Environmental Stewardship—Steps and Strides

Environmental Stewardship—Steps and Strides

By Kathy Danforth



community association board has a position of both power and influence regarding their community’s environmental impact: they can dictate how the association manages its resources, but they can also educate, motivate, and facilitate conservation by the individual homeowners. Fortunately, conserving resources usually leads to saving money, so many conservation measures are an easy sell.

Energy use, water consumption, and waste disposal/control are primary impacts of an association. To assess where a community can cut its energy use, Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) efficiency expert Joe Mello suggests a Business Energy Evaluation, a free service providing a detailed report based on a survey of the electrical equipment on the property. “There is also a residential energy assessment for individual homes,” he adds. For an association, major energy consumption is likely to come from air conditioning/heating, lighting, motors, elevators, and pools, and the assessment will determine approximately what percent of the bill is generated by each use.

A rough cost of options for cutting energy use and the payback period is provided. “For example, if a community is considering changing an air conditioning system anyway, this provides more information,” Mello notes. “One option that frequently will produce savings is thermal energy storage. This ‘collects’ cooling at night to use during the day, which allows the customer to cool their facility at a more economical time-of-use electricity rate.”  A rebate is currently available for this installation.   

“Variable frequency drive motors are a very good technology for water-cooled air conditioning systems,” says Mello, “because instead of running at a constant speed, they adjust to the demand. These can be tied to each individual unit, and especially when replacing older equipment the payback can be rapid. Rebates are also available for high-efficiency chillers.”

“Demand control ventilation adjusts the amount of incoming fresh air depending on the use/occupancy of a room. This may be recommended for large meeting rooms or offices that are not used consistently, so unneeded warm, fresh air is not brought in and cooled. The sensors for this system can also be linked with temperature and light controls so they are also adjusted when the rooms are not in use,” according to Mello.

“One easy saving that is still often overlooked is the temperature setting,” says Mello. “We find that a lot of buildings are kept at 72 degrees around the clock, but no one is benefiting. We recommend using programmable thermostats set according to patterns of use.”  For every degree of avoided cooling in the summer or heating in the winter, energy use is cut by approximately five percent, which individual homeowners will welcome also.

Other easy methods to minimize cooling costs are to keep air ducts and heating vents free of obstructions; check and change filters regularly; use ceiling fans only when in a room; and shade windows with blinds, shades, or film. Avoid heating the space the air conditioner will then have to cool:  grill outside or use a toaster oven or microwave. Lighting that generates minimal heat will save on both lighting and cooling costs. And, hot water tanks and pipes should be insulated to keep the heat where you want it.

Mello advises, “Other low-cost fixes are caulking the windows, using door sweeps, and blocking any gaps where air conditioning is escaping. Air ducts in the attic should be inspected for holes and proper connections so you aren’t heating and cooling attic space.”

Currently, qualifying FPL business customers, which includes some associations, can participate in the company’s On Call® Program to earn monthly savings on their electricity bill by allowing the utility to cycle their air conditioning in an electrical shortage emergency. “This program gives a credit of $2 per ton of air conditioning for seven months each year,” Mello explains. “Even if FPL does not activate On Call®, customers still receive credits on their monthly bill. Residential customers can also sign up for the program.”

For appliances throughout the community, Mello advises, “Go to Energy Star as a reference point, and be cognizant of what you’re purchasing. A hot water heater can use a lot of electricity. Check your heater and its insulation, and see that the temperature is not set too high—especially when you’re not there. Many appliances also draw energy when they are off, so just pull the plug or switch off a power strip.”  Poorly sealing refrigerator or freezer doors are another site of energy loss, and refrigerator coils should be cleaned regularly to enable the motor to cool efficiently.

Lighting is a significant expense for associations, especially for those with a garage. “Condominium garages that originally had 400–1000 watt metal halide lamps can change to CFL (compact fluorescent lighting) or LED (light-emitting diode) using much less wattage,” says Mello. “This will usually require changing fixtures and may require a city permit, but the payback can be very quick. We are seeing a lot of garages switching to LED lighting because the bulbs have a much longer life so there’s less maintenance, the energy use is reduced, the bulbs don’t heat up as much, and you can often get better lighting.” In some cases, fluorescent lighting may offer advantages.

Timers can help cut lighting costs, especially if someone away from home still wants to have a light on at night for security. Motion sensors may be more appropriate for common areas, such as stairwells, garages, or libraries, where use varies. “Lighting contractors currently are ‘delighting’—reducing the number of fixtures, possibly from four fluorescent fixtures to two bulbs, such as T5 or T8, using lower wattages but producing the same light. If a community is switching to LED indoor lighting, sometimes new fixtures are needed for the conversion,” Mello relates.

Swimming pools can be a significant energy consumer with heating and circulation of water. Solar, geothermal, heat pumps, or gas may be evaluated to determine what system will most efficiently heat the pool in your situation. A pool cover will help retain the heat you have purchased. “Age and maintenance will affect the efficiency of your pump and determine whether an upgrade or variable frequency drive would be energy and cost efficient,” Mello remarks.

In any case where water, gas, or electricity are paid by the association, sub-metering can promote conservation. “This helps make residents aware of their use. When someone is not accountable for the utilities he uses, he may not think twice about fixing leaks or washing one pair of socks,” relates Teresa Smetzer with National Exemption Service. “It’s like the mental attitude of being at a hotel; you’ve already paid for it. Once individual meters are installed, we see an average reduction of 33.3 percent in water use, and I believe it is about the same for electricity and gas. Sub-metering also makes it easier to locate and repair leaks.”  Though water isn’t saved, in some cases money can be if a water use that does not return water to the sewer system is broken out separately and can be billed without a sewer charge.

Reducing water use inside and out involves regularly checking for leaks, installing water-conserving systems, and remembering—turn it off!  A faucet leaking one drop per second can waste 2,000 gallons per month. Toilet tank leaks can be found by placing food coloring in the tank and checking the bowl for color within 30 minutes. Toilet flappers are a frequent culprit, and regularly replacing them for the community as a whole can be a worthwhile investment since a toilet can silently leak as much as 300 gallons a day. To check a house for leaks, check if there is any water consumption after at least 30 minutes with no plumbing activity.

Low-flow showerheads, flow-restricted aerating faucets, and instant water heaters help cut water waste (by avoiding running water while it heats up). Rethink habits to avoid unnecessary use of water when rinsing dishes, brushing teeth, defrosting food, etc. In some applications, communities may be able to recycle water in cooling systems (avoiding bleed-off) or in wash bays.

Water use outside is largely determined by the types of plants and the irrigation system. Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ (FFL) is a positive solution for reducing water use, chemicals, and other care while maintaining attractive grounds. Lynn Barber with Hillsborough County Extension Service points out, “A great thing about FFL is that you can convert as much or as little as you want; you need to know the big picture, but you don’t have to fix it all today.”

“You may want to decrease turf grass because it requires more water than most plants, as well as needing mowing, edging, fertilizer, and pest control,” Barber notes. “You should re-think any plant requiring significant amounts of water, such as azaleas. The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection and Landscape Design, found at fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/FYN_Plant_Selection_Guide_v090110.pdf, is helpful by providing a picture index of plants with sun needs, growth rate, size, water needs, soil type, and salt tolerance. If it’s high color, low maintenance, and salt tolerant (if you’re near water), that’s a good plant to put in your landscape!  Know the mature height and spread of your new plants. If you plant a saw palmetto within 12 inches of your driveway, you’ll be moving it. Mulch is a good addition for beds because it retains moisture, inhibits weeds, and adds organic material as it decomposes.”

“In-ground irrigation should be checked once a month,” Barber advises. “Turn it on and walk the area to see if heads are broken or leaking from the base or if there is interference in the system; a plant may have grown so high it is blocking water to other plants or there may need to be adjustments to avoid driveways. In-ground irrigation is required to have a rain shutoff sensor, but some rain sensors have a cork-like material that may only last 3–5 years. If you see your irrigation running after a rain and you didn’t manually override it, there is a problem. Soil moisture sensors are more effective and provide information for a zone. Work on an irrigation system should be done by someone who is certified for Florida irrigation,” Barber notes.

Landscape chemicals should be minimized to keep them only where they are needed. “If a chemical is on an impervious surface or hasn’t been absorbed when it rains, it will enter the storm drain leading to streams, lakes, and bays. The nitrogen in fertilizer promotes algal bloom, reducing the oxygen, which fish need to survive. A major consequence is red tide, which is a sad and smelly situation caused by pollution,” Barber relates. “University of Florida states that turf fertilization can be reduced by one time per year by allowing grass clippings to decompose rather than bagging or raking them away.”

Use of pesticides and herbicides can be minimized with healthy plants and focused treatment. “Scout for damage, identify the bug, and spot treat,” Barber advises. “You don’t want to kill the good bugs, like ladybugs, that help control the pest population, along with the bad.”  Toxic chemicals can harm more than the target—especially some species, such as bees—so proactive, focused, minimal use is advised, especially near waterways.

Stormwater runoff carries gas, oil, trash, animal waste, fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and more into our waterways. “Some communities allow rain barrels, which help decrease runoff,” Barber comments. “Swales, berms, and rain gardens can collect and filter water.”  With the pollution and erosion caused by rampant runoff, communities should carefully consider drainage and the impact of impermeable and permeable surfaces in the community.

Recycling of various materials can be facilitated by the association. As well as reusing the collected product, less waste is generated for disposal, which may be the main financial savings for an association. For yard waste, Barber notes that mulch can often be produced from pruned material. “Also, kitchen and yard waste can be combined for composting and then used in landscape beds.”

Not every community nor every individual will choose all methods to save energy and natural resources and minimize environmental impact. However, communities are powerful. They can implement major projects with long-range savings of energy and water as well as inform residents and utilize best green practices on a daily basis.



Joe Mello is with Florida Power and Light. For more information, visit www.fpl.com

Teresa Smetzer is with National Exemption Service. For more information, visit www.submeter.com

Lynn Barber is with University of Florida/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County. For more information, visit solutionsforyourlife.com