When the price of heating oil approached $4.50 per gallon in the summer of 2008, staff at Housing Vermont (HV) took notice. “Typically about 10% of the total operating cost of our apartments is dedicated to energy,” said Eric Schmitt, director of asset management at the Burlington-based, nonprofit affordable housing organization. “But after the run-up in prices, about 20% of the pie was going right out the door for fuel. It was a huge jump.”

Trevor Parsons, energy manager at Housing Vermont, monitors the mechanical equipment at a housing development.
Trevor Parsons, energy manager at Housing Vermont, monitors the mechanical equipment at a housing development.

The yearly bill for fuel oil across 1,600 apartments was about $2.5 million; and the company’s renters were facing an increase in monthly payments of 8% to 9%, a rise unheard of in affordable housing circles and also in markets in general. “Something had to be done,” Schmitt noted.

While heating oil prices have dipped in recent months, HV’s efforts since 2008 will ensure that its portfolio will be prepared for the inevitable upswing in energy costs. These steps include:

  • With the funding support of the MacArthur Foundation, and in collaboration with state agencies, creating a roadmap of carefully calculated recommendations aimed at building envelopes and mechanical/heating systems, all designed to chart a path to energy affordability. These steps are incorporated in a list of 25 best practices;
  • In a state heavily dependent on fuel oil, expanding the use of wood pellets and chips as the primary source of heat and hot water. Pellets are a renewable resource made from lumberyard waste, and Vermont (and its neighboring states and provinces) have lots of trees plus lots of people who used to work in the struggling forest products industry. “Pellets are a great fuel,” explained Trevor Parsons, a mechanical engineer and energy project manager at HV. “When compared with oil, they have comparable particulates, less sulfur dioxide, and are clearly cleaner from a carbon and climate-change point of view.”; and
  • Ensuring that the potential gains to be realized through technological advances are fully achieved through real time monitoring of heating system performance. Aided by a grant from Vermont’s High Meadows Fund, Housing Vermont is completing a centralized, portfolio-wide energy control, monitoring and data management system.  The system utilizes a central server to collect energy performance data from housing sites; store the data in an open, non-proprietary format; and make that data available to property managers to analyze and better manage building systems.

The future cost of fuel remains an unknown. It’s a certainty, though, that savings resulting from ongoing improvements in building energy performance will play a major role in maintaining housing affordability over time. Housing Vermont's 25 Energy-Efficient Measures


  1. Thoughtful floor plans that minimize wasted space and unneeded building envelope;
  2. Summer sun shading on southern and western exposures when possible (only in new construction);
  3. LED and induction lighting for site and parking garage illumination;
  4. All mechanical room equipment highly insulated, including domestic hot water storage tanks, supply and return piping and boilers, to lower standby losses;


  1. High R-value walls (R-30 target) with continuous exterior insulation to prevent thermal bridging, where possible;
  2. High R-value attic insulation (R-60 target) consistent throughout space using attic truss heels or high R-value spray foam;
  3. High R-value foundation using slab edge (R-15) and sub-slab (R-10) insulation;
  4. High-quality, low-E coated insulated glass windows, oriented when possible to help prevent overheating in summer;
  5. Complete, continuous air barrier from foundation to attic, tested via blower-door depressurization achieving air tightness typically 50–70% below code requirements;


  1. Efficient heat recovery ventilation in which stale exhaust air is mechanically vented through a heat exchanger, reclaiming some of the otherwise wasted energy (central or unit-by-unit);
  2. Oversized heating radiation thereby allowing for lower heating system operating temperatures;
  3. Adequate heating zoning using multiple thermostats to prevent overheating and discomfort;
  4. Air conditioning, while rare, done using variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems, which attain very high EER (energy efficient ratio) ratings, up to twice as efficient as window units;
  5. Boiler plants for fuel oil, natural gas, or biomass of highest quality and efficiency;
  6. Correctly sized and often modular boiler plants designed to work efficiently at part and peak loads;


  1. All electrical motors premium or high efficiency;
  2. Automatic temperature controls for on/off boiler and pump resources based on outdoor air temperature and measured needs;
  3. Web-enabled system monitoring of resources such as boilers, pumps and solar collectors;
  4. High-efficient variable speed pumps that automatically match speed with demand;


  1. Solar domestic hot water systems included in most projects, used to preheat domestic hot water;
  2. Solar photovoltaic collectors, when applicable, as PV prices come down;


  1. Switched, hard-wired high-efficacy lighting in every room;
  2. Occupancy sensors for common area lighting;


  1. Low-flow aerators, shower heads and toilets, recently labeled Watersense by EPA; and


  1. Energy-efficient appliances, such as washers and refrigerators, Energy Star (EPA) approved.

(This case study was excerpted from a longer article written for Housing Vermont by Chris Hardee, a science, technology, and energy writer based in NH available here.)

Kenn Sassorossi is vice president for partner relations at Housing Vermont, a private, nonprofit development company founded in 1988 to produce permanently affordable rental housing for Vermonters through partnerships with communities and the private sector. Since its inception, it has raised more than $280 million in private equity to finance 159 affordable rental housing developments throughout the State. This equity has leveraged an additional $391 million in private financing and public investment. Housing Vermont is an active member of the National Association of State and Local Equity Funds. www.housingvermont.org