Verizon Foundation is donating more than $550,000 to fund a two-year study as part of the Pecan Street Project, which is focused solely on finding out more about how low-income, multi-family households use energy.

Covering 140 homes, the study is expected to deliver immediate results -- such as energy and cost savings -- for the customers involved. But the far-reaching consequences ideally will be much more than reducing power bills by a few bucks.

Low-income households spend about twice the percentage of their income on energy as compared to middle- or upper-class homes. Yet many residential energy-efficiency solutions are tailored to the biggest homes, those awash in thousands of square feet of central air with a pool pump humming in the back yard. Other solutions are tailored for middle-class homes, such as aggressive rebates for more efficient appliances. Many apartment-dwellers, however, do not own their major appliances.

But there is a limited block of research on the needs of low-income, multi-family utility customers. Some demand response studies, such as PowerCentsDC, found that low-income customers can save more than average on peak reduction programs. Overall, however, the data is lacking. There is also the problem of a split incentive, where the tenant pays for the utility bill but the landlord owns many of the biggest appliances, such as the AC units or refrigerators.

“We’ve been looking for information gaps,” said Brewster McCracken, CEO of the Pecan Street Project. “There may be some things between the owners and tenants that are of common interest.”

Verizon will offer internet access to participants in the four-apartment buildings that have been chosen in Austin. One of the buildings is a senior center. Participants will receive internet access, a tablet with an energy-efficiency app, Nest thermostat and eGauge circuit-level monitors. Nearly all of the participants are renters, although a few own their units. In many of the homes, Spanish is the primary language. With the exception of a single apartment, no one had internet access in the home prior to the beginning of the study.

“While we’re doing the research, we also want to be able to help the households,” said Justina Nixon-Saintil, director of energy management at Verizon Foundation. This is the first energy-efficiency project the Foundation has funded. Verizon will also offer counseling on paying down debt, saving, or being an entrepreneur with the money that participants are expected to save.

Pecan Street will be collecting data at the circuit level for each apartment, as well as through the Nest thermostat. McCracken said it could be discovered that some older appliances have bad power factors, which cost the utility far more money and could be a focus for rebates. AC compressor efficiency “falls off a cliff after about ten or fifteen years,” he noted, “and we’ll be able to quantify the difference.”

The study will also allow Pecan Street to do comparisons between the approximately 1,000 single-family homes that are part of the project and the multi-family units. There have already been some surprises. The senior center houses 35 participants, and despite the fact that this is a technology-heavy pilot, “We had the fastest signup in the senior center compared to anything I’ve ever seen,” said McCracken.

The other three buildings are owned by a low-income housing nonprofit, Foundation Community. McCracken said he hopes that in addition to gaining insight into energy use, the project can also identify some of the ways that low-income housing organizations can increase efficiency to save money for both tenants and owners.

The cost of the pilot is not necessarily replicable at other utilities, but the full data will be available to anyone who wants to leverage it, whether that’s another utility or an original equipment manufacturer.

He noted that apartment complexes are a big market for appliance makers, even if the low-income market is not necessarily a primary focus for consumer electronics companies. Other efforts, such as low-income housing units that have adopted WegoWise software, will also help shed light on the best strategies to help families and building owners save money on energy use.

“It’s exciting to take on research where there’s so little known,” McCracken said of the low-income demographic. “It’s such an important section of the market."

Watch a video introduction to the Pecan Street Project: