Different approaches to being “green” with tenants’ utilities

The other night when we were having drinks with Peter Holtzman, who owns one of the Astor Row townhouses and is an architect with The Downtown Group, the question of how to handle tenants’ utilities came up. His approach was to go all out for efficiency. He has one high efficiency boiler that provides heat and hot water for him and his two tenants. He doesn’t even have hot water heaters – just an insulated tank attached to his boiler. It’s worked for him – he’s got very low utility bills to show for it.

Our approach is different, but it’s only different – I don’t know that either of us can say our approach is better. We’re going to sacrifice a little bit of efficiency to emphasize conservation. To achieve this we’re having the tenants pay for many of their own utilities. For example we’ll meter the water separately. We figure if the tenants are aware of the cost of their water, they’ll use less of it. In a similar vein we’re giving them their own hot water heater which will be powered by their (separately metered) gas. Again, if they see the cost of their hot water they’re more likely to use less of it.

With heat it’s a bit more complicated. If we provide heat, NYC requires that it be up to a certain temperatures. We want our own unit cooler than the legal minimums – we like a little chill in the air. So we’re shooting for “a bit cool” but not so cool that our hands will get cold. To us that temperature is invigorating. For other people it just feels cold. We’ll extend the concept of awareness leading to conservation by giving our tenants combo heating/cooling units so they can raise the temperature in their unit even higher if they like a warmer apartment. But the supplemental heat will be electric heat and the cost of the additional heat will show up in their electric bill.

There’s another difference between Peter’s approach and our approach – ours requires a lot more equipment. We’ll have a boiler, two water heaters, as well as mini-split units for supplemental heat for the tenants. He just has a boiler. If you’re strict in your approach to being green you do need to consider the carbon footprint of making and maintaining that extra equipment (we’re not that fussy in our approach).

Where we agreed with Peter was on using closed cell foam to insulate all the exterior walls. The 2 1/2 inches of closed cell foam, plus everything else in the wall will give our exterior walls an r-value of R20. That will drive down utility bills for everyone, require a smaller heating and cooling system, etc. But it’s beyond that point where you need to figure out which you like better – maximum efficiency, or slightly less efficiency with an emphasis on conservation.

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