7 apartment renovation tips to cut energy costs and boost sustainability
Looking to renovate properties in ways that can reduce utility bills down the road? There are plenty of low-lift strategies to cut energy consumption, but bigger projects can have a bigger impact.
From heat pumps to energy-efficient windows and appliances, here are seven ideas for multifamily property upgrades that can save energy and help properties operate more sustainably — including tips on finding incentives that can make projects more affordable.
1. Strategically map out apartment renovations
If you’re considering investing in significant energy-saving renovations, develop a plan to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
If you install solar panels but fail to seal gaps that let climate-controlled air leak in and out of your building, “the money you’ve invested is literally seeping out of the building,” says Ray Demers, senior director of programs at Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that develops and advocates for affordable housing. Demers, who is based in Boston, co-led development of the latest version of the organization’s green building program.
Start with improvements that will minimize your building’s energy consumption, says Jackie Montesdeoca, director of building electrification at Elevate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works with affordable housing owners to design and implement energy- and water-saving initiatives. After that, consider choosing cleaner, more efficient building mechanicals — such as heating, cooling and plumbing systems — and renewable energy sources, she says.
An energy audit can help you prioritize upgrades and understand the potential savings from investing in energy efficiency, says Grant Carlson, multifamily program manager at Minneapolis-based nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, which partners with utilities to offer qualifying multifamily buildings free energy audits and energy-saving products.
2. Check insulation and seal gaps at your multifamily property
Well-insulated buildings require less energy to heat and cool. Keeping buildings well-sealed can also help indoor air quality, particularly in areas that experience wildfires, says Stet Sanborn, engineering discipline leader in architecture firm SmithGroup’s San Francisco office and co-author of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ Advanced Energy Design Guide for Multifamily Buildings.
“You want to use less energy and make spaces healthier for the people who live there,” he says.
Retrofitting properties with insulation can help immediately decrease utility costs and make units more comfortable for residents during hot and cold seasons. In addition, a weatherization contractor can help with air sealing or weather stripping — closing up gaps, often around windows and doors, that let air escape, Montesdeoca says.
While insulation needs vary by climate, make sure you’re working with an experienced vendor, Demers says.
“It’s as much about having proper installation as the actual insulation product,” he says.
3. Choose energy-efficient windows for multifamily properties
High-quality windows can help reduce heating and cooling costs. Choosing double- or tripled-paned windows and ensuring they’re properly installed can keep climate-controlled air from seeping out, Demers says.
Low-emissivity, or low-e windows, are another strong option. A thin coating on one or more panes of glass helps trap heat while allowing light to pass through. The coating is “virtually invisible,” and while windows with low-e coatings may cost 10% to 15% more than regular windows, they can reduce energy loss by as much as 50%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
4. Prioritize efficient apartment appliances
If you’re going to replace appliances during an upcoming renovation, look for ENERGY STAR and WaterSense labels. Both are backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and signal the appliances meet energy and water efficiency standards, respectively.
“When maintenance cycles and equipment lifecycles are coming up, if appliances or plumbing fixtures need to be replaced, those are really easy to change out for an ENERGY STAR model or a WaterSense model,” says Elizabeth Thompson, vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council. “Keep the fuel source in mind, and choose electric whenever possible. In many regions, electrical grids are transitioning to renewable energy, and renewable energy generation is less expensive than gas.”
5. Consider electric heat pumps for apartment properties
Space heating and cooling and water heating account for more than 60% of all energy consumption in apartment buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Institute.
Heat pumps and heat pump water heaters can be more efficient options because they use electricity to move heat from one place to another, rather that generating it, like a furnace, boiler or traditional water heater.
Air source heat pumps, which transfer heat between a home and the outside air, can reduce electricity use for heating by roughly 50% compared with a furnace or baseboard heater, while geothermal heat pumps, which transfer heat between a home and the ground, can reduce energy use up to 60%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Despite the name, heat pumps can also cool homes, and their performance in cold climates has improved significantly, says Carlson. However, in climates where temperatures dip below zero, property owners should still have a backup heating source, he says.
6. Explore renewable energy sources
Once you’ve taken steps to ensure your building is operating efficiently, weigh the benefits of installing renewable energy sources.
Solar power is popular because it tends to have the lowest cost per unit of energy and there are established government incentive programs for solar that can reduce costs, Sanborn says. Geothermal can also be an option, but the need for open space and underground drilling can make installation more complex, Montesdeoca says.
While it can take years to recover the initial investment through lower bills, installing on-site renewable energy does provide protection from rising utility costs — especially if you’ve transitioned to electric building systems like heat pumps — and can “give you more stability in projecting profits and losses,” Sanborn says.
In regions where extreme weather events cause power outages, pairing on-site renewable energy with an energy storage system helps keep the power on at buildings. That makes it more likely residents will be able to shelter in place.
“It’s risk mitigation, and it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
7. Seek out rebates and incentives for sustainable apartment renovations
There are many incentives that can help offset the cost of going green. From tax breaks and rebates to grants and loans, you can find opportunities through local utilities, as well as statewide and national initiatives.
“Regardless of the project, I always recommend reaching out to your utility,” Carlson says. “Rebates can certainly help soften the blow of that upfront cost.”
You can search for local programs on the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. You can also find information on rebates and federal tax incentives and credits from ENERGY STAR, government-funded grants on Grants.gov and sustainable housing resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
By Lauren Zumbach from Story by J.P. Morgan