All Existing Homes
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
While this thread came from a discussion of pricing for Energy Star Version 3, it applies to any service you might offer. Pricing is one of the most difficult tasks you face as a business. I’ve written a related post on Firing a Client and we’ve also discussed how we set pricing for software services. Let’s start by assuming that a “good” price is one in which we have an equal exchange of money for value. What other questions should you try to answer?
- What will the market bear?
- Can you deliver the service for less without sacrificing quality?
- Are you building a business or working for wages?
- Could you scale up at the price you’ve set?
All of these questions (and there are a LOT more!) are considerations for pricing your services. I’d like to spend a few words discussing the last bullet, price versus scale. In an immature, developing service industry, there are typically a multitude of small companies, many of them sole proprietors. These companies are able to offer their services for a very low price as they have insignificant overhead; tend to have simple systems and far too often don’t understand the implications of pricing. A key factor in small business failure is attempting to fight a price war. I just wrote about this in my last post about racing to the bottom.
As an industry scales up, the assumption is that prices will drop. This is often true in product sectors. I’d like to propose a contrasting position; as an industry scales up, in order to meet market demand, prices must increase to handle increased complexity and overhead requirements. BIG CAVEAT: This presumes consistent quality of service. That is, it presumes and apples to apples comparison. If quality is eroded, then my theory doesn’t hold. I contend that the impact on the industry (any industry, but especially service industries) if quality is diminished will be negative. In my opinion, we are a trust agent industry. If and when we lose that, we all lose for a long time. Finally, as an industry achieves maturity, prices can come down again as economies of scale and other synergies come into play. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the integrity of the industry is protected.
I think it’s critical for the long term health of our industry that we all work to support and demand a high level of accountability, enforcement of standards and ethical behavior. For better or worse at the moment, we must self-police. This is not a call for collusion. It is a call for demanding quality of ourselves and our peers. In fact, we can and should explore increasing oversight and raising standards. The Rating Registry is an example of something that will benefit us all. Yes, it’s additional effort, but the payback for the industry as a whole is worth it. (We’ve got a very nice system for handling your registry woes built into our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) System iRate® if you’re interested. See this blog post on our solution!)
We work in a price sensitive environment to be sure. Builders, homeowners and utilities are cost-conscious shoppers. However, we do ourselves and our businesses no favors by racing to the bottom. In the words of Mark Twain (possibly?), “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” We’ve seen this before; markets nearly drive themselves to destruction with price wars. Quality suffers, companies go out of business, and industry integrity is damaged. It is my fervent hope that we are building an industry that will supply meaningful work that is fairly compensated–that our industry will be stable enough to grow, mature and deliver ever better service and information to our customers.
Many of us have worked long and hard to bring this industry to where it is today. And where is that? I think we’ve built a foundation of credibility for long-term, sustainable growth. It’s up to us not to screw it up.