Chloride reduction grant expands reach of Efficiency Navigator program

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Paving the way for a greener Dane County isn’t always straightforward, but programs like the Efficiency Navigator are working to make it easier. Thanks to support from a District Chloride Reduction Innovation Grant, Sustain Dane’s Efficiency Navigator program is working to help reduce reliance on energy and water, as well as reduce the amount of chloride reaching the region’s surface waters for low- to moderate-income multi-family rental properties.

Transforming local affordable housing

The Efficiency Navigator program helps qualified small to medium-sized multi-family housing become more efficient by reducing demand and expenses associated with energy and water. The program provides complimentary building efficiency assessments for energy, water and solar opportunities and helps owners navigate the complexities behind implementation. Selected eligible buildings receive funding through Sustain Dane to cover the cost of many recommended measures. Property owners, renting residents and the community as a whole all benefit from the reductions in operating costs, energy burdens and pollution levels to address housing resilience, equity and climate change.

A group of people from the District, Sustain Dane and the City of Madison pose with a property owner that took advantage of water softener optimization through the Efficiency Navigator program.
A group from the District, Sustain Dane and the City of Madison pose with a property owner that took advantage of water softener optimization through the Efficiency Navigator program.

New pathways for sustainability in multi-family residences

Sustain Dane launched the Efficiency Navigator program in 2020, after identifying unmet needs for a key segment of the housing market. The program focuses on renter-occupied buildings with rents affordable at or below the 80% area median income (AMI). Qualified buildings are also considered Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) properties, referring to rental units that are affordable but unsubsidized by federal programs. Dane County has over 40,000 units of NOAH stock that typically consist of small-size buildings (less than 30 units) that are privately owned and managed by small companies.

In developing the Efficiency Navigator program, Sustain Dane, Elevate Energy and partners interviewed dozens of owners of affordable housing to understand their attitudes toward energy and water efficiency upgrades. The program was designed to identify opportunities for energy and water efficiency, as well as help building owners navigate a complex web of local, national and utility incentive programs. By offering a single point of contact to help with incentive program application, technical assistance in cost comparisons and ROI calculations, implementation of upgrades and financial assistance toward project costs, the program aims to make efficiency upgrades within arm’s reach for owners. The goal is to help property owners improve the quality of local housing stock for their residents and support environmental efficiency efforts, without having to raise rents.

Funding from the Public Service Commission Office of Energy Innovation helped bring the vision for the program to reality. The program successfully served 88 units in 13 buildings in its first year, implementing over 60 efficiency measures. Typical residence improvements include insulation; heating, cooling or HVAC system upgrades; appliance replacements and more. Each year, the program helps save about $300-500 in energy costs per building.

District helps pursue a Sustainable future

The District receives an estimated 220,000 pounds of salt per day in wastewater arriving at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant. Water softeners are the largest source of chloride pollution in freshwater systems, contributing more than half of the total load.

Most wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove chloride, so every bag of salt that goes into a water softener passes down the drain, through the treatment plant and into local freshwater streams. To build infrastructure capable of addressing the chloride issue, consultants estimate costs ranging from $400 million to $2.3 billion, which would cause significant increases in sewer bills. The most cost-effective solution for ratepayers is to reduce local salt use at the source.

To help reduce local chloride use before it arrives at the plant, the District offers up to $200,000 in annual grant funding to businesses, nonprofits and government agencies working toward these efforts. In addition to salt reduction rebates and road salt reduction grants, the District also offers Chloride Reduction Innovation Grants to spur changes in business practices related to chloride use and reduction of salt use in commercial and industrial water softeners and on roads, sidewalks and parking lots. Individual chloride reduction grants typically have a maximum award value of $15,000.

In 2021, Sustain Dane received a grant of $13,700 to help expand the reach of the program beyond energy savings to also include water softener inspections. A second grant of over $13,000 was awarded to Efficiency Navigator for 2023-24 to include even more buildings in the program. While work for the grant period remains ongoing, to date, the program has served over 90 units in more than 20 buildings with confirmed water softener inspections. As the grant continues through this year, many more inspections are planned and work is in progress on water softener units being upgraded/optimized or experiencing plumbing conversions. Initial estimates for the Efficiency Navigator program show more than 2,000 pounds in salt savings annually.

“Water softeners are not always front-of-mind when it comes to sustainability work,” said pollution prevention specialist Catherine Harris. “Minimizing salt use and discharge to the sewer system is an urgent need in the Dane County area from an environmental and economic perspective.”

Since 2015, the District has funded more than 60 projects that have prevented more than 780,000 pounds of salt from entering surface water and the wastewater stream per year. Salt reduction grant recipients have included Hydrite Chemical, UW–Madison, Epic Systems, Steve Brown Apartments, UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital, Dane County, Barnes Inc., The Bruce Co., Village of DeForest, Friends of Lake Wingra, Best Western Plus InnTowner, Community Development Authority of Madison, Capital Water Softener, Hellenbrand Inc., Culligan Total Water and Project Home.

“Access to clean, safe water and sanitary services should never be taken for granted,” said director of ecosystem services Martye Griffin. “People from all walks of life have a role to play in environmental stewardship and the work funded through our innovation grants helps improve the sustainability of our water resources for everyone in the community.”

Article written by Catherine Harris

For more information on our grant funding and incentive programs, visit our Chloride Reduction Incentive Programs page. For additional efficiency resources for homebuyers and property owners, visit the City of Madison’s Rehabilitation Programs page.