NYC to Retailers: Stop Air Conditioning the Sidewalk

storefront retail doorWith summer behind us, New York City has tightened its stance against commercial entities leaving their front doors open to the sidewalk while providing air conditioning to the space inside. Though already against the law in the five boroughs, the new amendment to the existing legislation requires the display of the code stipulation in some cases and levies steeper penalties for those found to be avoiding compliance.

In the eyes of our parents, an essential foundation for interacting with the world comes from the tiny pearls of wisdom that are dropped (or thrown) at youth to guard against waste. Within some of these household axioms, we can find evidence of deference to sustainable concepts, buried within basic components of familial truths. Many of us can recall one of the staple fatherly apothegms: “We’re not cooling the outdoors,” as a stern response to leaving windows and doors open while air conditioning is being used.

For most of us, if this lesson did not happen to sink in in adolescence it usually does when we start to pay our own summer electricity bills. But one group that have stood staunchly opposed is storefront retailers. For summertime in cities marked by active streets and a vibrant commercial environment, an open door that provides that wash of cool air amidst blistering heat can be an enticing invitation to passerbies eager for a break from the heat. New York has been notorious for retailers that leave doors open in the summer even on the hottest days, presumably convinced that the increase in electrical bills is offset by the increase in patronage.

Some might think this kind of practice would be illegal in a place like New York City. Well actually it is illegal. Thanks to Local Law 38, enacted in 2008, it is illegal for chain stores, commercial buildings or retail stores over 4000 square feet to leave their doors ajar while the air conditioning is on. This means that a pedestrians that get hit with a wave of cold air on the sidewalk can call 311 and report the establishment to the city, purportedly resulting in fines depending on the number of occurrences in an 18 months period. The thing is, most people, or even store managers, don’t actually know that the practice is against the law in the first place, which can make enforcement difficult.

That is why the City recently passed Intro 850 as an amendment to Local Law 38 that requires relevant properties to post a notice that informs onlookers that an open door to an air conditioned space can be reported to 311. The amendment also ups the ante on fines to chain store violations, leading to punishments of up to $1,000 per occurrence past the second time within an 18 month period.

According to the promoters of the legislation:

Statistics show that if 1,000 businesses leave their doors open with the AC for a season they will waste 4.2 million kilowatt hours, spend an additional $1 million on utility bills, and pour an extra 2,200 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Some could point at this as an example of legislation that might be overkill, but for those that are promoting the capturing of “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to increased efficiency, this is about as low as it gets. The Long Island Power Authority estimates that an open front door can increase the energy usage for air conditioning by 20-25 percent. The compounding factor is that air conditioning use is usually at its peak when the larger grid is most taxed for power. In New York, this means that utilities can call on the oldest and least efficient power plants (often coal-fired) to supplement the grid when it is reaching limits of available supply. In the summer, unnecessary power usage is calling on some of the least efficient and dirtiest power that we have in our arsenal.

As we work to find ways to make it easier to trim back resource uses in important, but difficult ways, it is important to remember there are still a number of easy ways to scoop the cream off of the top first. Especially in our urban environments, keep the doors closed can provide measurable savings for individual stores while resulting in negligible effects on the business. That’s the kind of simple logic our fathers would approve of.