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Study urges New York buildings to upgrade heating systems to cut emissions

Mayor Bill de Blasio has set an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. But one fact makes it extremely difficult to achieve: In New York City, heat literally goes out the window.

Residents in apartment buildings across the city know the drill all too well. Come cold weather, steam boilers run on overdrive so that heat reaches the farthest apartments, usually on the top floors. As a result, overheated residents open their windows on even the coldest days.

According to a new study, cutting back on energy waste — and cutting carbon emissions in the process — can take just a few simple fixes, like installing a tiny plate in each radiator’s valve to slow the release of steam; adding insulation and a temperature sensor; and affixing a control knob on the exterior of each radiator.

The report, to be released on Friday, was written by Energy Efficiency for All, which is affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the consulting firm Steven Winter Associates.

An orifice plate, which resembles a bottle cap, “can be inserted into the radiator’s hand-valve in approximately five minutes, by handymen or plumbers,” the report says, adding, “The plates never wear out,” and even help the system run better.

The most difficult part of the job is getting residents to allow access to their apartments.

Jonathan Flothow, a steam system specialist at the firm who contributed to the new report, “Clanging Pipes and Open Windows: Upgrading N.Y.C. Steam Systems for the 21st Century,” explained that the plates used to slow the flow of steam were actually an old technology. “We are bringing this system up to the state of the art in 1898,” he said.

About 95 percent of the apartments have been retrofitted at 460 Second Avenue in Manhattan, a 12-story, 96-unit building near 26th Street that is part of an eight-building complex that gets its steam from Consolidated Edison. Energy consumption has plummeted.

“Some people like it very, very hot, and some like it cold,” said Elijah Smalls, superintendent of the complex, Kips Bay Court, whose other buildings will now be updated. “You try to find a happy medium. This way, people control their own heat. It works.”

That is important because, as the report points out, apartment buildings contribute the biggest share of carbon emissions of all building types in the city. Old, inefficient steam heating systems that were designed for coal, not today’s oil and gas, are responsible for most of those emissions.

New York City’s sustainability plan, “One City Built to Last,” sets a goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by nearly 3.4 million tons a year by 2025, the report says.

 

“It is difficult to imagine an economically viable pathway to 2025 or 2050” in reaching the city’s carbon reduction goals, the report says, “that does not address stream distribution systems” in residential buildings.

A bigger change, the report adds, is to replace current boilers with smaller, more efficient ones. “Oversized boilers — and many of New York City’s are oversized — waste fuel, cost more to install, provide uneven heating and reduce the effectiveness of conservation measures,” it says.

Adding multisensor controls to heating systems is also critical, the report notes, because today most buildings estimate how long the heat should run based on the outdoor temperature, not how hot it is in an apartment.

If building owners implemented the report’s recommendations, they would realize an annual savings of about $147 million, the study says.

“The majority of the larger apartment buildings use steam, so making improvements to the efficiencies of those buildings can have a big impact citywide,” said Lindsay Robbins, a senior advocate for the urban solutions program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

An added benefit: “Making the steam systems more efficient can reduce the cost of living in New York City,” Ms. Robbins said. “Building owners will have lower energy bills, which means less cost to pass on to New Yorkers through rent.”

The report also notes that energy conservation projects currently tend to focus on changes to lighting, which are easier to explain and have historically been supported by government incentives. Steam system improvement, by contrast, involves “comprehensive design work” and access to every apartment.

The savings over time can be significant, however. The report’s authors researched one case study: a prewar mid-rise co-op with 77 apartments in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. The structure underwent many of the improvements detailed in the report.

Because the work was done when the cost of home heating oil was high, the building’s estimated payback period of four and a half years — the length of time that the initial investment is covered by future savings — was actually achieved in three and a half years. And the project realized 21 percent savings on heating fuel use from the installation of the orifice plates, insulation, new boiler controls and other fixes.

“The savings payback depends on the kind of fuel you burn,” Heather Nolen, an energy consultant at Steven Winter Associates, said. “If your building is an energy hog, then you’re going to have a pretty quick payback.”

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