GreenAroundTheGlobe - Part 3

My Moral Energy Hazard

by Keith on May 1, 2011 · 2 comments

Turning off the lights, setting the programmable thermostat and buying energy star appliances and CFLs; for the last 8 years I have been making these decisions largely driven by my conscious for resource conservation, not my wallet, due to the collective way I pay for utilities in my condo.   Essentially all utilities are pooled and then owners pay a percentage of the total based upon the square footage of their unit.  This creates a casebook example of moral hazard, meaning there is little or no relationship between the risk, or cost, someone bears and their usage or action.

Summertime Sweaters

I knew that this situation had to be fixed as electricity costs were the driving force behind increases to our monthly homeowner association fees (HOA fees), which are currently over $600/month for a 2-bedroom unit.  When you take into account that the HOA fee includes all utilities, insurance, common building maintenance – including the pool and gym, as well as services like the concierge and security it is really not too bad.  But seeing residents wearing sweaters in the summertime because their air-conditioning is cranked all the way up to a chilly 68, I knew that was not the behavior of someone who was paying for their own electric usage.

Knowing is Half the Battle
I am hopeful there is a straightforward solution to this problem: sub-metering of electric.  Last December our management company, Wentworth, at the urging of the Energy Committee, of which I am a member, invested in an electric sub-metering system that measures the use by each resident and then allows them to bill based upon actual usage, not square footage.  After 18 months of fits and starts we are on the cusp of rolling the program out and I could not be happier.   I recently got a “sample” invoice in the mail and while there is lots of room for improvement, I am at least happy to see that residents’ electric costs will now be tied to usage.

Understanding is the Other Half
While it is great that Wentworth has sub-metered the building and will be tying resident costs to their usage, the biggest issue here is communications and context, essentially marketing.  As you can see from my sample invoice above there are at least 3 areas in which it could be improved

1. How does this compare with the reduction I will see in my HOA fees?

– As it turns out through my extensive investigation these reductions are already known.  As such they should be communicated and compared to the bill residents are getting to show reductions/increases vs. what they were previously paying as part of the HOA fees.

2. How does this compare with other units like mine?

– Again this information is available but not being communicated.  The Wentworth team, through the Intech 21 system, has access to the entire building’s information including a comparison to each unit in a vertical section of the building.

3. What can I do to reduce my costs?

– Here is a missed opportunity.  ~50% of the residents will be paying more than their HOA reduction.  That is not good news for them, understandably so.  But instead of provoking anger, for any resident that will be paying more than they are saving in HOA reductions, Wentworth should be offering turnkey ideas on how to lower their usage such as: programmable thermostats, energy efficient appliances and lighting (CFLs), and blinds for south-facing units to limit solar gain in the summer.  Also offering to do a walk-through audit if requested would go a long way in building goodwill.

The lesson from this is that the technology part of the solution is just the first part; thinking through the challenges of how to most effectively communicate those changes is the critical second half, and unless Wentworth addresses the issues I have raised in the roll-out I am expecting an outcry by the residents.   Never doubt the importance of good marketing.

Resource Links:
Sub-Metering Company: Intech 21
CityView Management Company: Wentworth Management

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To Car or Not to Car?

by Keith on March 18, 2011 · 6 comments

Financial Savings
That is what we save every year by not having a car.  The final amount amazed me after running the numbers this week.   I sat down to analyze the situation as I am now two months into my new job and wanted to see if it made sense for Amy and me to consider purchasing a car. Maybe it would be more cost effective, after all the daily train tickets cost me $26.07[2] every time I go to my office in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  It also should not be surprising that I wanted to involve excel in this calculation, as I did with the Beast on our U.S./Canada road trip.

Once I factored in the cost of buying the car[1], maintenance, insurance, gas, and the loss of our monthly rent from our parking space, the cost of the train, Zip Car and occasional rental car didn’t even come close.  And that is with rather conservative assumptions on the cost of gas ($3.50/gallon) and car maintenance ($150/month).   The details are below and if anyone sees a mistake or an assumption that is out of whack, call me out on it in the comments below.  I want to ensure this analysis is robust and credible.

Carbon Savings
I also thought I would look at the carbon savings and impact of choosing to not have a car.  My research led me to CarbonFund.org,  where I was able to compare the carbon impact of my train commute vs the same commute in a car.  For this part of the analysis I only compared the 12,000 miles that would make up my commute to New Brunswick, New Jersey.  The other 8,000 miles we would use a personal car for are also likely to be used with Zip Car or rental cars for longer trips so no savings is to be had there.  Turns out the savings was much less than I had thought, only 1.72 tons saved each year.  And if I tried to “sell” that carbon credit, I would be able to “monitize” my carbon savings at current rates of $10/ton to a whopping $17.20 annually.

Time Savings
While the financial savings are great, and a big reason we will not be buying a car anytime soon, there is another great benefit to commuting on the train: not having to drive.  The benefit of not having to actively engage in your commute is huge when your commute is 2 hours each way. One of the first things I bought in my new job was an extended battery for my laptop so I am able to be productive while commuting.  I snapped the picture below of a fellow work day commuter who was also using the train time to polish a presentation.  On the days when I just can’t bear the idea of another powerpoint, I am able to sit and enjoy the scenery.

So are you ready to sell your car and take to the trains?  Can you make due without a car?  For most Americans that do not live in a city it is likely not possible, but understanding the costs you assume when choosing to live where you do is critical, and for us to move out of the city we need to understand that the need to have car is an expensive choice.


[1] I have assumed a 2011 Mazda 3 Grand Touring Hatchback, the new version of the car we had previously, for this analysis, including purchase price and MPG.

[2] Factors in tax impact of 21% reduction due to use of the pre-tax Commuter Check program offered by Johnson & Johnson.

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Training It

by Keith on March 1, 2011 · 14 comments

We took a variety of transportation options while traveling, but one of my favorites was the multitude of trains. The picture above is me on a steam locomotive at the Modern Transportation Museum in Osaka.  We took intercity trains in Egypt, Vietnam, China and of course Japan.  We also took many intracity trains and subways in numerous countries from,

Duabi’s automated subway system to,

Kuala Lumpor’s private system run by 2 companies that never seemed to connect in a convenient way.

The differences did not stop there.  Train stations varied widely across the different countries with the station in Aswan, Egypt ranking up there as the most uncomfortable and maybe even a little scary,

to the station in Kyoto, Japan as the most spacious and airy.

I would rather be at either of them when I miss my transfer in Trenton, New Jersey on my current work commute from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to New Brunswick, New Jersey.  The station in Trenton, while it does have a Dunkin Donuts, does not have free wifi, sushi or the spotless bathrooms of Japanese stations.

The one serious advantage the train systems have here in the United States is the automated ticket machines in multiple languages. Buying my 10 pack of tickets for NJ Transit while waiting on the platform in New Brunswick for the 4:23 to Trenton is quite easy.

And having an English language ticket machine when we were in China would have saved Amy and I the pleasure of the 15 hour ride in Hard Sleeper Class, which we explore in more detail in this post.

I was inspired to write this post in part because my current commute has me on trains much more than I have ever been in the past. And having seen many different train systems from around the world, I think the system here in the Northeast U.S., is quite impressive. However, I do not think that this means we can stop investing in the amazing infrastructure that moves millions of people everyday. Septa alone moves 400,000 riders every weekday, and transports 70% of Center City Philadelphia’s work force into the city.  This is a hugely sustainable option for these workers.  Imagine if we lived with this density of population, and lack of interstates without this great infrastructure.  The Schuylkill (I-76) would be even more clogged, which I am not sure is even possible.

If you are interested in the strategic development of rail within the US, I recommend looking through Amtrak’s vision for High Speed rail in the Northeast, which you can find here.

I will be following up this post with a detailed analysis on the rational behind our decision to remain car-free since our return.  As you might have guessed, there was an excel sheet involved and much like the cost comparison of the Beast we looked at all the angles.  In the meantime let me know what you think about trains.  Should we as a country invest in more rail infrastructure?  Do you rely on trains to get where you need to?

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