Not heating the neighborhood


Steve & Deona Thomas of 5T management in one of their buildings at 6859 S Ada, showing the new heating system and the insulated pipes.Tuesday, April 3, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Energy efficiency is out-performing glacially slow bank lending and home buying to provide jobs and more livable rental housing in South and West Side neighborhoods, as Chicago’s Energy Savers program is proving.

The Chicago-based program is enabling landlords to invest in building upgrades that cut energy bills an average of 30 percent a year.

The Energy Savers program focuses on the most cost-effective improvements such as insulation, air sealing and heating-system upgrades.

But some owners are leveraging the latest technologies to do more.

Eight buildings in the West Woodlawn and South Chicago neighborhoods feature solar-thermal panels, high-efficiency water heaters and the latest “smart” boiler-control systems.

On a sunny day, the solar panels satisfy the entire buildings’ demands for hot water by supplying about 12,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy.

The water heaters kick in when the panels cannot handle the whole load.

The systems in three buildings use “smart” boiler controls that adjust in real time how long a hot-water boiler stays on.

The “smart” system keeps the boilers from putting out too much heat, said Larry Brand, research-and-development manager at the Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines.

Energy Savers is run by CNT Energy, a non-profit affiliate of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the Community Investment Corporation (CIC).

CNT Energy partners with the Gas Technology Institute on research, and works with contractors to install cutting-edge boilers and other equipment made by companies like Well-McLain of Michigan City, Ind.

CNT Energy cuts through red tape, advises contractors and building owners on the latest energy-efficient technologies, oversees the equipment installation and inspects the work. CIC provides low-cost financing options to help small landlords cover the cost of the improvements.

“We are replacing obsolete, oversized equipment with high-efficiency, cutting-edge equipment,” said Anne Evens, CNT Energy’s executive director.

The result? For a typical 30-unit building, a yearly $10,000 in natural gas and electricity bill savings.

The work has enabled Mike Hollub, principal of Hollub Heating, to keep 20 to 25 people employed at the 84-year-old Near West Side company.

Hollub, who succeeded his parents, the late Arthur and Helene, in running the company, is one of more than 100 contractors who make energy improvements on low-rent apartment buildings to make them more comfortable and affordable for landlords to operate.

“It’s about venting, piping or pumping, or some combination,” Hollub said. “It’s trying to update and improve a building’s mechanics. It’s trying to do what’s practical.”

One of the hurdles is getting tenants to talk about what’s going on. In some cases, tenants and landlords have thrown money at wrong solutions or just feel defeated about making improvements, Hollub said.

Steve and Deona Thomas, owners of 5-T Management in the Chatham neighborhood, took over two HUD-subsidized buildings on the South Side, one in foreclosure and the other in receivership, and used the “green” grants, along with financing from the Community Investment Corporation, to upgrade boilers and insulate pipes, exterior walls and roof cavities.

“Most people think energy efficiency is about putting in new windows,” Steve Thomas said. “The reality is that the best use of the money is upgrading.”

The Thomases now pay $1,000 a month, a $400 to $500 a month savings, for heating and cooking gas for the 30 units at one of the buildings.

“I now have a blueprint, so when I save a certain amount, I am looking to retrofit common areas and replace exterior lights with LED lighting,” Steve Thomas said.

The energy retrofit jobs are particularly critical in the Near West Side neighborhood that no longer can claim the city’s garment district or distribution centers that have left the area, Hollub said.

Some renters live in publicly subsidized units, pay nothing for heat and have no control over their own units’ electricity or central-heating and cooling controls.

Instead, landlords gain access to the details of energy-efficiency from the Energy Savers’ detailed recommendations on everything from old water heaters to inadequate pipe sizes.

Commonwealth Edison also is giving landlords “whole building” data via an online tool that shows a building’s total kilowatt hour use per month.

CNT Energy revealed to the Sun-Times these new developments with the Energy Savers program:

** In addition to 7,800 Chicago-area apartments that have gotten Energy Saver upgrades, another 2,800 will get upgraded boilers, better insulation and air sealing and more efficient hot-water heating because of an $8.5 million grant from the Bank of America. The grant, awarded to Community Investment Corporation in November, will allow CIC to finance the energy-efficiency projects.

** More than 200 buildings throughout the Chicago area have undergone energy-efficiency upgrades in the past four years.

Energy Saver has provided 58 loans through the Community Investment Corporation at 2.5 percent to 3 percent interest rates and worth $4.3 million to building owners in Chicago. The program has provided another 13 loans totaling $4 million to building owners in nine suburbs.

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