Can an older apartment community be made “green”?

In this article we explore low-cost or no-cost solutions for making an older property more eco-friendly. More costly (yet very viable) options will be discussed in future articles.

The general assumption is that for a building or apartment community to be “green”, it needs to have been designed with that in mind and built often with a great deal of extra expense in the last 10 years. While the poster child of green apartment communities may fall into this category, it is still possible for older communities that were not designed to be green to make significant strides towards reducing their environmental footprint. And much of this can be done with little additional cost above and beyond the normal modus operandi.

For the purpose of this article we shall refer to an older community designed and built without consideration for the environment as a “legacy” building or community.

Furthermore, by implementing a variety of green initiatives a legacy community can also realize cost savings which only enhance reasons for implementing them.

One of the larger expenses when operating a legacy community is the cost of utilities – water/sewer, electricity, gas (if appropriate) and trash collection. Several things can be done in this respect:

Reducing Water Consumption

  • Implement a water conservation program.
    Some vendors will do this at little-no cost provided they have some other part of the business where they can recoup their costs.
    One example is SW Water Consultants. They will come in and implement their water conservation program at no cost to the property provided their sister company, SW Utility Billing is contracted to perform the monthly resident utility billing. This provides a win-win-win situation. They drive more business, the property gets a water conservation at no immediate cost and the residents get a reduced water bill. Everyone wins!
    Having implemented a water conservation program on several properties built in the 1960s and 1970s, we have found that we can reasonably expect to realize about a 20-25% Year-on-Year reduction in water usage.
  • Contact your water company.
    Due to the increased demand for water they are very keen to conserve water. They may very well come out to your property and offer suggestions on how and where you can save water.
  • Fix all leaks as they are found.
    While you could argue that this is not so much a green initiative as it is something that you would be doing anyway, there are plenty of owners in the market that are happy to turn a blind eye to water leaks to avoid the immediate-term expense of fixing the leak.
    If you consider a “small” leak wastes around $25 of water per month, that’s $300 per year which at a 7% cap. rate is equivalent to $4,300 of reduced property value. And that’s just one small leak. How much would it cost to fix this? If say, $2,000 then it’s a no-brainer.
    So, if you suspect a leak, diagnose exactly where it is and get it fixed.
  • Install WaterSense toilets and faucets.
    A new WaterSense toilet costs about the same and often less than a non-WaterSense toilet. In fact, a quick search of Home Depot lists the cheapest toilet as a WaterSense American Standard toilet (at $81.59). It comes in $4.10 less expensive than a less water-efficient American Standard toilet (at $85.69). The next 5 least expensive toilets at Home Depot are all WaterSense. The point is that if you have to replace a toilet for whatever reason, then the decision to replace it with a WaterSense toilet will cost no more than replacing it with any other kind of toilet AND it will save water in the long-term.
  • If your community has an automatic sprinkler system then program it to water early in the morning to reduce water evaporation. If you have no one on staff that can do this, call in an irrigation expert for assistance.
    You should also install a rain/freeze sensor (approx. $18 at Home Depot) to disable the sprinklers after a moderate downpour or when the temperature gets down near freezing. Some parts of the country already require the installation of rain/freeze sensor on single-family residential properties.
  • By implementing some or all of the above strategies you reduce the water consumption of the property throughout the year. Additionally many water municipalities charge an estimated amount for sewer usage based in some way on the water usage – read the back of the bill for details. So by reducing water consumption you will also reduce the amount the property pays for sewer usage – a double savings while reducing the environmental impact of the property.

Electricity usage

The more obvious solutions here would be installation of solar panels and/or wind turbines. These solutions tend to come with a substantial price tag and even though they may still make sense there are many other much simpler and more affordable solutions available. For example:

  • Beginning in the common areas and over parking lots, replace all old incandescent lights or halogen lights with energy-efficient LED lighting. Not only do LED lights use a fraction of the electricity to operate, their life expectancy is significantly longer (meaning maintenance spends less time replacing the bulbs).
  • Instead of converting incandescent interior lighting to CFL lights (which personally I think look ugly), convert them to LED lights. Again they use less electricity than CFL bulbs and have a much longer life expectancy. Additionally LED bulbs do not contain harmful mercury like the CFL bulbs do, so disposing of them in a responsible manner is simpler and less costly.
  • Your community probably already has light sensors connected to all of the exterior lights so that they automatically turn off during daylight hours. But how many times have you visited a property on a bright, sunny day only to see one or two of the exterior flood lights still on? This is wasted electricity. Have your preferred electrician check the correct operation of all light sensors, replacing defective ones and installing additional ones if necessary.
  • Similarly install motion-sensor lights or light switches in common areas such as laundry rooms. These automatically turn off the lights when no motion is detected thereby saving electricity. It also adds an aspect of convenience and safety by making sure that residents don’t have to walk into a dark room and fumble for the light. [Thanks to Greg & Nicole Scott for mentioning this one.]
  • Any time a unit is turned make sure that the seals around doors and windows are checked. This will help cut down on heating costs in the winter and cooling costs in the summer.
  • Install ENERGY STAR appliances.
    When purchasing refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers select those that are ENERGY STAR rated. There is a great selection of these available at prices comparable to their non-ENERGY STAR counterparts.
  • Review your electricity contract.
    When it comes time to renew contact your electricity provider or shop around for another provider that will commit to delivering electricity generated from renewable energy (primarily solar, wind or hydroelectric power, though there are others too). By doing this you get many of the same environmental benefits of renewable power without the initial capital outlay.
    Having recently renewed several electricity contracts at several properties we found that the rates for renewable energy are now very competitive – and almost indistinguishable – from electricity from fossil fuel.
  • Check with your electricity provider to see what rebates and incentives that they may offer for consumers doing energy-efficient upgrades. [Thanks Greg Scott for this.]

Pest Control / Pest Management

  • Speak with your current pest control contractor and see what options they offer in terms of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). If they are not even familiar with the term then perhaps you should consider changing to another company that does! You may be surprised to find that there is no additional cost involved in switching over to an IPM solution. And the benefit is pest control materials are only inserted into the environment as determined necessary. The net effect is a reduction in the use of the materials and an improvement in Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) for the residents.

Other Low/No-Cost Ideas

  • Migrate towards a paperless office:
    • Adopt e-billing and e-payments with all vendors that offer it.
    • Sign up for estatements from the bank and cancel paper statements.
    • Consider the use of e-leases in place of paper leases.
  • Provide a means for resident to pay their rent online and/or create work-orders online.
  • Implement on-going education and training programs to educate and inspire both staff and residents to conserve and preserve.
  • Implement recycling programs initially in the office (recycling paper and plastic as well as printer ink and toner cartridges), then across the property.

The ideas presented in this article are just a handful of easy-to-implement, low or no cost solutions that can greatly reduce the impact of your property on the environment. Many have the added benefit of reducing the property Operating Expenses, thereby increasing NOI and adding to the property value.

Key Vendor Partners