Ignoring Tenant Comfort = Increased Turnover
Tenant turnover isn't cheap. "Creature comfort" complaints around heating and cooling shouldn't be treated as simple maintenance issues, but as potentially negative impacts to the bottom line. Taking steps to increase tenant comfort is an important preventative step in operational planning.
Research from the National Apartment Association (NAA) has shown that tenant churn can cost as much as $4,000 per move-out. These costs stem from lost rent, maintenance expenses, concessions to new tenants, leasing agent time, and marketing. Although fair prices, amenities, customer service are key to keeping tenants happy, don't overlook tenant comfort. It will cost you!
Two main things affect tenant comfort: the effectiveness of the HVAC equipment and the robustness of the building envelope. Here are steps to take to address both.
- Construct a well-insulated building envelope that is air-tight. Mechanical equipment will likely need to be replaced every 10-20 years, but the building envelope will be in service as-is for much longer
- Design the mechanical system for performance and don't just put things where they fit best. Too often mechanical systems are designed well after plans for the building have been finalized. As with most things, being proactive leads to fewer headaches and less expense than being reactive
- Have a mechanical contractor perform calculations to determine the size of the equipment that should be installed. These calculations should take into account the actual specs of the building. Often smaller equipment can do the job efficiently, which leads to savings for the owner
- As with new construction, perform calculations to determine what size mechanical equipment will best serve the space. Many contractors replace existing equipment with similar equipment without determining the performance level of the previous equipment or if upgrades were made to the building that made it more energy efficient. If insulating or air-sealing has been done or will be done in the near future, advise the contractor of these updates along with the new specs
- If walls are being opened up, use the opportunity to insulate and air-seal as noted above
- Advise contractors that if they are making holes in the walls, ceilings, or floors, they must seal them when finished. Even holes in interior walls will impact comfort
For both new construction and renovation, have a third party evaluate the HVAC work that's being done. HVAC equipment installsshould be checked for disconnected or poorly installed duct work, vents that are accidentally floored or drywalled over, oversized equipment, incorrectly programmed controls, manufacturing defects, and incorrectly designed systems. Even for installs that go seemingly perfectly, "trust, but verify." An extra set of eyes verifying a system can catch inconspicuous problems and greatly increase comfort.
For work done to the building envelope, blower door testing is a great way to see how airtight it is. The quality of insulation work, as well as paths of air leakage can be assessed with thermal imaging.
An efficient, well-designed, well-installed system needs to be easy to control. Simple-to-use thermostats help tenants use a system efficiently. Programmable thermostats can be confusing and lead to comfort issues if not programmed well. Tenant population and habits must be considered. If tenants are members of the working class and gone 8-9 hours a day, a thermostat with 7-day settings is needed. Tenants that are home most of the day or have varying schedules are best served by a simple dial thermostat. The Nest Thermostat combines the best of both worlds. Although the higher cost may be a deterrent, there are rebates available in some markets.
For centralized systems, ensure that the controls are set up correctly and that the system is running efficiently. If pumps on a central boiler never turn off, tenants will become overheated and money will be wasted. Likewise, if a ventilation system should be running 30 minutes every hour but never turns on, tenants will be forced to open windows in the dead of winter for a breath of fresh air. Track your buildings' energy usage to confirm that they are performing at or above benchmarks for your climate.
Many things can impact tenant comfort and the property owner's bottom line. If the temperature in a unit is never quite right then the tenant is never quite happy. Although granite countertops and an onsite gym may get them in the door, if a tenant can't stay warm (or cool), they may look elsewhere once the lease runs out.