys were in the business so they knew about it. We were chatting about how manufacturers of comfort controls might be able to persuade New Yorkers that they are actually more miserable than they think they are.

“How is the temperature in Aunt Lucy’s apartment?” one asked.

“Hotter than a fire in a flare factory,” I said.

“What does Aunt Lucy do about that?” the other guy asked.

“She opens the window.”

They both cringed.

“She’s a New Yorker,” I said. “In New York, thermostats are made of glass.”

“She would benefit from a thermostatic radiator valve,” the first guy said.

“I know that and I’ve told her about them, but Aunt Lucy thinks such a marvelous valve would be a waste of money. She prefers to open the window because that’s what she’s been doing since I joined the Boy Scouts.”

“This is crazy,” the other guy said.

“This is New York City we’re talking about,” I said. “Crazy is normal here.”

“In Europe, this cannot happen. There are laws prohibiting it. The government passes the law and the people comply. This is why we have such good controls on our radiators. You should pass laws as we have.”

I just looked at him. You, being a politically seasoned American, would have looked at him the same way.

We continued talking about this for a good long while, trying to figure out ways to convince New Yorkers that they are actually uncomfortable. Most didn’t care about the cost of fuel and for good reason. First, there are the rental apartments. With most of these the heat is included in the rent because the heat is steam and it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s using how much of that. Aunt Lucy lives in such a building, but it went co-op years ago. She is the only rent-paying tenant left in the building. She’s single and has never wanted to own the place. Hey, why own when your rent is stabilized at $350 a month and will stay that way until the day after the funeral? The owners of the other apartments in Aunt Lucy’s building have voodoo dolls with her face on them.

In a rental property, where all the tenants share the total fuel bill as a part of the rent, tenants think they’re getting the heat for free. If fuel prices rise, the owner of the building may be able to raise the rent, but only when a lease comes up for renewal. You might be able to convince the owner of one of these buildings to upgrade the old heating equipment, but he’s going to weigh the expense of the new equipment against the potential savings in fuel. And from what I’ve seen, the owner will probably wait until next year, hoping the price of fuel goes down. By that time, tenants may have moved and he can raise the rent a bit. It’s always next year with these folks.

Then there are the condos and co-ops, where the people own either their apartments or shares in the corporation. Some of these people are too hot and others are too cold. That’s the nature of people who share a common heating system. The total fuel bill is a part of their individual maintenance charges, which they’re used to paying. Those who are hot open the windows and the cold people complain.

So they have a meeting and the nice guys from Europe with whom I was having this brilliant conversation (or their American representatives) may attend that meeting. A proposal hits the table and the members of the board start to gag. The manufacturer explains that their investment in new equipment will save fuel dollars and make everyone more comfortable. A lawyer or an accountant on the board (all boards have at least one of each) asks if the manufacturer will put in writing how much money they will save because they want to know how quickly their investment will pay back the initial costs. They approach luxury cars in a different way, but that’s another story. The manufacturer doesn’t want to put anything in writing because he knows that the people in this building are crazy.

So nothing happens this year.

Meanwhile, the folks who are cold keep complaining and demanding a solution, but there are more hot people than cold people and majority rules. The cold people invest in electric space heaters and begin blowing the circuits.

We rented an office once. It had one-pipe steam heat and was hotter than Shakira. We were paying the fuel bill. The thermostat was in the apartment upstairs. The tenant used that to run the boiler, and he used the window to control the temperature.The boiler was older than Aunt Lucy. I suggested to the landlord that he might want to upgrade to a newer boiler, and perhaps some thermostatic radiator valves for those old, cast-iron radiators.

“Is there heat?” he asked.

“Yes, and plenty of it,” I said.

“My job is to provide heat,” he said. “I’m doing my job.”

“But an upgrade of equipment would save fuel,” I explained.

He just looked at me and smiled.

Get it?

So we have tenants who pay for the fuel but have no say in the heating equipment that burns the fuel. And we have tenants who don’t pay directly for the fuel because it’s included in the rent. If they made an effort to save fuel by closing the windows their rent would not go down. Finally, we have the condo- and co-op people who share a common fuel bill. The Three Bears live in these buildings. And if they can ever come to an agreement and decide to have a contractor do the work, there will be some tenants who won’t let the valve installers or anyone else into their apartments. These are the Peephole People. They don’t trust anyone. Ed McMahon and Jesus could be standing out in the hallway, wanting to install those thermostatic radiator valves. Peephole People won’t let them in.

I was explaining all of this to my European friends and they were getting discouraged. They have wonderful products and concepts but people who live in big buildings in cities such as New York will always be a sociological problem for them.

“You need to pass laws,” the first guy said, coming full circle, and now more convinced of this. “All buildings must be brought up to modern standards. It’s a simple thing. Just pass the laws and the people will follow along. It is how we do things in Europe.”

“This isn’t Europe,” I said. “We have politicians that don’t like to tell people what to do. It’s the quickest way to defeat in the next election.”

“Tell your politicians to change their thinking!” he said.

I just looked at him.

You would have looked at him the same way.