The Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future has so many new ideas to make affordable housing more energy efficient that the consortium of nonprofit owners and operators is confident it can meet the federal government's Better Buildings Challenge, which was expanded in December to include multifamily properties.

“It’s pretty audacious,” says Rebecca Schaaf, vice president for SAHF’s Energy Division. “We want to achieve 20 percent energy and water savings across a whole portfolio.” That portfolio includes 100,000 units of affordable housing in 49 states, and SAHF—whose members include such affordable industry giants as Mercy Housing, BRIDGE Housing, and Preservation of Affordable Housing—has already been working on energy improvements for years.

Here are a few of the new ideas that make Schaaf confident the organization and its members can find new energy savings:

Focus on Water
Even if you upgraded your properties' water fixtures a few years ago, you can still make a good return on a new round of investments. Fixtures like the new low-flow toilets work better and save dramatically more water than models on sale just a few years ago. In fact, the savings may pay for the cost of the fixtures in just a year to 18 months, according to SAHF.

Get Someone Else to Do It for You
Some companies can now install water-saving technology for you, with little or no up-front cost. Companies like eConserve and Minol do such work in exchange for taking a cut of the savings in the future, says Schaaf.

Hire an Energy Manager
A problem like a leaky sprinkler system or a mistake by a utility company can go unnoticed until someone finds the problem. Thus, it can be worthwhile to have a designated person on staff who checks over the property's energy bills to find these problems. Software tools such as EnergyScoreCards, Portfolio Manager, or WegoWise track utility usage so that managers can compare current usage with that from prior years and strip out variables like ups and downs in the cost of fuel. Installing software and checking these bills can take a lot of staff time, but it’s worth it, says Schaaf.

Take Advantage of Local Utility Programs
You may be running out of time to get help from your utility company to install energy-saving lighting. Some types of energy-efficient lighting, like T12 fluorescent lighting, are becoming standard, and utility companies won’t offer cash incentives to do something already required by law. Utility companies often change their programs, too, so check back with them often to view any new offerings designed to encourage local building owners to make their buildings more energy efficient.

Buy Energy Star Appliances
You might not realize how inexpensive some products that earn the federal Energy Star label for energy efficiency have become compared with conventional products. “Prices are dropping all the time,” says Schaaf. A product whose up-front cost was too pricey last year might be affordable now.

Reconsider Solar Panels
If you've decided in the past not to install solar panels because the panels were expensive relative to the amount of power they promised to produce, consider checking the numbers again: The cost of panels has come down, and more utilities are allowing buildings to use the solar energy they produce themselves during the day to offset the electricity used by residents at night. Some new companies also offer “solar-power purchase agreements.” At little or no cost, the companies will install solar equipment at a multifamily property. In exchange, the property agrees to buy a certain amount of the power produced by the solar panels.

To find more energy-saving ideas and best practices, visit SAHF’s website under "Multifamily Energy and Water Management Toolkit."