Green is red hot these days as we collectively become more environmentally conscious in the way we live. Our fiscal spending habits and choices reflect a gradual change of values toward a healthier future of the planet. Whether or not you have begun to live a green life, environmental consciousness is happening all around you and is reflected in changes in local laws and building codes—most recently in San Francisco’s recent mandatory compost ordinance. Luckily, there are many green products available to us as rental housing providers that provide multiple benefits: lowering operating expenses, improving the immediate environment within the unit and making vacancies more attractive to environmentally conscious potential tenants.
I used to feel that choosing exclusively green products for apartment remodels was more of a statement of personal philosophy and value system instead of a decision based in economic feasibility. At the time, the delta between the purchase costs of the two similar products—one green and one conventional—was large enough that it nullified the operating expense savings. But over the last couple of years, the cost of green products has decreased to a point where the delta is marginal and there are strong arguments to start implementing some of these products into your buildings.
A prime example is low-flow toilets. In 1994, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission implemented code amendments to lower the maximum flushing capacity of toilets from 3.5 gallons to 1.6 gallons. The older 3.5-gallon toilets have not been available for some time, but they are still prevalently in use, many of them in our buildings.
With the recent (and predicted future) water rate increases, paring down your wastewater volume can make a significant difference in your water bill. Most San Francisco apartment buildings are master metered for water, so the entire cost of water is shouldered by the owners. Tenants have no relationship to this growing expense, nor are most of our tenants aware of the volume of water that they use on a daily basis. It is possible that if some residents actually knew their daily water consumption in real terms, they might voluntarily be more mindful of their usage.
Until that day comes, owners would be wise to invest in low-flow (1.2 gallons per flush) and/or dual flush control (.9/1.6 gallons per flush) toilets. Currently, dual flush toilets cost about $325 and a Toto 1.2-gallon flush toilet costs about $260, when you factor in a $125 rebate available through the SFPUC. This program is in place until June 30, 2011, or until rebate funds expire. The list of qualifying high efficiency toilets can be found at conserve.sfwater.org.
A viable alternative to replacing toilets is a dual flush conversion kit, which will equip any existing fixture with dual flush capability for around $20. A local company, Brondell, produces a conversion product called Simple Flush, which installs simply in minutes and purports to save about $100 per year per fixture (depending on usage). Hydroright is another conversion kit; it is available through Amazon for under $20 and installs in 10 minutes with no tools. I personally like this product concept and have begun implementing it at home and in some smaller buildings.
I recently toured my favorite building supply warehouse and found a unique plumbing product that employs a grey water system. The Profile Smart 305 has a small fresh water faucet and sink at the top of the tank; the water used to wash one’s hands is then recycled into the tank to use for the flush. Pricing starts around $500.
Other green products that owners should consider are those that release fewer toxic gasses than the standard versions, such as low- or no-VOC paints. These paints are available in almost all paint brands; however the color palette is limited. For my purposes, I paint all vacant apartments using Kelly Moore Frost on the walls and Kelly Moore Swiss Coffee semi gloss on the trim. Both products are available in low-VOC at the same price as regular paint.
There is also formaldehyde-free insulation, which is white and is available at roughly the same price as the better-known pink product. The efficiency ratings are the same, so why not use the more environmentally friendly product? Plus, it’s very possible that, years in the future, formaldehyde will be considered in the same class of toxicity that asbestos is today, thus incurring hefty disposal fees along with stricter oversight. It would make sense to avoid this future exposure.
Energy Star-rated appliances have been in circulation for quite some time and many people are familiar with this symbol, which makes it easy for consumers to identify and purchase energy-efficient products that offer savings on energy bills without sacrificing performance, features and comfort. The Whirlpool portfolio of brands, which includes Kitchen Aid and Maytag, manufactures a noise dampening dishwasher that exceeds Energy Star standards by 10%, and another that offers two separate washing drawers, so smaller amounts of water can be used to wash smaller loads of dishes. In addition, Whirlpool has a multitude of Energy Star-compliant refrigerators and stoves that should be given serious consideration when replacing your older units.
What about larger capital improvement projects? Are there higher efficiency product options available to replace major building systems, like boiler systems? I recently spoke with Helmut Schmidt, an environmentally conscious owner-operator who replaced a 50-year-old recirculating hot water boiler system in an 11-unit building in the Mission. He installed a Peerless 118,000 BTU cast iron sectional boiler. The total cost for installation was $18,306, based on a system that fed 11 radiators, one for each studio in the building. This boiler qualified for a rebate of $2,300 from the San Francisco Boiler Systems Incentive Program. After the new boiler was installed, the PG&E bill went from $612 per month to $496, reflecting a 19% decrease.
Additionally, Schmidt plans on exercising a capital improvement passthrough to recoup 50% of his cost. Given that, the rebate money and the approximately $1,000 per year savings in energy costs, his payback time for the system is less than 10 years.
Effective and clean disposal of a building product is the last link in the chain and truly the deciding factor in considering if a product is really green or not. The product life cycle includes production, present use and disposal. There seems to be more focus on the first two stages and less attention paid to the latter. Where a product ends up once its economic and/or useful life is over is potentially the most effectual part of the cycle, and one that affects future generations. Be sure to ask your contractors how they dispose of construction waste. Many salvage nonprofits, like Building Resources in San Francisco, accept old doors, windows, trim, cabinets, countertops and the like. They get fresh inventory for their stores, you get a nice tax write off and these often-replaced items stay out of the landfill.
So, the moral of story is, it makes common and fiscal sense to start embracing more environmentally friendly practices and products; their efficiencies are higher and the price points are very competitive with conventional materials and processes. As rental housing providers, we are uniquely positioned to affect significant changes in people’s consumption behavior because of our scale. A homeowner may change two to three toilets in a single-family home, but we can change 50 or more in one location.