Environment & Science

Casa Heiwa, other affordable Los Angeles apartments to go energy efficient with audits

Casa Heiwa is one of more than a dozen buildings set to start energy efficiency retrofits using stimulus funds distributed to the City of Los Angeles.
Casa Heiwa is one of more than a dozen buildings set to start energy efficiency retrofits using stimulus funds distributed to the City of Los Angeles.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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Housing officials in the city of Los Angeles are using federal money to cut energy bills for low-income apartment dwellers. L.A. will distribute about four-and-a-half-million stimulus dollars to the owners of more than a dozen buildings.

California's become so good at using energy efficiently that it can take a guy like Matt Anderson to find more savings. Affordable housing advocates called Anderson in to audit Casa Heiwa in Little Tokyo – home to almost 500 people in 100 units. Fixes bought with federal money will save the building $40,000 in energy costs a year.

"It was not an energy hog, but it had some problems," allows Matt Anderson.

Many of those problems turned up in heating, air conditioning and ventilation equipment. Casa Heiwa opened 15 years ago, as cutting-edge housing for the neighborhood. Since then, the cutting edge has shifted.

A squeaky garage exhaust fan will disappear in favor of a new model with multiple speeds and more sensors. To justify the cost of retrofits, Anderson ran down a complex list – from large items like furnaces and fans to small ones like vending machines that can dim their lights at night. Old coin-operated washing machines in common areas are on their way out.

"The washers will use or you can set them to use a hot rinse, and there's really no need to use hot water for rinsing," Anderson says. Replacement Energy Star washers allow smaller warm and cold rinses. "The newer washing machines are more efficient with water in general. So the water bill will go down once the washers are installed."

Collin Rich works for Enterprise Community Partners; that non-profit designed and paid for the audits to find systemic environmental benefits, not just energy savings. "We've found the typical audit is about $10,000," he says.

Rich says that makes the fixes pay off for the city – and for the building owners. "These are very in-depth reports with detailed charts and analyses," Rich says. "They left no stone unturned because they don't only look at energy efficiency and water savings, but there's also the key component of making sure it's healthy."

Sealing and stripping around windows and doors will keep dirtier air out of a toddler daycare center the Little Tokyo Service Center runs in Casa Heiwa. L.A.'s housing department required buildings to prove through audits that upgrades could save at least 20 percent in energy costs.

The housing department's Krista Kline says some buildings could save as much as 40 percent. She'd thought it would be harder to rack up those results. "And it wasn't," Kline says, leaning forward. "It was low-hanging fruit got us to the 20 percent, and that was a nice surprise actually. That's why we were able to fund so many projects, because it wasn't as expensive as we thought."

Kline and Little Tokyo Service Center's Sharon Im-Lee show me the first upgrades in apartments: better lighting. Im-Lee says it's a small fix that yields big cuts for bills low-income families have to pay. "This kind of investment in their buildings means a lot," Im-Lee says. "That we're investing in their building and in their pocketbook."

Little Tokyo Service Center will get $700,000 to invest in three buildings. Other building owners are working on retrofits too. Enterprise Community Partners and L.A. housing officials launched the program at Casa Heiwa.