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Tackling one of NYC’s environmental scourges: steam heat

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New York’s Retrofit Accelerator program is offering owners help upgrading their systems

Max Touhey

Winter in New York City means many things—like the endless clanging of your ancient radiator. And it’s more than a minor annoyance: As CityLab points out, nearly 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions generated by cities like New York come from heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. And while several cities around the country now have “energy benchmarking laws,” requiring owners to report their annual water, heating, and cooling use—and offering assorted rebates for building owners who install “stuff like solar panels and rain barrels”—the results have left something to be desired.

As always, the problem is complicated. For one thing, it’s not always clear how, exactly, building owners should go about fixing some of these issues—like, say, a 50-year-old heating system.

But where others see problems, the city sees opportunity (or something), and while a whole new of-this-century system may not be in the cards, there are “smaller, more affordable tweaks that can be made,” reports CityLab. The city’s first order of business: tackling the insidious inefficiencies of steam heat. It’s a big deal: overhauling steam represents “one of the single largest opportunities to reduce NYC’s building emissions.” (New York is not alone here: this is also a huge problem in Boston, Chicago, and other cities where it is cold and steam heat is prevalent.)

This is where NYC’s Retrofit Accelerator program steps in: It offers owners help to perform relatively simple upgrades on their heating systems—insulating the pipes, giving the boilers annual tune-ups, and replacing old heat controls. To make it work, the city has been “actively recruiting and training contractors to amp up the steam upgrades,” a move no other city has taken yet.

It sounds pretty simple, but it could have major results. “The NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability estimates that if every large, steam-heated building in New York City performed relatively simple upgrades, the city’s building-based greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by about 5 percent,” reports CityLab—the equivalent of taking 360,000 cars off the roads. And the financial perks don’t hurt, either. Jenna Tatum, senior policy advisor at NYC Mayor's Office of Sustainability, told CityLab building owners could expect to save $10,000 to $15,000 on heating annually by following through on the upgrades.