The Energy Audit Experience for Apartment Dwellers
Last week, I had my first energy audit experience for my apartment in Cambridge. As an employee of WegoWise, a company focused on helping property managers improve energy efficiency in buildings across the country, I’ve often wondered how I can improve my own apartment aside from my personal energy saving habits. My auditor friend informed me of a free energy audit opportunity called Mass Save for NStar customers. I took her up on the offer and here is how it went:
My apartment is on the third floor of an old house built in 1905 with two other apartments on the floors below me. As is often the case in multifamily properties, my decision power as a tenant as to what retrofits can be done to the house are limited. However, I decided it would be good to know if there was anything particularly inefficient with the apartment or house heating systems that might be raising my utility bills. If my auditor friend found something out of the ordinary, I would have the evidence to present a convincing argument for retrofit work to my landlord.
Before the audit, I already knew my apartment had problems, albeit minor ones. My roommate’s bedroom is gorgeous, with an entire wall of windows. Yet every night when he turns up the thermostat to sleep at a comfortable temperature, I sweat in my well-insulated room at the back of the apartment. I had also noticed a significant amount of mold growing in the basement and didn’t know if that was affecting the air quality in the house as a whole.
I requested my friend to do the Mass Save audit so I wouldn’t feel shy peppering her with questions. We started out by looking over my usage history in my online NStar account. In the same way that property owners can use WegoWise as a first step in identifying their worst performing buildings, she wanted to check my utility bills for any red flags such as spikes or unusually high usage values. My usage history looked fairly consistent and normal for small apartments, so we moved on to examining the insulation.
Walking around the apartment with an infrared (IR) camera allowed me to see which walls are well insulated. I had always assumed that leaky windows were the major insulation problem in my roommate’s bedroom, but the IR camera revealed that previous insulation in the walls had “settled”, meaning it had condensed at the bottom of the wall panel leaving a large part uninsulated. Although this is a problem for my apartment, there are not enough incentives for my landlord to re-insulate the walls in just this section of the house. Despite that limitation, this information has motivated me to make sure that the doors to that bedroom are closed as often as possible when my roommate is not around so the rest of the apartment stays warm.
Next we went down to the basement to check the heating and hot water systems. My friend informed me of the safety concerns with gas appliances producing high levels of carbon monoxide. Fortunately, the boiler in my basement passed the test with flying colors (aka low numbers). The freestanding hot water heater in the basement used for my apartment was approximately 82% efficient according to a device that I didn’t entirely understand, but that my friend deciphered. In regards to the mold in the basement, my friend acknowledged that it was a problem that could be solved by redirecting the source of moisture in the basement.
After not finding any significant problems in the basement, we headed back upstairs to my apartment. My friend continued to check for potential issues around the apartment. The oven did not produce high levels of carbon monoxide and the windows were just fine. I saw my attic for the first time, which had a large layer of fiberglass insulation that looked a bit like bacon from the side (see the picture). I came to realize that although the house was old, it was in good condition. While this unfortunately did make me a zero opportunity customer for my friend, it settled any concerns I had regarding the efficiency of my apartment.
While the audit did not bring to light any major problems with my apartment or the efficiency of the heating and hot water systems, it did inform me of the ways I can change some of my habits to maximize energy savings in my apartment. If my heating or hot water system had been leaking CO, the audit would have revealed a safety concern for not only me, but also everyone else in the house.
The free improvements I got - compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, a programmable thermostat, and a low-flow showerhead – might not make as significant of a difference in my apartment as improved insulation, yet the peace of mind and information I got out of just 2 hours spent with an auditor made it absolutely worth it. I would recommend an energy audit for anyone, regardless of how much say they have in potential retrofits, because uncovering and understanding potentially hidden problems in your house or apartment is always the first step. In the same way that energy tracking can identify problem buildings in a portfolio, an audit can bring to light actionable information.