Benchmarking 101 Making Energy Costs Fair for One and All

Benchmarking 101

Energy is money. And in big condo buildings, energy is big money—we’re talking thousands upon thousands of dollars in waste or savings. Most folks know that turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, taking shorter showers, and turning down the thermostat a couple of degrees can help save energy—and by extension, money. Helping an entire building cut costs and reduce its carbon footprint can be a little trickier, however, which is why many co-op and condo buildings hire professional energy consultants to assess their energy profile and make recommendations as to how it might be improved.

It is very important for boards and management to understand what the energy consultants are looking for within a building—and how they should work with boards and managers to suggest and implement greener, money-saving measures for buildings of every size. It's also legally necessary to understand the legality of the new energy laws if you’re working for or in a Chicago-area building.

Local Laws

In September 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago’s City Council adopted a building energy benchmarking ordinance to raise awareness of energy performance in its building infrastructure. The ordinance calls on existing municipal, commercial and residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to track whole building energy use, to report to the city annually, and to verify data accuracy every three years. The law covers less than 1 percent of Chicago’s buildings, which account for about 20 percent of total energy used by all buildings.

Improving energy efficiency is a key element of Sustainable Chicago 2015, Mayor Emanuel’s 3-year action agenda to make Chicago more livable, competitive and sustainable. The first compliance deadline is June 1, 2014 for municipal and commercial buildings larger than 250,000 square feet. The second group, consisting of buildings that fall between 50,000–250,000 square feet, will first report in June of 2015. Residential buildings within each of these groups of covered buildings will have an additional year to comply with the ordinance, with buildings of more than 250,000 square feet first reporting in June 2015 and buildings in the 50,000-250,000 square foot range first reporting in 2016. Public disclosure of energy efficiency data for each group could not occur until a year after the compliance date.

Benchmarking, verification and reporting deadlines for additional buildings covered by the ordinance will phase-in through 2016—and unless building managers and board prepare themselves and the board for benchmarking, they won’t be able to pass.

Compliance & Incentives

Chicago adopted the building energy benchmarking ordinance to raise awareness of energy performance through information and transparency, with the goal of unlocking energy and cost-saving opportunities for businesses and residents, says Karen Weigert, chief sustainability officer for the Office of the Mayor.

“If all Chicago buildings larger than 50,000 square feet reduced energy use by just five percent, it would save trillions of BTUs, reduce annual energy costs by nearly $40 million, create hundreds of jobs and avoid annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to nearly 50,000 cars,” Weigert says.

In order to prepare themselves to comply with the ordinance, Weigert says the city is offering support which includes comprehensive notification, outreach and guidance materials, free training on the ordinance and reporting tool, access to whole-building utility energy data at no cost (so covered buildings won’t have to request individual occupant data), pro bono data verification for buildings experiencing financial need, local energy efficiency funding and support for energy benchmarking and efficiency improvement through the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star program.

“We encourage all buildings to act now to take advantage of cost-effective energy savings opportunities, as well as financial incentives and recognition programs,” Weigert says. “Many energy efficiency measures pay back very quickly, and there are programs available to provide technical and financial assistance to buildings that want to improve their energy performance.”

Some of these measures include whole-building efficiency incentives. In 2007, the state of Illinois passed legislation requiring energy utilities to set aside ratepayer funds to invest in energy efficiency. The resulting incentives expand opportunities for buildings to pursue subsidized energy efficiency improvements that save money and energy. There are ComEd and People’s Gas’ Multi-Family Comprehensive Energy Efficiency Program, which offers technical support and incentives for residential building managers and owners.

Individual residential energy efficiency incentives include Retrofit Chicago’s Residential partnership, which provides support and resources to help Chicago residents reduce utility bills and increase home value through energy efficiency. Programs include help finding a trusted contractor who will conduct a comprehensive energy assessment to identify how your home uses and wastes energy while pinpointing the most cost-effective improvements; free energy saving items, including programmable thermostats and showerheads, and rebates on qualifying air conditioners, furnaces and other large appliances. For more information about this city of Chicago program, call 855-946-7228.

Professional Help

For many buildings, it would make more sense to hire an energy consultant, however.

“This is the way you can get the best energy saving plan for the building,” says Andrei Turea, president of Green Attic Insulation, an energy services company in Chicago. “Your energy adviser will help build and manage a specific energy cost management strategy, along with a customize rebate application for the improvements to be made for the building.”

Instead of picking and choosing random energy improvements that the board has a feeling may be right for the building, a professional energy consultant will go in with the proper tools and expertise, and then collaborate with building or association administrators to implement a fully informed game plan.

“We have an individual approach for each customer, because each and every one of them have specific needs and predetermined conditions,” Turea says, explaining that this takes between two and five hours per building.

Turea’s toolbox includes IR cameras, a combustion analyzer, moisture meters, blower door, digital pressure and flow gage, gas leak detector, carbon monoxide detector, fiber optic borescope, laser tape measure and a wizard stick smoke detector. “We will calculate potential estimated electricity saved per year (kWh), estimated natural gas savings per year (therms), and blower door CFM50 reduction,” Turea says. After all the work is done and all improvements were made, the customer will receive an Illinois Home Performance (IHP) certificate, he says. The certificate gets included in MLS listings, and has been proven to raise home value, Turea says.

Hiring an energy consultant isn’t just good for resales, however. It could also bring down the costs within the entire building. “A condo association might be paying for hot water for the whole building, and we could reduce expenses, which can go to prop up the condo association or reduce the condo association fee,” says Robert Schildgen, owner and CEO of Priority Energy, based in Chicago.

Schildgen says his company has also been able to redesign buildings’ mechanicals so that owners provide their own heat rather than buildings. Service fees for heat ranges from $20-$30 per unit—and when you multiple that service fee by 10 or 20 or 50, the service fees can really get out of hand, he says.

“The service fee offset alone makes up the difference, and the building owner or association can charge less to the tenant for the same service,” Schildgen says. He’s also been able to help with air service issues within the building. When he identifies leakage, he helps keep air-conditioning or heat inside a unit—along with cigarette smoke.

“Comfort is the biggest factor,” he says.

For this, an individual unit typically pays $300-$500 for the service, while an association will pay about $2,000 per day. It takes about one day to do most buildings.

Once Schildgen is done with his evaluation, he gives each building a personalized recommendation and prioritizes it based on cost-effectiveness. “We’ll provide alternatives and options for ways to address it, and we look for two to three options,” he says.

Worth the Price

Before choosing an energy consultant, Turea suggests making sure that they are Building Performance Institute (BPI) building and envelope-certified, and a member of the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA). The company should be an IHP approved contractor, and an EnergySmart and Energy Impact Illinois-certified contractor. “Any extra certification is a plus, as well as radon certified, and lead certified, etc.,” Turea adds.

And while many buildings may bridle a little at the expense of hiring an energy consultant thanks to the benchmarking initiative, Schildgen says that the move by the city isn’t a bad thing. “Have you ever received a letter that gives you a bar chart that shows how much energy you use, and how much energy your neighbors use? It’s amazing how many people call me after they get that, and say, ‘Can you help?’ ” Schildgen says. “This raises awareness.”

It’s also good for the long-term sustainability of a property’s performance ratings. “We endorse Chicago’s efforts to enact an ordinance that makes building energy performance information available to everyone at any time,” says Dan Probst, chairman of energy and sustainability services for Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate brokerage in Chicago.

“Our experience is that full disclosure of performance information, like Energy Star ratings, is one of the most effective ways to achieve energy efficiency. It gives every building a public incentive to improve energy performance, and that is really powerful.”

Anyone with questions about the process may contact the Chicago Energy Benchmarking Help Center, which provides phone and email support: 855-858-6878,    

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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