By Kathy Danforth / Published April 2019
Associations welcome projects with a short payback period and great savings, and that’s what many energy-saving projects deliver. Added on is the benefit of conserving resources (or for some, the cake is conserving resources and the savings are the icing on the cake). Other factors come into play that may deter an individual or association from the alternative using the least energy (for example, the two-minute shower), but good planning helps maximize results.
Chris Normandeau, Director of FirstService Energy with FirstService Residential, has been assisting communities in Florida with implementing conservation measures for the last six years. “Our goal is to try to save our associations energy and water, saving money while improving their lifestyle and property values,” Normandeau explains.
“It doesn’t really take long to achieve energy savings if you’re prioritizing,” says Normandeau. “There is low-hanging fruit with a one-year payback—compare that to a return of 10 percent in the stock market being considered awesome. Installing LED lights or just shutting off lights when they aren’t being used can have payback in a couple of months.”
Normandeau notes that there will be variability between communities. “We do run into boards and associations with a ‘green penchant’—an eye to sustainability for sustainability’s sake. At the end of the day, that doesn’t change our recommendation; it just may increase how quickly they want to do things. For communities looking at rate of return on investment (ROI), they may implement one or two changes a year. The green community may follow twelve recommendations in one year, and those communities may be more sensitive to issues such as correctly disposing of fluorescent bulbs, recycling batteries, and composting, with no direct financial payback.”
For residential energy savings, Normandeau points out, “It’s not a secret where energy is consumed in Florida: lighting and air conditioning. When you replace high energy consumption devices with more energy efficient models, the kicker is to do it effectively. The wrong way—possibly by going to the home improvement store and buying a bunch of LED bulbs and putting them in—may make the problem worse. For example, at 40-year recertification, a community may replace T12 garage lights with new LEDs, thinking it will be brighter and better. However, the 40-year recertification requires different light levels than in the 1970s. To save energy effectively, an association needs professional assistance to have better lighting, make people more comfortable, and save money.”
“From a technological perspective, in the past we had incandescent lights that were really good heaters but poor lights. Ninety-five percent of the energy turned to heat, which we don’t need in Florida. Swapping that for a cool LED can be a great solution. But, if someone is used to warm orange light, and you put in a cooler, blue LED, many don’t find it comforting in their living area. LED is great, but it has to be done right. Working with a lighting designer will help ensure everyone is happy.”
Not all efficiency measures are suited for every application, also. Normandeau compares the progression of lighting technology to squeezing a lemon. “With the first squeeze, you get a lot of juice. Likewise, in going from incandescent to CFL, you obtain about 80 percent of the savings by going from a 100-watt to a 23-watt bulb. Going from a 23-watt CFL to a 10-watt LED cuts the energy about in half, but the ROI will depend on what’s in the ceiling and how it’s being used. If there is a closet light that is only on a few minutes a day, swapping bulbs won’t save much money. Replacing lighting that is on 24/7 in a high-rise hallway will save a lot more energy and might have a two-year payback.”
Exterior lighting has even more vulnerabilities, and Normandeau stresses, “Definitely work with a professional. Some lights may not be approved for exposure to rain and won’t last long. Even in an enclosed fixture, some LEDs might not be approved for that application. Exterior lighting gets more complicated, especially in coastal regions with saltwater, where things like to corrode.”
Normandeau provides a word of shopping advice: “Managers, when you’re looking at LED bulbs and fixtures, you’ll get more success with sturdy items that look well built. The enemy of LEDs is heat, so you want to get that heat out of there. Plastic and thin metals don’t conduct heat as well, so you’re better off with more metal. Look for LEDs that are heavier for their size, like shopping for fruit.”
In calculating the benefits of a lighting change, Normandeau adds, “Include how many hours a longer lasting bulb will save in maintenance. Someone will not have to go to the shop, grab a light bulb and a ladder, return to the garage or fourth floor, swap the bulb out, then climb down and return the ladder. There’s also the qualitative benefit of what can be done with that time instead, such as painting railings or other improvements.”
“In Florida, air conditioning is a big topic because of the high initial cost to replace a unit,” observes Normandeau. “In general, a condominium built 10 years ago may not have looked at switching to a more efficient unit because of the cost of the unit plus the possibility of having to use a crane or a helicopter. When the unit comes to the end of its life or there is repeated maintenance, that is when to really look at efficiency,” he advises.
“Ask the engineer to get prices for units with a higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) or EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio: the ratio of power capacity to energy input) than the run-of-the-mill ‘normal’ unit,” recommends Normandeau. “When the engineer recommends a 14 SEER unit, the manager can ask for prices on the 16 and 18 SEER and work with the engineer to see the savings over time with a specific solution. Replacing a unit just for energy efficiency might not be a great idea; but when you’re already replacing it, going to a more efficient unit is often worthwhile. For a $200,000 rooftop unit, it might just be $10,000 more to upgrade.”
Rumors of rebates circulate, but Normandeau relates, “Rebates may be great in other states, but in Florida, don’t wait for it. There may be some, but if they exist, they most likely will be in the hundreds of dollars and won’t change your mind on the project. However, definitely check with your utility BEFORE you do a project—lighting, AC, or otherwise—because very few utilities provide rebates retroactively.”
A variable frequency drive (VFD) can be a great way to improve efficiency, Normandeau explains. “VFDs are not an efficient motor but rather a controller for a motor that saves money by turning down the motor when it doesn’t need to be running full speed. Without a VFD, a motor has two states: on and off, like a light switch. Compare that to driving a car by only slamming on the brakes or the gas. A VFD enables partially revving up, like a dimmer on a light, which is particularly efficient with motors because energy use is higher at the top end. If you turn a motor down from 100 percent to 75 percent, you save approximately 50 percent of the energy.”
There are various reasons why this capability may enable communities to save money. Normandeau remarks, “There’s a little secret—some engineers are lazy and would rather over-engineer than size units properly. The other part is that the system is designed for the hottest two weeks of the year, so the rest of the year you don’t need that much cooling. Also, there are limited size choices. For example, if an application requires a 17 HP motor, a 20 HP motor may be the smallest size available. If you add a VFD to that application, then you have a 17 HP motor because you can turn that motor down.”
Variation in demand is the other major factor in designing a system than can adapt effectively to different loads. “If an air conditioner is on all day in a data center, there’s not much fluctuation,” relates Normandeau. “If it’s running less consistently due to seasonality and a fluctuating number of residents, that variability is key to potential savings.”
Again, Normandeau cautions, “Work with an engineer. Doing it right is cheaper in the long run. Not all combinations of VFDs and motors work together, so you shouldn’t just run to the store and grab a VFD and plug it in.”
Pool heating is another energy use for many associations in Florida, with the goal being to efficiently get what the community wants. As Normandeau notes, “If it doesn’t heat in December, then it doesn’t work.” Among current options, Normandeau says, “Natural gas is relatively cheap, while propane is expensive. Electric resistance heat is very expensive, so getting away from that is a good idea. Heat pumps in general are more efficient than other sources, but you have to make sure there is heat there to be transferred from the water or air heat source. If, for example, the air is too cold, it won’t do a satisfactory job, or you’ll need to have back-up heating.”
Solar power, whether for heating pools or other uses, hasn’t made inroads. “Solar power in the Sunshine State is not really attractive to most associations but have the conversation,” advises Normandeau. He notes some of the current drawbacks. “First, electricity is fairly cheap here compared to the rest of the country, so there’s less savings. Second, there are no rebates for solar power here, where other states might have 20–30 percent rebates. Utilities have a monopoly, and they are not in the game of incentivizing folks to generate electricity. Third, federal tax credits help with 30 percent of the system cost, but most condominiums/HOAs don’t have a tax appetite. And fourth, there are space and appearance considerations. We do live in hurricane town, so if a system is installed on a building several stories tall, it is like gigantic sails to get blown away. You really have to engineer the attachments, and then there are insurance considerations. For anyone looking to be ‘green,’ there are other ways to try first. It is always cheaper to save energy than to make energy.”
There are many items plugged into outlets, but for most of them, Normandeau advises that the cost-efficient time to save energy is when it is time to replace the equipment. “Look for the Energy Star label—that’s definitely a good way to approach any appliance purchase.”
Electric vehicles are a conservation measure that condominiums may want to plan ahead for. “A new law last year provides that associations can’t stop a unit owner from installing a charging station in his or her own space,” relates Normandeau. “We want to encourage neighborliness, so we work with the resident to make it simple for him or her and to provide a long-term, fair solution.”
“It is not fair for neighbors to have to pay for electricity to power an individual’s car. It is very important to take that into account and make sure there’s no appearance of impropriety. Make sure you have separate metering on car chargers that is automatic and doesn’t need people from the office reading the meter, billing, and doing collections. Management already has a full-time job.
“In an HOA, the charger is a non-issue normally as long as the homeowner installs it safely, pulls permits, and follows any association rules. A condominium may find that if three people put in car chargers, all the slots in the electrical panel are full, so no one else can add on their own charger. If an association has concerns about electrical vehicles, it is better to plan ahead to design a long-term plan and avoid issues between residents.”
The calculations for what projects are worthwhile will continue to change as new products are made available, old products are modified, energy prices rise, and residents’ views and practices change. Thus, an ongoing practice of conserving energy may contribute to improving the quality of an association’s lifestyle and budget.
Water can be conserved by the association as a whole in common areas and by educating and facilitating conservation with the individual homeowners. Ana Rivero with Allied Property Group shares, “We recommend that communities install motion sensor faucets in the common area restrooms. These faucets only turn on when they sense a hand in front of the sensor, thus controlling the amount of water that is disbursed to the time when the individual is actually washing his hands. This prevents vandals from leaving the water faucets on, which not only increases water consumption but also can cause serious property damage.
“Another water conservation strategy is an automated sprinkler system or other form of irrigation conservation component since irrigation systems are set up but not checked regularly. The system could come on when not needed, there could be a broken pipe that is undetected, or the direction of the sprinkler heads can overlap. It is important that managers, maintenance staff, and even board members be familiar with the community’s irrigation system to ensure that it is working efficiently and correctly. Together with the Miami-Dade County Extension Urban Conservation Unit, we review the association’s irrigation system, its design, the timers, and other components. The team then makes recommendations as to how the irrigation system can be more efficient and reduce waste.”
Rivero notes, “If the association cannot afford an automated system, they can install other weather devices, such as a rain sensor; backflow prevention devices; and irrigation submeters. In addition, these components help ensure that you are not overwatering your plants, since that, too, can be harmful to plant life.” Preservation of the landscape by careful watering can also save associations money by preventing replacement of plants.
Rivero acknowledges that the initial equipment costs can be high and regular monitoring is needed. “However, despite the costs required to implement this strategy, an association can save thousands of dollars in water expense, especially those homeowners associations that have an irrigation system covering vast amounts of land.”
Jarret Tran with RealManage relates their efforts to help homeowners with water waste. Manag-ement was conducting a risk management inspection of fire alarms and sprinklers, and Tran explains, “While the life safety contractor was performing the sprinkler and alarm inspections in each home, one of our staff members inspected each plumbing fixture for leaks. We recorded each observed problem and left a report of our findings for each owner. We then partnered with one of our plumbers to offer a bulk discounted rate to owners who required repairs to faucets, toilets, and other fixtures. The estimated annual savings for water was approximately $8,400, and more than 200 repairs were made. This initiative not only saved the association a significant amount of money—it also created a positive environmental impact through the conservation of thousands of gallons of water.”
When a change is being made, there is the opportunity to choose materials and methods that reduce impact on resources and the environment should a community desire to go that extra mile. Robyn Rocco with Landex Resorts shares that after renovating rooms in 2011, the Dover House Resort received a Green Lodging Designation from the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and they will also be applying for a LEED Certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). After renovating again in 2017–18, Rocco explains, “The rooms were renovated using rapidly replenished wood and laminate products approved by the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) for furniture. Recycled vinyl was used on the floors. Walls were done with non-toxic and low voc (volatile organic compound) paints. We were able to reduce our carbon footprint by reusing products (creating less waste) by having 50 percent of the existing furniture refurbished by Refinishing Touch. Recycled and green certified fabrics that prevent off-gassing to help with indoor air quality were applied to all the upholstered items, window treatments, and bedding. Water-saving plumbing fixtures, low-wattage LED and compact fluorescent lighting, Energy Star rated appliances, and air conditioner controls with humidifiers were installed in each room.”
According to Rocco, “Resort manager Leonardo Dahbur has helped Dover House staff implement the use of sustainable practices by specifying green labeled office and cleaning products, making routine checks on indoor air quality, managing water and electric usage, adopting recycling programs, and offering weekly towel-linen exchanges as a standard. Over the past five years, these changes have saved the resort close to 30 percent of their operating and reserve budgets.”
Chris Normandeau is Director of FirstService Energy with FirstService Residential. For more information, visit www.fsresidential.com.
Ana Rivero is with Allied Property Group. For more information, visit www.alliedpropertygroup.net.
Jarret Tran is with RealManage. For more information, visit www.realmanage.com.
Robyn Rocco is with Landex Resorts International. For more information, visit www.landexresorts.com.