Lessons from Energy Efficiency Advisors: Getting Homeowners Onboard with Home Performance

Homeowners are often aware of the different problems they experience in their homes: uncomfortable rooms, high utility bills, poor indoor air quality, etc. However, homeowners are generally unfamiliar with the concept of Home Performance, the Whole House approach, and how energy efficiency upgrades can address these concerns. We regularly hear these stories and find that by listening, asking the right questions, educating, and providing guidance, we can help homeowners feel comfortable with a whole home approach and help them address their concerns. 

Populus, LLC administers the Home Upgrade Advisor service for the Bay Area Regional Energy Network and is very familiar with the barriers for homeowners to complete comprehensive energy upgrades. As a third party implementer and advising service for efficiency programs around the country, Populus is committed to helping homeowners understand the value of Home Performance and take advantage of whole house efficiency upgrades and program incentives. 

We find that once homeowners really understand the concepts and benefits of a Whole House approach, they are much more likely to get on board and they often end up pursuing multiple efficiency upgrades. Even better, those upgrades often address many different concerns, which they may have been unaware of originally. The end result is an overall better quality of life, reduction in energy use, better protection against future utility rate increases, and a very satisfied family. 

However, because Home Performance is not yet a widely recognized concept and solution for various issues homeowners are experiencing every day, it often takes extra effort to get someone on board who would otherwise really benefit from an energy upgrade. For contractors, it requires more time, resources, and a strong commitment to Home Performance in order to help educate your average homeowner. For homeowners, the overwhelming nature of Building Science (not to mention the different energy efficiency programs and requirements, complexity of the various solutions, etc.) can leave them feeling overwhelmed, pressured, and unclear about the significant impact that taking a Whole Home approach can have. Homeowners also have the option to work with non-home performance contractors who often offer lower prices. From their perspective, insulation is insulation, right? These are common barriers that Populus is able to address through our third party advisor model and by taking a “People First, Buildings Second℠” approach.

By focusing on the homeowner first and uncovering their primary concerns and motivators for pursuing an energy efficiency upgrade, Populus Advisors are able to develop trusting relationships with homeowners and ensure that they really understand the various concepts and benefits associated with a whole home approach in a way that makes sense to them. We then provide homeowners with time, resources, and guidance throughout the entire process to ensure that they have access to the resources necessary for them to feel comfortable and confident about moving forward with a whole home upgrade. Because Populus is an independent third party, homeowners can trust that their Advisor is not trying to sell them on upgrades they don’t need which helps them feel reassured about moving forward with projects. Through this approach Populus is able to drive higher participation and larger projects in Home Performance programs.

Insulation is not just insulation and a furnace is not just another furnace - there is a much bigger system and picture to consider and understand. A commitment to helping homeowners understand what we as BPI Building Analysts and home performance professionals know and practice plays one of the most important roles in homeowner involvement and commitment to energy efficiency and should be a core principle for anybody trying to get homeowners involved. 

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Tags: Advising, Barriers, Efficiency, Energy, Home, Lessons, Performance, Populus

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Comment by tedkidd on July 28, 2014 at 9:37am

David, 

Please think some of these things through.  If programs suck so much, how can you suggest a program on such a massive scale?  Rebuilding all houses over 50 years old?  I'm for social and political balance.  This wouldn't be capitalism balanced with socialism, it would require communism.  Besides, a lot of old houses are pretty energy efficient, or pretty easily made so.  

Also, do you really believe the inability to sell comprehensive projects that don't have Warren Buffett style "paybacks" is "proof" that low payback sales can't be done?  

I have no trouble selling large projects with 100 year energy savings payback.  "I can't do it, therefore it must not be possible."?  That's crazy.  Flat earth thinking.  I'm pretty familiar with this thinking.  Failure to sell larger projects is a process problem.  Your process is all wrong.  

Most people's process is completely product sales oriented.  This perversity, and lack of ANY guidance on the part of the "Home Performance" industry on how to bridge from product sales to consultative solutions sales is creating huge bottlenecks in design, decision making, and delivery.  

Maybe your process isn't wrong...  Is it possible you are content with your process and your jobs?  Is it possible you are looking for justification for taking easy sales and not selling deeper retrofits?  This may not be true in YOUR case, but I believe most that say "it can't be done" are much more interested in justification than in change.  For most expedience trumps integrity.  In their defense, change is hard, particularly when those pushing for it provide no path to consultative selling.

I view this as a huge failure on the part of BPI and programs.  "Here's some science, go deliver it to homeowners..."

I've found the primary motive people have audits is NOT because they think it's some financial panacea, and the "salesmen" bring their bias to the consumer and pollute the opportunity.  Like some sort of virus, they infect their prospects with poor thinking on how to gauge value and make decisions about design.  Are you really being called in as an investment advisor?  Or is your thinking "stuck" on this issue (as mine was in the beginning)?  Do you personally feel EE improvements must justify, so your presentation, all your language, is perverted by your bias?  

I believe it is our job to educate the consumer, understand the problems, help them develop a budget for solving problems, and develop designs that leverage their budget and EE opportunity into the most comprehensive and well tailored solution possible.  

It takes investment of time and rigor many aren't interested or capable of.  They'd rather sell products than solutions.  That's OK, but it shouldn't be called Comprehensive Performance Contracting. 

Again, I have no trouble selling large projects with no payback.  If the conversation starts shifting to payback, I shift the conversation back to the problems.  "Why am I here?"  Nate Adams and I are proof this can be done, that consumers don't care about "Payback,"  they care about getting what they paid for at the price they were told they would pay.   It requires slowing down and building partnerships.  We are attempting to help those that are interested jump the gap from selling boxes to designing comprehensive solutions...

Comment by David Eakin on July 28, 2014 at 8:42am

Consultation and education are all well and good, but we have found that the "cost-effective" point of remedial recommendations needs to have a 5-year ROI. Anything longer and the customer loses interest. And education will not reverse the current, pervasive mentality that home building/renovation/remodeling is not a commodity (i.e., it is only the price that matters). Any education to the contrary will be viewed as a sales gimmick to pay more for what is viewed as a commodity. And Ted is right - incentive programs are an epic fail. Anything government comes up with is always short-term (current budget cycle) and always involves throwing $ at contractors/consultants in hopes that something improves (there is no other mechanism open to them). This is what happens always when individual responsibility is taken over by government. And anyone that believes they are getting anything for free deserves what they get.

This is why I have been a strong advocate for 2 revolutionary strategies:

1. Have a singular, uniform, nation-wide building code that requires current building science methods. This way, no individual township/borough/state/whatever has the option of not implementing it. Everyone will play by the same rules. Make it part of a national energy strategy. Setting standards and measuring compliance is what government is really good at, not providing services or goods.

2. Retire all old (I'd advocate 50 year old) housing stock that is not deemed historic. Historic designations have their own set of rules to comply with and people who want to live like it is 1800 can purchase same. For all others, either demo/rebuild or gut/rehab to current building codes. This will completely collapse the current real estate business model so I'd  anticipate a huge push-back from them. However it would revitalize the building/housing/testing industry, bring our nation much closer to energy independence, and greatly improve the living conditions of everyone everywhere.

Comment by tedkidd on July 19, 2014 at 11:44am

I'm all for cost effectiveness testing. I think public dollars should be spent cost effectively, and given the current state of the industry (30-60% realization rates!?) cost effectiveness is being grossly overstated, consumers are being lied to on a mammoth scale, and there is a lot of room for improvement.

I'm against cost effectiveness testing on private dollars. It is not up to the government to decide for consumers whether an investment makes sense. And creating pass/fail cliffs causes too much risk (FUD) for businesses and consumers.

Who wants to invest a lot of time in diagnostics and design for a project that may not get approval because it doesn't meet an arbitrary level of "cost effectiveness"? The problem is when you tie incentive to total job cost, cost effectiveness becomes tethered to both public AND private EE dollars and these silly cliffs are created, and the lies become necessity.

It's not surprising this industry doesn't scale, and it won't until it can tell the truth. Programs have to stop forcing the industry to lie with these perverse incentive designs.

Part of the solution will be creating recognition and reward for excellence. I wrote about how that might look here: http://bit.ly/TrustTransparencyTruth

Low reimbursement "Free Audits" have to go away. Audits in NY have become a complete joke. Instead of "diagnose, model, design, consult" they have become "walk through and see if there's stuff I can hard sell TODAY." Nobody is learning design because it's too expensive given the terrible "free" approach to prospect acquisition. It's a cancerous cycle - lots of crappy prospects being given lots of crappy recommendations hoping to make a sale. This is damaging workforce and consumer trust.

If energy efficiency programs are truly about energy efficiency, remove cliffs by simply paying for energy efficiency. Then any project that saves ANYTHING qualifies. Pay for the Negawatt, get out of the business of dictating design and stifling EE innovation, creating administrative hurdles and hoops that only foster more pointless administration.

It's an incredibly simple market signalling tool. Like bank rates. Simple, powerful, adjustable tool. Just determine what the value is of a negawatt and pay that.

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