An energy efficiency success story from Chicago’s South Side

By Dara Reiff

James Morris is a pragmatic and resourceful building owner. As the sole owner of Morris Management, a rental property agency on the South Side of Chicago, he knows how important it is to keep tenants happy and costs low. With energy prices rising during the past few years, Morris started searching for financial assistance, municipal grants and other ways to make his four multifamily properties more efficient.

In his research, James learned about the Energy Savers program offered by Chicago-based nonprofit CNT Energy, whose mission includes developing sustainable, affordable solutions to the energy challenges that our communities face. He worked with the Energy Savers team to upgrade three small, brick apartment buildings housing a total of 10 units. Each building is heated by a central steam boiler and all were built in the 1920s.

Energy Savers is a turnkey service available to owners of multifamily buildings in the seven-county Chicago region and the city of Rockford. The program helps building owners with every stage of the retrofit process, from assessment to financing to making structural changes that will improve building energy efficiency.

All three of Morris’ buildings had major upgrades and improvements to their boilers, pipes and roof insulation. The improvements are projected to cut natural gas usage in the three buildings by an average of 37 percent. Morris says he’s already noticed energy savings of more than $600 each month since the work was completed in January 2013. His tenants are happier, too.

“The retrofit projects have made my building more profitable so that I don’t have to raise rents, and also more comfortable,” he said. “Now that there is insulation in the roof cavity, people do not complain of cold air leaking in as much. And we are able to better monitor the unit temperatures because of the new boiler controls. It all makes the building less wasteful.”

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The Energy Savers team continues to serve as a resource to building owners even after their energy efficiency improvements are complete. For example, building owners receive an annual report summarizing their energy savings. If a building doesn’t perform as well as anticipated, the Energy Savers team follows up to help remedy the situation.

Beyond his work with Energy Savers, the energy efficiency work at Morris’ properties got him thinking about other efficiencies. Installing low-flow valves and other water-saving devices has reduced his water bills, for instance.

“I definitely learned a lot about how to make my buildings more efficient,” said Morris. “I think other property managers can really benefit from it, too. Gotta keep tenants happy, right?”

Morris said there should be more market incentives for multifamily property owners to engage in energy retrofits.

“Entice people with grant funds,” he said. “Small business owners are bottom-line driven, so we look for opportunities to save. Governments and others should market these types of energy efficiency programs, and make it easy to take advantage of them.”

To make retrofits more affordable, Energy Savers is offered in partnership with nonprofit mortgage lender Community Investment Corporation, allowing program participants to apply for a fixed-rate, low-interest Energy Savers loan. Energy Savers staff also help building owners identify and take advantage of utility rebates and all available incentives to pay for efficiency upgrades.

The Energy Savers program continues to build momentum, and has now retrofitted more than 15,000 units, lowering costs for the owners of multifamily buildings as well as for the residents who live in them.

Dara Reiff is an outreach coordinator at CNT Energy, a Chicago-based nonprofit that designs and implements programs and conducts research in the fields of electricity pricing, building energy efficiency, and regional energy planning. This post was part of the Surdna Foundation’s Storybank initiative.

Photos courtesy of CNT Energy