Cutting utility costs is a smart way to control operating expenses, and it can lead to a cleaner environment to boot. Instead of looking at slashing energy costs as a separate item, affordable housing owners may get the best bang for their buck if they think of improving an overall building’s energy efficiency. Some owners and operators are turning to new technology to do this and exploring building and remodeling products that have been used for decades in Europe.

Something new

US Energy Group, based in Fresh Meadows, N.Y., has come up with a way for apartment owners and operators to monitor cycling of boilers, measurements of fuel, and oil and gas purchases online with its USE Manager, an Internet-based building monitoring and management system. There is no limit to the number of properties owners can monitor with the system. Such systems can help save apartment owners and operators anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent on their fuel consumption.

Although monitoring is nothing new, the new technology allows users to go to a Web site, log in, and monitor all buildings in their portfolios.

“You need very good, detailed records, and you need an easy way to analyze them,” said Jerry Pindus, CEO of US Energy Group and a multifamily property owner himself. “Oftentimes, you’ve got one or two maintenance people at some of these properties, and boilers may not be something they concentrate on. They concentrate on cleaning, addressing tenant complaints. If a tenant calls and says their toilet’s not flushing, that needs to be addressed right away. If you’re losing 1,000 gallons of water from the boiler, that gets ignored. The system screams at the owner and says this is bad.”

The system “screams” at the owner in the form of an alert. Alerts are sent to users first as an e-mail, then as a cell phone text message, and then as a fax. A team of live portfolio managers called “efficiency drivers” will call the user if necessary. They can personally recommend specific ways to fix the problem.

Users can customize settings for their alerts and have them sent to other designated individuals as well. For example, users can have alerts sent directly to maintenance people, and they can measure one building’s data against another building or look at historical trends. The system also reminds an owner that notices of building code violations have been sent out. (This feature is only available for New York City properties. All other system features are available nationally.) US Energy expects to add water usage monitoring capabilities to the system this month, said Dan Margulies, the firm’s chief operating officer. So far, owners of more than 2,000 buildings are using the technology.

“Every apartment owner needs some kind of monitoring system,” said Pindus.

Everything old is new again

Another way to put a big dent in utility bills is to use insulated concrete forms in building or renovating a property. The products have been used in Europe for more than 50 years in the construction of homes, hotels, hospitals, and schools. The technology blossomed in the 1980s in the United States, and only recently has the product made its way to the West Coast, said Denise Gonzales, CEO of Long Beach, Calif.-based Conduit Development. The company distributes an insulated concrete form made by Toronto, Canada-based Amvic, one of the first firms to bring the technology to North America.

“Imagine a Lego, but bigger,” said Gonzales, “That’s what an insulated concrete form looks like. Inside are hollow plastic fasteners that keep the sides of the Lego together. They are braced with steel rods and concrete in the middle. Foam is on the outside.”

The product can be used in new construction, renovations, and rehabilitation projects. Gonzales said the technology has yet to hit the mainstream. The product is eco-friendly since the need for lumber is considerably reduced. Developers could use no lumber at all if they wish. Additionally, carbon emissions are reduced by 30 percent to 50 percent since buildings using the technology are better insulated than wood structures. Insulated concrete forms improve a building’s energy efficiency dramatically, producing savings of as much as 50 percent on energy bills in some cases. Plus, there’s no insect, mold, or mildew damage.

“You aren’t spending money fixing dry-rot issues,” Gonzales said. “That’s money back in your pocket.”

Advice for the Smallest Owners

Even small owners can find ways to cut energy costs. The keys are knowing what a building’s true consumption is, controlling consumption, and managing it, said David Richitelli, vice president of utility expense management for Alpharetta, Ga.-based ista North America.

Owners must use some type of “smart” controller to monitor boiler activity, Richitelli said.

An investment of $2,000 per boiler can yield significant savings, he said. “You’ll see a return on your investment in a couple of months. And there are utility companies today that may offer rebates to install these different energy-efficient technologies. I’ve seen rebates that cover up to almost 50 percent of the actual equipment and installation cost. It does vary, but that’s free money.”