Seth Harkness is a building manager in Biddeford, Maine who has realized both dollar and energy savings through his participation in commercial energy audits, commercial retrofit and lead abatement programs as well as lead RRP renovation training.
On Commercial Energy Audits and Retrofits
CleanEdison (CE): What drove you to invest in commercial energy audits and retrofits for your buildings?
Seth Harkness (SH): Well, I buy apartment buildings in Biddeford, Maine. Maine has some of the oldest building stock in the country, and most of the buildings here are heated by oil. In 2008, oil prices went way up and so utility and rent prices went up too. A lot of people (building managers, owners) had to walk away from their properties because they were unable to heat them. Energy consumption is the greatest variable cost that I can control. Since there were state grants available at the time, I decided to invest in energy audits.
CE: What sort of savings did you expect and receive from your audits and retrofits? What is your estimated pay back cycle?
SH: Well, I qualified for grant assistance from Efficiency Maine and the US stimulus package. I don’t think they have grants available anymore, but they still have a loan program which helps you if you want to do a commercial energy audit and building retrofit. I’m expecting about an 8-year pay back cycle for my investment.
CE: Do you have an idea what your dollar and energy savings look like?
SH: Well, it’s hard to tell, because I did the audit and retrofit right after buying the building. When I purchased the building, I knew it was energy inefficient, but the previous owner didn’t have records. But, I’d estimate that for one building, I saved about 40 – 50% in annual heating bills.
CE: So what does that come out to in dollar savings?
SH: Well, that’s about 1,600 gallons of heating oil. And figure heating oil is about $3.50/gallon right now…
CE: That’s a lot of money (about $5,600 in savings).
SH: Yeah it is. It made sense for me, especially considering the grant money. Doing these upgrades allowed me to actually lower rent prices when other building managers were raising them to keep up with the rising cost of oil. And you know, with the economy being weak, a lot of people don’t have the same sort of money to spend on housing.
CE: So did you learn new energy saving techniques from the energy audit that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about?
SH: Absolutely. These guys are the experts. They told me about air infiltration, like from leakages around porches and chimneys, and I learned that I can save a lot of energy by spray foaming my basement, and using dense packing cellulose in the walls. They told me to install boiler sensors that automatically adjust according to outside temperature, that sort of thing.
CE: Basically they helped you identify high-savings, low cost upgrades.
SH: Right, it let me focus on the best measures for my buildings.
CE: How did you go about finding an energy auditor?
SH: I found a certified guy through a friend’s referral. I’ve continued working with the same guy for all of my buildings, since we work well together. He has really helped me through the entire process. He’s in the industry, so he knows how the market is changing, what new grants and audit techniques are coming out, and when all the deadlines are. Last year for instance, he made sure I made a deadline before the New Year by getting our work done by December 30th.
CE: Do you expect to have your auditor check up on your buildings?
SH: I haven’t really thought about it. I mean the work is done, and hopefully it was done well so it shouldn’t have to be fixed. Though, immediately after the retrofit work was completed, my contractor did come back with an infrared camera to check the air sealing work, and found some weak areas to fix before I paid the contractors.
On Lead Abatement and Lead RRP Renovation Training
CleanEdison (CE): Why did you choose to abate lead in your buildings?
Seth Harkness (SH): Well, since I am purchasing older buildings, many of them have lead paint issues that require or could use lead abatement. With my four buildings, I took advantage of a Maine State program, Maine Housing Lead Hazard Control Program, which helped me fund my lead abatement projects. In one case I had to do the abatement because I purchased a 6-unit apartment building which had a unit closed off by the EPA because a child living there was found with high levels of lead in his blood.
CE: Was it a long project?
SH: It took, let’s see August, September, October…it was about a three-month-long project.
CE: How many people were on the job?
SH: About 4 – 5 guys. It was a lot of work; they had to handle 74 windows, 36 doors, staircases, risers…
CE: And they were all Lead RRP Certified?
SH: They were all Lead Abatement certified – they had to be. And there’s not too many of those guys.
CE: So did you have to wait awhile until you could get certified contractors?
SH: Yeah, it was a long process. There are only maybe 6 certified abatement workers in Maine, so it took a long time to get the initial inspection done, and then get the project started.
CE: Do you need to get lead abatement guys every time you have a lead paint issue?
SH: Well, I’m a building manager so I like to perform a lot of the basic renovation work myself. If the lead paint is located in a low friction area, you can just paint over it with special sealants; you don’t necessarily have to rip it out. I didn’t want to have to call up these Lead Abatement guys every time there was a little lead paint, so I got licensed as an 8-hour Lead RRP renovator so I can do basic repair work myself.
CE: And so you can avoid the EPA fines…
SH: Yeah, the EPA can really get you – fines are huge ($37,500). At the time when I got my license, there was a lot of publicity for Lead RRP training, and a lot of other building managers in the area were getting licensed. I didn’t want to risk getting fined, and the class is inexpensive and only takes one day.