Residents Well Worth the Effort in Multifamily SEM

06/11/19

It’s been a long-held belief that there’s no point in trying to engage multifamily residents in conservation programs, especially low-income residents who, in some cases, aren’t responsible for paying energy bills. Add to this the exhaustingly persistent barrier (real and perceived) of the “split incentive,” and you’ve got a solid business case for yet another year without a utility-offered program for this hard-to-reach market.

But the tide is turning. With a decade or more of successful efficiency programs serving residential and commercial customers, utilities are now turning their attention to unlocking the mystery of multifamily. Yes, compared with single-family homes and large commercial buildings, multifamily appears to be more complex, and low-income multifamily even more so. But our work over the last four years is proving that applying the core principles of Strategic Energy Management (SEM) to the multifamily market is working. Engaging leadership, developing simple training and action plans for operations and maintenance staff provides the foundation for making energy management part of how business is done. Add consistent, easy to digest, education and outreach for residents and the result is more engaged customers, higher participation in existing commercial and residential programs and measurable savings from both property staff and residents.

Our work began in this space in 2015 with Puget Sound Energy, the northwest’s largest investor-owned utility, serving more than one million customers in Washington State. Since then, we’ve made our way across the country and are currently leading a pilot in the Southeast for Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), designing and implementing MF SEM with local housing development properties in Nashville. We are taking this pilot to the next level by facilitating cross-collaborative, program design between TVA’s residential and commercial divisions to develop a more holistic, region-specific, replicable program that aims to exceed the expectations of TVA’s utility customers for a multifamily offer.  

So beyond direct install, how does engaging multifamily residents in energy efficiency actually work? It is similar to SEM in commercial buildings, where business tenants don’t own their office but do reduce their energy use through education, motivation from personal drivers (cost and values) and rewards. The same strategy applies to multifamily residents. Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.

The Benefits Add Up

With just a small amount of outreach, multifamily residents will reduce their energy use – to the tune of 1% to 2%, which, in a building with 450 units, can add up. Here are a few key drivers for engaging residents in smart energy management:

  1. Comfort – All residents are looking for ways to be more comfortable, and property staff have shared countless stories of residents complaining about being too hot or too cold. Focusing education and outreach materials on what residents can do to increase their comfort while also saving energy provides an educational path to greater satisfaction, lower complaints and reduced usage.
  2. Cost – High bills continue to be a core driver for residents who pay them, especially in older buildings that have not been sufficiently upgraded for efficiency. Workshops, newsletters, eblasts and flyers that offer simple tips for using less help residents understand the benefits of moderate thermostat settings, sealing the envelope, turning on a fan first and using natural lighting when possible.
  3. Health – With the rise in data linking poor air quality to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, health is becoming an important driver. Poor ventilation, dirty ducts and improper use of some appliances add to this scenario, and residents are interested in what they can do better. While improving healthful conditions in resident units often requires upgrades facilitated by property management, residents becoming better educated can encourage management to make these investments.  

“Light Touch” Outreach Works

Reducing resident energy use by 1-2% can be achieved with a much lighter touch than previously thought. It may have to do with a climate awareness tipping point or the constant conservation messaging coming from businesses, schools and mass media. Posters, recurring social media posts and monthly tip sheets can effectively remind residents of small actions they can take to reduce wasted energy, improve comfort and save on energy bills. Energy fairs for residents provide education and social interaction and can be implemented by a consultant, the utility’s marketing staff or property management. Once strategy and materials are developed, “light touch” becomes the low-cost tool to inform and communicate a portfolio-wide priority for saving energy.

Paradigm shifts are a natural occurrence in business modeling, and the time has arrived for utilities and property owners serving multifamily residents to rethink residents’ willingness to assist in energy conservation.

Julie Hayes
Julie Hayes