All Existing Homes
I’ll admit, when I first began auditing I performed the obligatory utility info analysis on a home as a required part of the audit without reading into it. I printed the graphs, handed the sheets to the homeowner, explained a couple things and moved on to testing and measuring insulation. Looking back I realize how naive that was. Right before me was a great tool not being utilized, the utility bill! The one day, I handed over the keys and let the utility info take the wheel of my audit instead of the other way around.
The first step was realizing how useful it could be. I had a day, an audit, an example, that opened my eyes. I walked into the homeowner interview and asked, “Why the audit?” They responded with “Increased utility bills over the past 18 months and a warm house in the summer.” I assumed I’d be looking for the usual suspects. Then I entered the utility room, knelt down in front of the water heater and observed a recirculating pump. I’ve seen this before so I asked the homeowner when it was installed. The answer was less than two years ago. His plumber told him that the recirculating pump would help to make the house more efficient. I suppose this may have reduced water run time while waiting for warm water to reach the shower, but this wasn’t evident on the utility bills.
While putting together the report it hit me like a bug splatting on the windshield. It was right there in front of me before I even knocked on the front door. I saw an increase in water heating energy use following the install of the new water heater. The increased water heating load added another small monthly amount to bills. Then I pulled out my infrared camera and began pointing it at interior walls. Low and behold I was looking at warm wall cavities where the plumbing lines ran through the house. During the summer this warmed the house and caused the air conditioning to run more. With tiered rates in place during the peak use summer months this bumped up the bills even more.
Now, we haven’t emptied the tank getting more insight from the utility bills just yet. It turns out they are extremely useful when prioritizing recommended improvements and creating a simple return on investment. I’ve learned that most homeowners equate efficiency with lower utility bills. You can’t ignore this when making recommendations. Take for instance; installing a high efficiency furnace when the heating energy use is already low. If they don’t currently spend much money heating the house this will make the payback stretch further out. It’s hard to save 20%-30% on heating bills when your BTU’s per square foot are already low.
It’s best not to lose sight of one of the reasons we are in the house to begin with… to lower utility bills. Although there are many other components to a Home Efficiency Audit, they all need to fit together nicely to produce optimal results.
- Brad Smith
- EnergyLogic Rater and Auditor
My neighbor, “Bob”, invited us over for a beer to proudly tell me how he had signed up to have an energy audit performed on his home and he recognized our company name, EnergyLogic. The reason for the audit? His energy bills have been very high and he has decided to get solar installed; the audit will qualify him for some additional rebates.
I couldn’t resist … “Tell me a little bit about what you’re getting done?” I asked him. He was very excited to describe how helpful the solar company had been to do all the work to analyze his bills, design a system to meet his current needs, do all the paperwork for the federal rebate (that went directly to them to help reduce the cost of the system) and to work out all the financing with the utility that would bring his average electric bills down from $250/month to a fixed rate of only $180 … for the next 40 years.
I tried not to sigh too loudly or garner the stink-eye from my wife, but I just had to ask, “So, what are the putting in?”
“A 16kW system,” he replied. “Just 4kW short of commercial grade.” He seemed almost proud, as if the solar sales person had convinced him this was a good thing.
Ugh … here comes the stink-eye. I’d better hold my tongue.
Bob’s a pretty smart guy – he owns his own business, he has an engineering degree and I’ve always found him to be pretty thoughtful about things. However, this seems like signing up for chemotherapy because you aren’t feeling well, and then making the appointment to see your doctor.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against solar (or chemotherapy) – when it makes sense, but to go down that path without first having a full check-up performed seems a bit ill-considered. I can’t fault Bob so much, I think he was duped by one of the less scrupulous solar sales people. After all, why would they recommend an audit before they did the specifications for the system and had a signature on the dotted line? What if they lost the sale?
I can understand after-the-fact audits (to qualify for rebates) in situations like a furnace that has stopped working or some other time-sensitive event. But it still baffles me that utilities and others allow such expensive and questionable work to be performed and the homeowner will still qualify for the rebates before having an audit performed.
Back to Bob – With such an investment already underway I tried to choose my words carefully. I told him our auditors could probably make some additional efficiency recommendations he should consider. They would likely help decrease his actual energy use whereas the solar system was merely controlling the cost. Unfortunately, my genteel way of saying, “You did this backwards,” was not lost on Bob and I could see the look of dread on his face. On the bright side, I enjoyed the free beer and at least for a moment, Bob wasn’t too mad. What else can you do?
Quite often I step backward and look outside the badge of a BPI auditor and put myself in the shoes of a homeowner. A homeowner whose home I’m about to pick apart. For the most part homeowners are happy to have us there. We’re there to help, not to sell. They expect us to make recommendations telling them what should be improved. They expect, “Fix or replace this, and your house will be better.” What they don’t expect is the education that comes with it. With an understanding of how these recommendations make a difference, homeowners could save thousands.
On a recent assessment of a home I was told the main interest in having an audit was to confirm the need to replace an induced draft furnace with a sealed combustion furnace. The homeowner was replacing a sensor that was failing every few months. An HVAC contractor suggested buying a sealed combustion furnace. Ta Da! Problem fixed. Not so fast.
It should be noted that the furnace was located in the crawl space; and a vented crawl space to boot. This was a big factor in several issues, one of which was the routine replacement of the sensor, the comfort in the rooms above the crawl space and poor indoor air quality. The thinking was that the sealed combustion furnace would reduce or eliminate the likelihood that the sensor would need to be replaced often and that the air flow would be better to the rooms above, increasing comfort.
As you know, a new furnace doesn’t address the root of the problem. This is where educating the homeowner is valuable. We need to make sure they understand why we recommend the improvements we do. We sat down to discuss why the problems existed in the first place and how a new furnace will still leave them with their current problem.
First, let’s look at the sensor problem. The dry, dry dirt in the crawl space was being pulled into the furnace housing and collecting on the sensor. What he needs is to install a sealed barrier over the ground of the crawl space, preventing premature failure of the furnace. More importantly, this would improve indoor air quality. Next was to address the comfort issue in the floor above the crawl space. With a new furnace and increased air flow to rooms, the vented crawl space would still allow cool air to directly impact the floor above. To truly fix this would be to seal the crawl space vents, air seal and insulate the rim joist and insulate the walls. This was an easier fix and less expensive than replacing the furnace. The homeowner understood and agreed, then decided to pursue improving the crawl space.
In the end, recommendations for improvements are a lot more beneficial if the homeowner has basic understanding of the science behind those recommendations. Too bad there is not a Cliffs Notes of basic building science for homeowners.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of being one of six judges @ the America’s Best Installer Contest sponsored by Johns Manville and Insulate America. Twenty four of the best insulation installers from around the country descended on Denver to compete for the $10,000 top prize.
Having inspected a few thousand insulation installs, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to see at this competition. I have long believed that quality and speed are opposing forces with regards to insulation installs. The amazing thing about these installers is that they are able to combine the two. Congrats to Nicholas Forehand of Orchard Park, N.Y.-based Northwind Insulation, who was “America’s Best Insulation Installer” of 2013!
Insulators are the unsung heroes of new home construction and I am very thankful to the sponsors for helping bring them the credit they so richly deserve.
Are you a rater, auditor, or installer who is thinking of advancing your career by obtaining a new credential? It’s been said that our industry has caught a case of certificationitis. And it is true that there have been a lot of new certifications within the last year or so. So how do you make sense of it all? Read on.
I received a large envelope in the mail recently. It was from the Building Performance Institute, informing me that I have been awarded the new Quality Control Inspector certification. BPI does a really good job when they award certification- including a letter, a nice color certificate, ID card, and even some BPI patches if you want to create your own swag. So, you can imagine that I was feeling a little bit of pride. But then, someone asked me to explain in plain terms what this would allow me to do and how it would impact my job.
I thought for a minute. As I did so, the wind in my sails subsided. The short answer is, absolutely nothing. At least in the short term, I won’t be doing anything any different than I was already doing. There is no new work out there for me, no new program that I can participate in today that I couldn’t already participate in. So why did I bother to obtain this new certification? I’ll get to that. First, I thought it would be helpful to outline some of the new credentials out there, how you obtain them, and how to determine if they would benefit your…
In the existing homes energy auditing world there is always the question of how to get the right information in the right context to the homeowner. Ultimately, our goal is for them to take charge of improving the comfort and efficiency of their home. If we lose them in industry jargon and tech speak, they won’t have any idea where to start. If they are confused, they will become disinterested in the process as a whole. All of the hard work we’ve done to gather the information will be lost as nothing will get done.
What I have found while working for EnergyLogic is the importance of talking to most clients in plain English, withholding the urge to speak in technical terms. If we speak too technically, we can confuse the homeowner.
Of course, this isn’t true for every homeowner. Some are very educated in the efficiency world, and to these we can speak in a more technical manor. But beware of the homeowner who knows everything. In these cases, let them speak their minds while giving them thoughtful “suggestions” along the way. Try to steer them toward correct information and away from the ‘radiant barrier sales pitches’.
During an audit we need to decipher the level of efficiency education every individual client has. Then we cater our communication style to that person so that they better understand what is needed to improve their energy efficiency. Communication is the most important aspect of an auditor’s job. Without the correct level of communication, we’ve not done our jobs correctly.
Home Energy Auditor
EnergyLogic, Inc. – Wyoming
Have you ever stepped into the tub and encountered one of these fellows? If so, did you wonder, “Where in the heck are all the spiders coming from?”
Well, the answer is directly related to how energy efficient your home may be. I know! Who would have thought that?
Here’s what’s up. Spiders, perhaps not surprisingly, come from the great outdoors. If you have them in your home, at some point they came in from the outside. No matter how uncomfortable and drafty your home is, it’s probably nicer than living in the rain or literally freezing to death in the winter. So, spiders and all of their other insect friends come in from outside through the holes in your home. The more holes you have, the more bugs you probably have (and dust by the way). The same creepy crawly highways are pathways for air to move into and out of your home. Whenever that is happening, energy and money goes along hand in hand.
So, we’ve had a bunch more spiders this summer than other summers. I happen to know that I have a fairly substantial (to an insect) hole in my home that I didn’t have last summer. Now, it happens to be a hole where new solar water heating lines are running, but regardless, I haven’t sealed it up properly and thus I laid out the welcome mat for my eight legged friends. Winter is coming (yes, enjoy that my fellow Game of Thrones fans!) so it’s time to seal up the holes, keep the bugs on the outside and keep the conditioned air on the inside. You’ll save money and avoid the early morning adrenaline rush of your teenage daughters and wife screaming as their toes hit the porcelain and things start scurrying!
Our tenants recently vacated a rental house we own and I posted an ad seeking new ones. We got a quick response from a gentleman who was very interested and came over to look at the house right away. The house is nothing fancy — a mid-sized 3-bedroom ranch built in the early 1950′s — but he said it was perfect … bigger than their current house and in great shape. Oh, one thing … was it okay if he and his wife had eight kids?
We need to rent it, but the thought of a family of 10 hadn’t really crossed my mind. After all, when we lived in the house it was just me, my wife and two kids – it seemed just about right. But who am I to say how many you can fit in a house? I talked with my wife and we discussed such a small amount of space for so many kids, the wear and tear on the carpet-blinds-appliances, damage we’d seen from far fewer occupants, and how the neighbors might react. You know, the normal stuff you think about with 10 people living under one roof.
Then I happened to mention my situation to one of my coworkers here at EnergyLogic, and his thoughts made me realize I have not yet graduated to “Energy Geek”. Was he concerned with the space, wear and tear or neighbors? Nope. He wanted to know if I’d considered the DHW use and the HW heating demand that would occur with so many occupants – could our systems handle it? And what about the moisture issues that come with increased occupants – did we have proper venting? Did we have older wiring that might not be able to handle plug loads from teens using computers, watching TV or charging the various array of other electronics? Internal heat gains – had I even thought about them?
Ummmm … no, no, no and no.
I guess I have a ways to go before I’ve been converted from a homeowner into an Energy Geek.
Your level of customer service is based on your ability to communicate well.
Whether you are selling or providing a service, your communication skills dictate your success. As an auditor, my ability to communicate effectively is the most important part of my job.
I start by parking where they can clearly see my car with our company logo on it. I approach each customer with a clear and open state of mind. Before I get out of my car I take a deep breath and smile. This can put me in a better mood even on the worst of days. I use eye contact when greeted at the door. Would you trust someone in your house if they couldn’t look you in the eye? I also make sure to get their name while shaking their hands.
To be an effective communicator, you must first be a great listener. Ask questions, read the situation. Listen. Out in the field I meet folks that are very receptive and want to learn as much from me as possible. Others want nothing to with the entire process, and I’m just the avenue to getting them specific rebates (mainly people that want windows). Act accordingly with patience.
There are different ways to treat different kinds of people. You will find customers who want to learn from you, which is why we are there in the first place. It can be difficult to complete your audit in time as they want to walk with you and talk the whole time. At the beginning of every audit, I like to give the client a rundown of what will happen. E.g. “First, I will complete your audit, and then invite you to join me throughout the home for examples of how you can improve your energy efficiency.”
Some customers may be having a bad day or are just angry people. Some feel the need to argue anything, as they seem to already know everything and aren’t open to suggestions. It’s an art to get them to accept new ideas. I often hear myself say things like, “You could also think of it this way,” or “You probably already know this, but…”
Auditors tend to deal with elderly quite often. I always treat them with great respect; they respond well to sir/ma’am, and really appreciate it. I’ve met some of the most wonderful elderly people, and I’ve been rewarded with a few homemade treats!
Every day I am a teacher of energy efficiency, and every day I am a student of customer service and communication. Remember you are only at a home for a short time. Always be kind and courteous, and be the best communicator you can.
Energy Rater and Auditor
One of the best (and perhaps obvious?) uses of the HERS index is to enable homebuilders to draw a very clear distinction between the homes they build and existing homes that are on the market. Much of the focus for builders right now is to distinguish their homes from the glut of existing homes on the market, many of which are priced significantly lower than new homes. While most buyers certainly know that a new home will be more efficient than an existing home, few have any idea of just how much better any given home is.
Enter the HERS Index, which provides a buyer with a concrete means of seeing just how much more efficient new homes are than existing homes. For example, a typical home that EnergyLogic performs an energy rating on in Colorado has a HERS Score around 70. A typical existing home will have a score well above 100, most commonly around 130. It’s a relative index, with low scores being better scores. So, a home that is a 70 is nearly twice as efficient as a home at 130. The HERS Index is the foundation for most efficiency and green programs. The excellent blog “Nice House, But Is It Legal?”, from the Rocky Mountain Institute has a fantastic graphic showing where various programs and codes fall on the Index.
The HERS Index is a powerful tool for builders to demonstrate the superiority of their product versus the existing home competition. Builders across the nation are adopting the HERS Index as part of their marketing programs both to compete with existing homes but also to compete with other new homes. In many areas, builders, working with energy rating firms, are developing marketing plans that have the HERS Index at the core of their message to potential buyers. The simplicity and multiple value add aspects of performing a HERS Rating; quality assurance, code compliance, process improvement (just to name a few) are making energy ratings ever more sensible for builders today.
CEO of EnergyLogic