Russell Unger of the Urban Green Council: Stop those AC leaks
Russell Unger, 38, is executive director of the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit group devoted to advocating for energy-saving and cost-efficient buildings. He lives in Prospect Heights with his wife, Clare Hansen, a senior graphic designer for Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, who he met at the Park Slope Food Coop.
Q What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
A I would like to stop up all the leaks in all the walls and roofs and floors and ceilings in NYC. People don't realize how much heat leaks out of all these cracks and how much air conditioning leaks out in the summer. The average air conditioner has an average of six square inches of leaks around it -- an area the size of your fist. It costs us and the city billions of dollars. You're paying to heat the outdoors -- and you're making air quality worse, too.
Q In 2009, you said that we had yet to make major progress in green building. How we doin' now?
A There is more impact with high end buildings, but there is a trickle down. Codes have changed, too (for the better). Energy codes get stricter and stricter. It's push and pull. You lift up the bottom through codes and set the standards higher with best practices.
Q Is there a reason we don't have more solar panels on our roofs to help defray costs?
A You need capital up front and it takes a lot of effort. To retrofit, you have to put a lot of time into such projects, and there could be better return on other investments. It may not make a lot of sense for tall buildings because the amount of energy you can get from the surface area of the roof is not a lot compared to the square footage of the total building. Retrofitting your lights alone can save you 20-30% a year and that's not very difficult to do. Seal up all the leaks and make sure your building is well-insulated and you don't have to do a whole lot of other things.
Q But people have zillions of complaints about those CFL lights. In my apartment, for instance, I can't find one bright enough to replace a 300-watt bulb I need in my art deco living room fixture.
A Are you saying that because the light seems a little blue? There are two types of fluorescent bulbs -- one for "warm" light and another one for "daylight." People sometimes opt for daylight because they think it will be brighter, but it's really just slightly blue. Warm light is what you want. It's slightly yellow and has a warm color. If you're trying to get a reading light out of a fixture covered in milk glass, you're trying to get the fixture to do something it wasn't meant to do. You may have to change the fixture.
Q You're a big proponent of water-saving toilets. But a lot of the old toilets only had to be flushed once and the new ones flush continuously or have to be flushed multiple times and seem to waste water, too.
A Water efficient toilets got a bad rap in the 1990s. Manufacturers weren't ready for the new efficiency standards. They've since redesigned the entire toilet bowl. A lot of the problems (with sensor activated toilets) have to do with inadequate maintenance. They do end up wasting a lot of water if they flush and flush and flush, but when you install them, you have to have a maintenance program in place because the programs are so frequent. The new dual flush toilets have one flush for liquids and another for solids -- I'm renovating our house in Prospect Heights and I'll have dual flush toilets there.
Q So you're walking your talk. What else are you doing?
A We're sealing up all those cracks I mentioned. The starting point is to reduce the amount of energy you need in the first place. We'll have a fan to suck out all the hot air in the summer. And we're getting a tree planted in front of the house.
Q And your pet energy wasting peeve?
A You know how retailers keep their doors wide open to the sidewalk, blasting the a.c. out? I hate that so much.
Q Manhattanites are supposed to have the smallest carbon footprints of anyone in the U.S., because we tend to live in small spaces and not drive cars. But how, exactly, is such a thing measured and what is our number vis a vis other people?
A We're near the top. Our competition is in places like California, where they have alternate sources of power. But I don't know exactly how we compare.
Q Any energy saving tips we might not already know?
A buildings waste a lot of energy with air conditioning. You know those little plastic things that extend from your air conditioner? Extend the louvers as far as you can and tape up all the edges and any holes around them. Whenever I see a wall of windows facing into the sun, I know the sun is just cooking that building: The sun is coming through that glass and it's staying there. People pull their blinds down, but in modern buildings, there are sun control devices for the outside. The New York Times building has them. These vertical ceramic slats reduce the heat and the blinds reflect light.