Homeowners have a high degree of control over their home’s energy efficiency. Whether the house is new or old, they can choose heating and ventilation systems, insulation strategies, water heaters, appliances, and lighting. If the site, structure, local zoning, and budget allow, solar panels or geothermal system are renewable energy options.
For renters, the options are very limited, since the landlord usually controls the structure, heat and hot water sources, and provides large appliances. Once the lease is signed, renters who want to conserve energy may not be able to do much beyond replacing inefficient light bulbs and practicing energy-saving habits.
Energy efficiency for renters starts with asking questions at the first visit to a potential rental. It’s not just a question of being green–the unit’s energy efficiency can have a big impact on the occupant’s budget. A cheap rent is no bargain if the space has outdated or poorly designed energy systems and no insulation. When utilities are figured in, a higher rent in an energy-efficient building may be a better deal, and certainly be more comfortable.
In a conference call for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings program this past July, Samantha Caputo of Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) discussed the questions renters should ask when looking at an apartment or house. NEEP is one of six U.S regional energy efficiency partnerships within the Better Buildings program, with a mission to accelerate regional collaboration to promote advanced energy efficiency and related solutions in homes, buildings, industries, and communities.
The kind of energy that runs the heating system should be an energy-conscious renter’s first question, Caputo said. The Department of Energy, based on Massachusetts’ statistics, estimates that heating oil and propane are about three times more expensive than electricity and natural gas. Even if heat is included in the rent, the choice of fuel will have a direct impact on tenants’ cost of living.
Other questions are: Are the units on individual electric meters or does one meter serve the whole building? Which utilities does the unit have: natural gas, oil, water, electric, Internet, cable TV, telephone? Are any of them included in the rent?
Is the thermostat programmable? Is it in the unit, so that tenants can control their own heat, or in the hallway? How old is the heating system? Where is it? How old is the water heater? What kind of system is it? Where is it? Which appliances come with the apartment, how old are they, and are they Energy Star certified? Appliances may include a stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, clothes washer, and dryer.
Is the building or unit air sealed and insulated? Can the prospective tenant feel drafts? Are there gaps around windows and doors to the outside or unheated hallways? If there’s a fireplace, how’s the damper? Check the windows to see if they’re single, double, or triple-paned. Do they have storm windows and screens?
The unit should have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors (required by code in many places) and a fire extinguisher. How many light fixtures are there and what kinds of bulbs are in them: incandescent, fluorescent, compact fluorescent, or LED? What sort of natural light does the unit receive? How will that affect heating and cooling?
Publisher’s note: Prospective tenants can ask if the landlord plans to make energy-efficiency improvements. When enough people insist on energy efficiency in rentals, landlords who are serious about attracting tenants will listen. Landlords who invest in energy efficiency cannot only improve their occupancy rate but also save significantly on the cost of running the building. NEEP has resources for landlords, too.)
According to Caputo, the three take-aways are:
- Transparency about the energy costs of a unit is essential for renters, who have little ability to make changes to their living spaces without the landlord’s permission. A checklist helps identify areas that need improvement or problems that disqualify the rental from consideration.
- Tenants can’t control what they pay in rent, but a checklist can help them determine if the energy costs of a unit will be high and whether the unit will be comfortable to live in.
- For real estate professionals, an energy checklist is an easy way to show the importance of energy efficiency and start conversations about it.
The checklist is available on-line at http://bit.ly/RentersEnergyEffChecklist. Scroll to slides 23 through 26.
NEEP is completing the Home Energy Labeling Information Exchange (HELIX), a first-of-its kind effort to automate the transfer of home energy data to multiple listing services in the real estate industry. NEEP is sponsoring a HELIX summit on December 7, 2018 at the Providence Biltmore, Providence, RI. There will be a reception for networking and a tour of National Grid’s Energy Innovation Hub the day prior. For more information, visit https://neep.org/events/2018-helix-summit.
Evan Lawrence is a free-lance writer in Cambridge, NY, specializing in sustainability, environmental, and health topics.