Singing in the steam, just singing in the steam. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Upgrading cranky, ancient systems could be one of the largest single opportunities to cut building emissions.

Most of the greenhouse gas emissions—nearly 75 percent—generated by cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago come from heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. But it can be hard to get property managers to do a whole lot about it.

Yes, at least 15 cities around the U.S. now have “energy benchmarking” laws, requiring building owners to report annual water, heat, and cooling use, plus a clutch of rebates for stuff like solar panels and rain barrels to help them improve their stats. Even so, the incentives to act—especially for those in charge of large buildings—aren’t always great. Owners are the ones fronting the costs of installing new, more energy-efficient technology, but they’re not necessarily the ones paying the utility bills.

They also often don’t know how to fix certain energy-sinks—for example, it’s not totally obvious what a building owner can do to make a fifty-year-old heating system work more efficiently, short of dropping thousands on a new, more efficient boiler, or ripping out old pipes and replacing them with forced air.

But for aging heating systems, there are smaller, more affordable tweaks that can be made—and they can make a big difference. New York City, which passed its “benchmarking” law back in 2009, is betting that an active approach to educating decision-makers about those upgrades can significantly shrink its carbon footprint. The city’s Retrofit Accelerator program is reaching out to owners and decision-makers to help them seize one the single largest opportunities to reduce NYC’s building emissions overall: steam heat.

The NYC Mayor's Office of Sustainability estimates that if every large, steam-heated building in New York City performed relatively simple upgrades, the city’s building-based greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by about 5 percent. That might not sound huge, but it’s like taking 360,000 cars off the roads. Tackling steam all by itself could bite off a chunk of New York City’s broader climate target, which is to reduce its greenhouse gases by 80 percent by the year 2050.

Starting this month, NYC property managers will be able to go to the Retrofit Accelerator—which launched in 2015 as the city’s free, one-stop education center for energy upgrades—for “direct one-to-one assistance” on upgrading aging steam systems. Data from the past seven years of energy audits shows that steam warms some 70 percent of the city’s large building stock and 80 percent of multi-family residences. ”We were pretty surprised to see how prevalent it is,” says Jenna Tatum, senior policy advisor at NYC Mayor's Office of Sustainability.

It doesn’t take an expert to notice how inefficient these oft-ancient systems can be—pipes clanging in the wintertime are an audible reminder. Whether it’s generated from a basement boiler or distributed via an underground grid, high-pressure steam is supposed to flow uniformly through a building’s network of pipes and radiators. But weirdly enough, early 20th-century health officials designed steam systems to overheat apartments, forcing windows open on the coldest of days—the fresh air was thought to be wholesome. And over the decades, built-up gunk, poor maintenance, and building changes causes steam to distribute unevenly. Some units are freezing, others sweltering.

Property managers often respond to complaints of imbalances by cranking up the heat even more, but that rarely helps tenants, and it wastes a lot of energy. This is partly the result of a knowledge gap, says Tatum—owners and decision-makers don’t really know that there’s anything else to do, and fuel costs are low enough that it hasn’t hit their pocketbooks very hard.

But there is action to take on cantankerous steam systems. Rather than calling for major building renovations or system replacements, the city recommends annual tune-ups for boilers and burners, and insulating pipes to reduce heat loss. Building managers can also replace old heat controls, which light up boilers only in response to outdoor temperatures, with modern gauges that react to indoor temperatures as well. Clearing out vents can help steam flow uniformly, and special, in-unit radiator valves can let tenants control the amount of heat they’re receiving (rather than fiddling with a knob that doesn’t actually do anything).

Building owners can contact the Retrofit Accelerator before or after their energy audits for information about these upgrades—as well as for retrofitting water and cooling systems, which are just as important as heat—and for the names of specially certified service providers. That’s an important, point, too: For decades, few HVAC specialists have known how to perform steam upgrades, says Lindsay Robbins, a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on building emissions. “People are not advertising this as a service,” she says.

To fill the gap, the city has been actively recruiting and training contractors to amp up the steam upgrades, which Robbins applauds—no other city she knows of has taken this step yet. “This is a valuable business opportunity for service providers,” she says. “There is ample opportunity to do this in almost every large building in New York.” That may also be true in other cold-weather towns where steam heat is prevalent, like Chicago and Boston. (Others, too: A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Energy stated that of “the 16.7 million multifamily housing units nationwide—defined as five or more units—2.5 million are steam heated.”)

Tatum estimates that following through on steam retrofits can save building owners $10,000 to $30,000 annually, slashing heating fuel use by roughly 15 percent. But it’s the connection to the city, more than the dollar signs, that’s novel here.

Brian Southwell, an expert in science communication and human behavior who’s authored books on incentivizing personal energy reductions, says there’s been great progress with public agencies and utilities getting customers to be more conscious of their water and heat usage. But building owners need more technical support to follow through on upgrades. “Sometimes it is not a matter of inspiring owners to save money—they already are interested in that,” he says. “Instead, it is a matter of teaching them easy ways they can implement recommended retrofits.” Having a direct line to the city may help building owners turn their “benchmarks” into cuts.

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