The Google Earth of IR Images—Q&A With Storm Duncan

By now you may have heard about drive-by energy audits. But have you heard of drive-by energy audits performed on entire cities at the same time? Say hello to the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, Essess. Essess (pronounced like “recess” without the “r”) has recently entered the home performance scene, and they’re making a lot of noise. In just a couple of weeks, we here at Home Energy received multiple emails from friends and partners in the industry asking us if we’d heard about them. (The first time we hadn’t.)

Intrigued by the idea behind a company that collects whole city by whole city IR images across the U.S., we decided to look further. The following is a conversation we had with Essess’ CEO, Storm Duncan.

Home Energy: When was Essess founded?
Storm Duncan: Essess started as a field lab project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I’ve been working on it for about 3 years. I got involved through a mutual friend, a rabid environmentalist who is focused on the issues of the world. I saw Essess’ technology and got really excited.

HE: What has the reaction been to your "drive-by" energy audits?
SD: To say it’s been ecstatic is an understatement. The company’s initial strategy was in selling the IR pictures to homeowners and building owners, but we quickly learned that was not a sustainable or viable strategy. Instead we thought, ‘How can give this image to customers so that they want to engage?’

We altered the model and realized that the images are conversation piece for everyone from utilities to contractors. We’re even getting calls from customers who don’t do energy work, like insurance companies. They say, ‘Information around energy efficiency is valuable to me…now I can talk to my customers and talk to them about my services on a monthly basis.’

HE: What is Essess' company goals in the next year? In 5 years?
SD:
Our first short-term goal is to get the product out and perfected in terms of the customers. Another is to turn this into a sustainable company, transcending from a business perspective as opposed to environmental perspective.

In the long-term, we want to be the epicenter for conversation around the home and the environment. Our motto is ‘saving the world by saving you money.’  We want to make the home cheaper and safer, and bettering the environment is an effect of that. You won’t see anything on our website that says we have an ecological mission. We’re building this site for the customer; our needs are secondary.

HE: What technology do you use to get the thermal images and house information?
SD: The simple answer is that instead of taking a regular picture of a house, we take a picture that identifies all the leaks in the building, and we tell you how much each of those leaks costs you.

The complicated answer is that we’ve assembled a multi-spectral camera that goes on top of moving vehicle. There are actually 13 different cameras on top of one vehicle. We then stitch all of those images into one high-resolution 3-D thermal image. With that, we then run the image through a number of programs that tell us radiation losses, convective losses, and conductive losses. Once we identify that, we determine how much energy is being lost and then how much each leak costs per month and per year.

The technology only takes photos of the building envelope, using it as engagement. If someone wants a comprehensive audit, we send them to a partner company. It’s all about engagement and not ending that dialogue. We’re now able to tell homeowners why they are saving more energy than their neighbor, and we can break it down granularly.

HE: How is this information presented to your customers?
SD: A customer can come to the site and buy their image, but we’d like to ideally connect them to a partner. That customer probably has a partner they trust (their utility or realtor, for example), and we really want to figure out who they already trust and connect those people.

So the way it works is similar to Google Earth. When you come to our site, you can zoom into your home and click on it and say ‘this is my home.’ You’ll have to prove you are the homeowner, and then you can engage in any way you want. You can buy the image or if you answer more questions, you can. In that case, we offer solutions for fixing leaks and connecting them to others. Our goal is to make this service free for the homeowner, which is why partnerships become important. Right now, we have to charge, but it’s affordable.

HE: How many homes have you taken images of so far?
SD: We took images of 4-million buildings this winter and by the end of the year we’ll be somewhere between 10-15-million images. We’re ramping up to do the whole country and we’ll eventually re-do each home every year so we can get seasonal readings and keep the images as up to date as possible with remodels, upgrades, etcetera.

HE: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
SD:
The one thing that has been confusing to some folks is that a lot of people think of us as a competitor. Our goal is to partner will all kinds of organizations—solar companies, companies that do audits and retrofits, thermographers—to use our technology to engage customers. Our goal is to be a facilitator rather than a displacer.

You can learn more about Essess on their web site.

This blog originally appeared on HomeEnergy.org.

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Comment by Storm Duncan on June 10, 2012 at 6:45pm

Thank you all for your comments.  We have been working fervently to deliver this product to the marketplace and hope to provide something valuable to the community.  Let me try to address a few of the questions raised here, but of course I am free to chat live with anyone further if desired...just send me a note at storm@essess.com

 

We have worked extensively with leading privacy lawyers as well as thought leaders and NGO's in the privacy community to deliver our product in a manner that addresses the very important issues alluded to by Scott.  We built our entire system using the Privacy by Design methodology to make sure that we balance the needs of improving the energy efficiency of home with a respect for people's personal property.  The full thermal images we capture on residential buildings will only be available to a verified residential owner of that particular property at their request.  While this of course places a limitation on the distribution of our images, we felt it was important to prioritize the access to our images in this way to gain the trust and respect of the home owner.

 

Armando also raises an important point - verification of our technology. Our technology was spun out of the MIT field labs and was the subject of one of our co-founders PhD dissertation.  Additionally we have engaged the leading M&V consulting firm to perform a thorough independent analysis of our technology.  We are also working with several of the largest national home performance contracting firms and energy audit firms and are performing additional M&V with them.  We have had our product extensively tested already by the Department of Defense for a contract we won for auditing residential and commercial/industrial buildings on military basis in the United States.  We will continue to improve our technology over time as we grow, and will continue to seek the help of independent experts in reviewing our technology, as this is critical to our company's and our industry's ability to earn and maintain the trust and respect of building owners.

 

We believe we have created something that can be helpful to everyone's efforts to reduce energy consumption in the built environment, and welcome any and all thoughts, comments, and advice you all might have.  It will take a community approach to solve this problem and we appreciate any support, help and guidance you can share.

 

Thank you,

Storm

Comment by Scott Suddreth on June 7, 2012 at 9:02am

Didn't we see this approach in Home Energy (front cover) a few years back looking at Canadian satellite map info? It seemed like the discussion was is this process LEGAL? I was told by Advanced Energy in Raleigh that they met legal resistance to this out west citing public information laws as did the article. Have you met any resistance to this on legal terms - taking this data without the customers consent? Don't get me wrong - i think its a fantastic process - but just wanting to make sure its allowed. 

Comment by Armando Cobo on June 7, 2012 at 6:59am

Interesting technology development and it could be a great improvement for our business, but the skeptic in me asks if they have validated or compare their results of their program with “old fashion” independent energy audits. Just because they give you some results, it doesn’t mean they are right…

Comment by David Meiland on June 6, 2012 at 8:49pm

You oughta buy stock in them, phil.

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