Credit: U.S. Energy Group

For the past year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been lobbying multifamily property owners to begin using the agency’s Portfolio Manager web application for tracking energy usage in apartment buildings, with an ultimate goal of getting a better understanding of energy usage in the multifamily sector that might one day lead to a ratings system that could be developed into an Energy Star certification program similar to the one employed in the commercial real estate arena. While the agency is happy with the uptick in Portfolio Manager adoption among the multifamily set thus far, a data set robust enough for true comparative analyses and benchmarking of the energy usage of multifamily property types is likely still a ways off. 

According to Bruce Armstrong of Falls Church, Va.-based JDM Associates, a consultancy working with the EPA on multifamily energy programs, there remains a dearth of data to develop the so-called “1 to 100” ratings systems that enable certification programs such as Energy Star. Approximately 600 properties have entered data into the system thus far, according to Michael Miller, CEO of Oak Brook, Ill.-based American Utility Management, a multifamily energy procurement and billing services firm that has been working with the NMHC and the EPA to develop data sets and reporting matrices that might be used for energy usage benchmarking, one of several ongoing initiatives within the apartment industry.  

While the commercial sector benefits from the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, which is administered by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration and produces a robust data set for commercial energy usage benchmarking, a comparative survey for multifamily does not exist. “Really on the multifamily side there are not any benchmarking programs available yet,” Miller says. “Energy Star on the commercial side has been in existence for about 10 years now, but obviously on the multifamily side it has not, and progress on developing that has been slow moving.”

In addition to the relatively thin data sets being produced via Portfolio Manager, the greater disparity in building types and energy sources within the multifamily sector is preventing a straightforward, apples-to-apples comparison of benchmarking data.  “Portfolio Manager is not necessarily capturing as robustly as it could all building types. There are some holes in there, and if you don’t put in a good amount of baseline characteristics per property type, you are not going to get out good benchmarking information,” says Jim O’Reilly, public policy director for Lexington, Mass.-based Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, a policy group advocating mandatory building energy usage disclosure. “It is self-fulfilling that the more building types entered into the system provide a more broad and robust set of data leading to better information coming out for all future use.’

Indeed, all parties currently at work on energy disclosure and benchmarking initiatives say more could be done by multifamily owner/operators in terms of providing greater dialogue to the benchmarking conversation in addition to performance data at the asset level. EPA is currently working with the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council to engage the multifamily industry and to educate its member firms about the Portfolio Manager program, including sharing an EPA webinar about it with the apartment industry, Armstrong and NMHC insiders say.

“Our concern for multifamily is that if there is no one there representing the industry, benchmarking programs are going to be mandated and set up by lawmakers who maybe do not understand from our perspective that there are four to five different garden apartment types, or that some apartment buildings might have a central boiler and some might not. Things of that nature make a difference,” Miller says. “The positive is that benchmarking really should begin to provide a very clear look at the analytics of each property. Once you understand why energy costs fluctuate, you are then able to understand what you can do, if anything, to contain those costs.”

Miller anticipates that municipality requirements for multifamily energy disclosure—laws are currently on the books in Austin, Seattle, and New York City for companies to begin usage benchmarking by 2011—could ultimately lead the way for greater adoption of Portfolio Manager by the multifamily set and, by extension, a sooner-rather-than-later development of Energy Star labeling possibilities in the apartment industry.

Fresh Meadows, N.Y.-based U.S. Energy Group, which has been providing central boiler, fuel, and energy management services to Big Apple multifamily clients for 30 years, has just released a smart phone energy management application that anticipates that trend. The application provides dashboard energy information to asset and property managers on the go in real-time, enabling them to monitor and adjust boiler operations remotely. “The recent green building legislation passed in New York City require owners to benchmark their data, and they should be using the EPA’s Portfolio Manager,” says U.S. Energy Group chief operating officer David Unger. “We’re integrating our site data with the EPA’s benchmarking tools. My hope is that once we can get some visibility, we could work towards driving some standards with energy engineers in the city. We’d be very excited to do it.”