More flexible heating and cooling was considered but not feasible in 2013, authority says with regret

The LBJ Apartments on Erie Street in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

When the Cambridge Housing Authority unveiled its $32 million renovation of Lyndon B. Johnson Apartments at a ribbon-cutting in December 2013, the public housing agency hailed energy-saving advances such as solar power, efficient appliances, and central air conditioning. Now the air conditioning system designed more than a decade ago has turned out to be far from modern and that design contributed to residents sweltering in their apartments for several days of a heat wave last week.

At LBJ, which has 177 units for low-income elderly and younger disabled tenants, the cooling system uses the same pipes as the heating system. Therefore the heating system must be turned off and drained before air conditioning can begin. CHA officials have said that a state rule requiring landlords to provide heat until June 15 meant they could not make the switch until that date – though they did do it June 8 after widespread publicity about the situation and intervention by politicians.

There are four authority developments with central air conditioning, and LBJ is the only one that uses a shared heating and cooling system, which deputy executive director Brenda Snowden Downing called a “two-pipe” system. The other three sites have separate heating and cooling loops, or “four-pipe” systems, so they can provide air conditioning before June 15 without running afoul of the state rule, Downing said. (Another building where CHA provides cooling has individual “mini-split” systems in each apartment, which provide both heating and cooling).

Asked whether CHA planners considered installing a four-pipe system when LBJ was renovated, Downing said it was deemed “not financially feasible at the time,” although now “it is clear that a four-pipe system is far superior to a two-pipe system.”

Central air conditioning systems “were far less common than they are today” when the building upgrades were designed about 12 years ago, she said. Only about 40 percent of LBJ residents had their own air conditioners and the rest “went without A/C the year ’round,” she said in an email.

“With that in mind, we were very pleased at the time to be able to offer centralized cooling, and it was the first time we had ever done it,” Downing said. After CHA finishes its next round of modernizations, it will provide air conditioning in about one-third its units, she said.

A tenant speaks

The authority, city councillors and legislators trying to prevent a recurrence of the air conditioning problem at LBJ have focused on changing the state rule requiring heat until June 15, which was written before the impact of climate change became urgent. They want owners to decide whether to turn on cooling between May 15 and June 15, and heating between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. Tenants, though, want the cooling system as well as the rule to be changed, according to a resident who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation by authority management.

Tenants also are angry that CHA did not try to fix the problem last week until widespread publicity, the resident said. They complained in previous years to no avail, the person said.

Although tenants now have central air conditioning where before they had none, thermostats are set so that the coolest temperature is 74 degrees, the resident said. “When it’s 90-plus outside you can’t really beat that with 74 degrees,” the person said.

Cooling efforts

Downing said thermostats are set at 74 degrees as a “guideline” and “the idea is to keep the units comfortable, while simultaneously meeting energy goals and avoiding any energy waste.” Managers can adjust thermostats “individually when appropriate, such as a medical request for a lower set point via CHA’s reasonable accommodation policy,” she said.

While LBJ tenants didn’t have air conditioning in their apartments during three days of above-90 temperatures last week, the common areas, including community rooms, and the management office were cooled; they use a different air conditioning system, Downing said.

She confirmed that during the heat wave last week as well as a period of hot weather in May, managers “cranked up” the air conditioning “in the community space and staff handed out items like water and freeze pops.”

“The idea is to give residents a place to go to cool down without having to leave the building,” she said.

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