There is a clear connection between our environment and our buildings. Efforts to mitigate climate change in the U.S. must focus on the built environment, which uses the most energy and produces the most carbon emissions of any sector, including transportation. In particular, multifamily buildings—defined as residential buildings with two or more units—need attention.Approximately 25 percent of U.S. households reside in a multifamily building, but utility- and government-run efficiency programs to date have had limited success serving this sector. As a result, more than 16 million households pay more to heat and cool their homes than necessary.
The Challenges of Serving the Multifamily Sector
Elevate Energy, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, designs and implements programs to help building owners and managers navigate the complex process of completing energy-efficiency upgrades that reduce energy use and ensure long-term savings for properties. To date, the organization has improved almost 35,000 multifamily units.
“We’re no strangers to the unique set of challenges that multifamily buildings present,” says Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy. “A multifamily building can have several different types of utility service within the same building. There are numerous ownership models. And many cities don’t have data about what their multifamily housing stock is like.”
Because multifamily properties have qualities that are similar to commercial and residential facilities, energy-efficiency programs in the past have rarely been tailored to the specific needs of a multifamily building. Programs are often designed to serve a different type of building altogether.
Additionally, multifamily ownership structures vary widely. Whereas single-family energy-efficiency programs target individuals who own and occupy one property, multifamily programs must target decision-makers who may be owner-occupants, investor-owners, or building managers with very different motivations and resources.
One such case study in Chicago exemplifies many of the challenges in serving multifamily buildings. In 2013, Monica Chadha, LEED AP and founder of Civic Projects LLC, Chicago, contacted Elevate Energy to perform an energy assessment of a multifamily building in the city. Energy experts from Elevate Energy assessed her property, provided recommendations, connected Chadha with qualified contractors and helped her apply for a low-cost loan from Chicago- based Community Investment Corporation (CIC) to finance the improvements.
But three years later, in 2016, Chadha reached out to Elevate Energy once again with a significant problem. Her gas bills for heating the building were escalating each month, culminating at $10,000 for the month of January—roughly 10 times the typical bill for a building its size. Chadha suspected the gas meter was providing inaccurate readings, but when she called the utility to request an inspection, the gas provider told her no crews were available and she should call back in a month.
Elevate Energy staff inspected the building several times and determined there were two issues causing the high gas bill. First, analysis of remote readings on the gas bill compared with actual read- ings taken by Elevate Energy staff showed that the remote reading device on the gas meter was malfunctioning. Team members communicated this to the gas company and were able to schedule a meter change for the following day.
Additionally, the power burner on the steam boiler was severely out of adjustment because a contractor Chadha had contacted herself had been unable to correct the condition following repeated service calls. The Elevate Energy team recommended a boiler clean-and-tune by one of its vetted contractors, who discovered that a missing burner component was creating a dangerous carbon-monoxide condition, in addition to causing the boiler to burn 20 percent more than the rated amount of gas.
Images: Elevate Energy