Who Opens their Windows in the Winter?

Or rather, Who Doesn’t?

Starting this week, the Sustainable Cities blog will feature one post a week (on Tuesdays) that deals more with the day in and day out sustainability experience of New Yorkers. Thor Ritz, a Research Assistant at the Institute, will be joining the Green Queen Bee.  Since everyone speaks economics these days, think of the blog as usual as the macro and Thor’s entries on Tuesdays as the micro. The big picture is important, but the smaller scale components are as well, and sometimes they are more exciting and certainly easier to relate to.

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windowFor this first post, I’d like to turn our thoughts back to yesterday’s storm. Generally people work to keep hot air inside at such times. But we know that in New York, opening windows is the standard method of temperature regulation inside steamy apartments. Most old buildings in the city have one furnace (usually it is ancient) that is connected to a single thermostat. It pumps hot water or oil through our radiators regardless of the actual temperature inside each apartment because the single thermostat is located somewhere entirely unlike our apartments. Regardless of how hot it gets inside, the radiator rages on. So, we open our windows in the dead of winter. And then we close them when it gets warmer, as it did this weekend. This is some twisted logic.

Putting the absurdity of this open-window business aside, there are some very real and very serious environmental (not to mention economic) issues at stake here. Our parents summed these issues up best when they scolded us as children for leaving doors wide open in cold weather. “I’m not paying to heat the outdoors!” We would obediently shut the door, feeling ever so wasteful for letting precious warm air rush outside. This might be a good time to mention the wastefulness of outdoor heaters, but let us not digress. A random (though hardly scientific) survey of students, conducted by yours truly, in a busy third-floor hallway of Hunter College exhibits just how many people open their windows during winter. Out of my sample, 45% said they lived in an old, large apartment building. And 65% of that group said they left their windows open regularly during winter months.

Michael Bobker, Director of the Building Performance Lab at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems explains that “much analysis of apartment buildings energy costs finds a 5:1 range from” the most efficient units to the least efficient. While there are not exact numbers published on the losses (in heat or cost) attributable to “gross overheating and window-opening,” it “is usually identified as a major contributor to this wide range.” After a round of number crunching that threatens to go over my math-averse head, Bobker says that it is safe to bet that this type of heat loss costs $1.00/sf per year in those inefficient units. If you’ve got an 800 square foot apartment (an average size for the city) you’re looking at an incredible $800 loss every year! Consider the thousands upon thousands of inefficient apartments in New York and the numbers become staggering.

But of course, where there are problems recognized, there are solutions to be crafted. My goal in this post is not to offer these solutions (Bobker’s Building Performance Lab might be a good starting point for this) but rather to initiate a dialogue on a particular problem that is a part of daily life for many New Yorkers. In this time of macro economic meltdown, how do we make a difference on the micro level?

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