Change is Coming for Common Ownership Communities
The District of Columbia and its surrounding counties have ambitious climate action plans to “decarbonize” and dramatically reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They are actively working to meet these goals through a mix of incentives and legislative and regulatory mandates that will directly impact Common Ownership Communities. These changes, along with rising utility rates, increasing costs to maintain aging buildings, and COVID, are making business as usual increasingly untenable and unaffordable.
The question for Boards and Managers seeking to meet the challenge and go green is, “where to start?” The simple answer is, “go where the money is!” Buildings are our single largest user of energy and emissions, accounting for 50% of all GHG emissions in Montgomery County[i] and over 70% in DC[ii]. In most buildings, HVAC is the single largest source of energy use, and according to the EPA, the typical building wastes 30%[iii] of its energy. Accordingly, efforts to improve the efficiency of HVAC systems will have the most impact.
Efficiency For HOAs and Condominiums with Individual HVAC Systems
In Homeowners Associations or Condominiums with individually owned HVAC systems, the simplest step is to encourage owners to take advantage of no-cost and low-cost energy conservation measures. These measures offer a quick return on investment and are supported by generous utility and government incentives. Start with quick home energy checkups, energy audits, smart thermostats, and weatherization techniques like air sealing and insulation. Follow by consulting with an engineer to develop standards for efficient HVAC replacements and facilitating group purchasing and installations. Communities can also work with entities like the Montgomery County Green Bank for longer-term investments such as community solar and geothermal.
Efficiency For Condominiums with Central HVAC Systems
For Condominiums with central HVAC plants, the best place to start is in the mechanical room. The large heating, cooling, and domestic hot water equipment there can account for 50% or more of a property’s total energy use. Making even incremental improvements here can significantly impact a community’s utility bills and is easier to manage than trying to gain voluntary compliance from all unit owners.
A wide range of “smart buildings” solutions are built upon the foundation of an Energy Management Information System, or EMIS[iv]. A modern EMIS connects to an HVAC system and other building components, collects large volumes of operational data, and makes that data available and useful to help Boards and Managers save energy and improve operations.
What is an EMIS and What Does it Do?
An EMIS sits on top of your existing equipment and doesn’t require a major capital investment, but the data it provides can help determine where and how to make the most impactful improvements in energy efficiency. Here are a few examples of what an EMIS can do:
- Real-time monitoring of HVAC equipment’s energy use and electric, gas, and water utility meters. This helps quickly identify and respond to spikes (before they lead to large bills) and facilitates benchmarking.
- 24/7 monitoring and alarms for equipment breakdowns, leaks, and other abnormal operating conditions. This is also known as Fault Detection and Diagnosis (FDD), and it improves resiliency by helping prevent or quickly recover from failures.
- Using smart logic, or algorithms, to optimize how HVAC equipment runs in real-time. Unlike your traditional building automation or control system, which is set up once and left to run, an EMIS uses the large volumes of data it processes to make changes on the fly.
- Connect to other building components, like smart thermostats, leak detectors, and lighting control systems. This helps manage energy and water usage across the entire building.
- Turn down or turn off equipment based on occupancy and schedules. This reduces usage for equipment like air handling units serving gyms and party rooms when they are not in use.
- Quantify the business case for capital investments in new equipment. The data collected by an EMIS facilitates actionable analytics showing which components in an HVAC system are consuming the most energy or running least efficiently and the savings potential of more efficient replacements.
According to recent data, only 21% of buildings have any sort of digital HVAC controls like a building automation system, EMIS, or smart thermostats[v]. Wider adoption of EMIS technologies and the new capabilities they enable can save billions of dollars a year of energy and related GHG emissions.[vi]
By partnering with EMIS solutions providers, Boards and Managers can get actionable insights, helping them get out of the dreaded “paralysis by analysis” trap and freeing them up to be tactical executioners. The goal is for Common Ownership Communities to make economically sound and data-driven decisions to save energy and money, reduce GHG emissions, get ahead of building energy performance standards, and create a more environmentally and financially sustainable future.
After all, the cheapest and greenest energy is the energy we don’t use!