Utilities Included: How to Green Your NYC Apartment

Matthew Higgins's picture
Matthew Higgins
Engineer
September 16, 2014

Apartments with utilities included use significantly more energy than those where tenants pay their own utilities. This is especially bad news for New York City.

Even eco-conscious inhabitants of NYC apartments with utilities included can find themselves overconsuming energy and water.
Even eco-conscious inhabitants of NYC apartments with utilities included can find themselves overconsuming energy and water.
Credit: Stacie via Flickr

Imagine for a moment that you just moved into a beautiful apartment on the third floor of a traditional walk-up style building in New York City.

For now, your copy of the lease agreement sits on the kitchen counter... And even though your initial impression of the monthly payment was somewhere between “a bit over my budget” and “I’m going to need a second job,” the fact that utilities are included in the rent certainly helped you rationalize the price!

Now also consider the fact that you are green-conscious and that you want to live in a home that uses water and energy efficiently. Indeed, you dream of someday living in a LEED-certified house! You want to maintain a high level of environmental responsibility, but you're concerned that with no feedback as to how much energy and water you're using, you'll go overboard. After all, you’re only renting and you've got enough on your plate living in NYC and all.

What do you do?

Quantify your Energy and Water Consumption

A study conducted by Munley et al. and published in the Southern Economic Journal in 1990 found evidence that tenants living in apartments where the heat is included in the rental payments use significantly more energy than those required to pay their own monthly energy utilities bill. This is especially bad news for New York City. A subsequent investigation, written by Levinson and Niemann and published in 2004 in Resource and Energy Economics, presented data indicating that 62% of apartments in New York City include heat in the rental payments. This is significantly higher than the estimated national percentage of 30% and is the highest percentage among the thirteen cities included in the study.

One way to avoid slipping into habits resulting in high energy use is to track your apartment’s energy consumption in real-time.

Two studies, one in Canada in 2007 and the other in Spain in 2009, examined the effect of real-time quantification of total energy use. The Canadian homes reduced their energy use by 6.5%, the Spanish homes by 14.3% (Follow links for references below to studies).

For residents in apartments with their own electricity meter, Blue Line Innovations offers a software-hardware package that attaches to the meter, monitors your apartment’s energy consumption and transmits the data in real-time to your computer and smartphone.

Those in a larger building with many apartments can instead choose from a list of devices including the TED 5000 and the eGauge, that attach instead to your apartment’s circuit breaker. With any of these devices, be sure to ask your landlord for help during installation.

Driblets, WeMo and Real Time Feedback

As we mentioned in an earlier article on the Edyn smart garden water sensor, feedback is critical to influencing behavior.

Indeed, the "Prius Effect" is the motivating factor behind the new LEED Dynamic Plaque idea in LEED certified buildings from USGBC. One can imagine a similar problem with water use when the apartment’s water bill is also included in rent. The tenant’s economic incentive (and feedback loop) to conserve water is essentially removed. One way to solve this problem is to install a Driblet.

A Driblet is a smart water meter than can be installed on faucets and showerheads to track water use. Seeing, on your smartphone, just how much water is consumed during a long, relaxing shower may inspire you to conserve (hopefully you're leaving your smartphone on the sink while you're busy showering)!

Use of the energy and water tracking devices described above embody a “whole system approach” to improving an apartment’s efficiency. Straightforward “plug-and-play” options do exist for those with limited time and energy. Good places to start include low-flow shower heads (or any other EPA-endorsed, WaterSense fixture) or a smart outlet, such as Belkin’s WeMo, that’s also operable from a smartphone.

The challenges associated with minimizing resource consumption are unique for each individual and each home. Green-conscious individuals must realize that, while you may not live in a LEED-certified home (yet), there are small steps each of us can take in the meantime to reduce any negative environmental impacts... all while enjoying that brand new NYC apartment!

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