5 Common Mistakes of New Energy Auditors

Energy AuditorNo doubt if you follow energy or environmental issues, you’ve heard over and over again that the least expensive way to tackle our energy difficulties is through efficiency. One report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) suggested that $168.6 billion could be saved through energy efficiency by 2020. Still, some of those close to the ground have heard horror stories on how the whole process is sometimes carried out in real life.


Significant energy savings cannot happen without a comprehensive energy audit. Quality energy audits followed by sound retrofits result in substantial energy savings. Poorly executed energy audits, no matter how good the retrofit, result in lower-than-expected savings, wasted investment, angry building owners, and a bad name for energy conservation.


Studies have shown a wide discrepancy in actual savings after energy audits. While some projects have delivered energy savings of less than 10% of original energy costs, others have successfully delivered savings of 40% and more.


This divergence is not a mystery. Experienced energy auditors have learned to avoid the mistakes that lead to underperforming retrofits, disappointed customers and a struggling referral business. Persuading homeowners and businesses of the benefits of energy efficiency can often feel like an uphill battle; there is no need to add the barrier of a poor review by committing the mistakes others have made.

Mistake #1 – Underestimating Installed Costs and/or overestimating savings


One can reasonably expect that if they install energy efficient light bulbs, they will lower their energy bill. But exactly how much will they save and how much more do the efficient light bulbs cost? These questions should be right up an energy auditor’s alley, but too often their answers promise higher benefits than should reasonably be expected. Overestimated savings arise from poor modeling, incorrect measurements or assumptions, or not accounting for the interactive effects between improvements. It also is tempting for energy auditors (especially those who are also trained retrofit installers) to bias the assumptions to make an improvement seem more appealing, but this will only hurt business in the long run.


Just like overestimating savings, underestimating installed costs can be a serious mistake, especially because the installed cost estimate after an energy audit often serves as the owner’s initial budget for the retrofit. When subsequent bid costs are received by the owner, and are higher than originally expected, there is a greater risk of the improvement being abandoned altogether.

Mistake # 2 –Using Simple payback instead of life-cycle costing


In addition to the two questions above, there is an additional question that energy auditors should ask themselves, even if the owner doesn't think of it. That is – how long will the improvement last. Life-cycle costing has gained wide acceptance in federal and state program, as a more holistic metric for energy improvements than simple payback.

Simple payback cannot distinguish between the merits of two improvements with the same payback, which may have dramatically different expected lifetimes. For example, a boiler tune-up and a lighting replacement may both have a payback period of one year. But the boiler will need another tune up only two years later, while the lighting will last over 10 years. An experienced energy auditor will present the owner with a savings-to-investment ratio and return on investment, as opposed to simple payback periods.

Mistake #3 – A great HVAC system is a great HVAC system


Many energy auditors transferred their skills from careers in the Heating and Air Conditioning industry. It actually comes as a surprise to many of them when they learn that it doesn't matter how great the HVAC system is - if the house is not efficient, the homeowner is not getting what they paid for. It is crucial for energy auditors to internalize the 'house as a system' approach, where inefficiencies in one place have affects on the rest of the systems. Likewise, if the house is perfectly sealed from air infiltration, and is using an inefficient HVAC system, there are serious savings being missed. The real value of an energy auditor comes from their ability to view a home comprehensively.

Mistake #4 – Being thorough


This one may seem obvious, and is probably common in every industry. Still, one study conducted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) found that 80% of energy audits missed at least three potential improvements. Even worse, these neglected improvements were not always the “deep” retrofits that have larger investments and longer payback periods; the study found that many readily available improvements were often missed. There may be reasons for this; insufficient training, lack of budget, and/or following owner's directions to not evaluate specific areas, but often thoroughness is the real culprit.


Energy auditors need to evaluate all reasonable improvements to give the owner options from which to choose improvements for retrofitting. Often times it is quicker to go off the template of a previous audit. Experienced auditors know that it is critically important that prior audits not be used as templates for energy audits, because there is a high risk of mistakenly carrying forward material or assumptions from a different situation.

Mistakes #5 - Not keeping a good record of previous audits and ACTUAL energy savings


While having a BPI Certification is a crucial first step to building an established energy auditing business, certification is simply authority to act, not confirmation of ability. Experienced auditors know that all the certifications, government incentives and marketing in the world cannot build a sustainable business model like solid testimonials and customer referrals can. Too many auditors will perform their work, make suggestions and then move on to look for the next job.

While starting out, auditors should start working on case studies or testimonials of what they've done, why they did it and the results (both immediate and long term savings and comfortability). For instance, most customers will remark how much warmer they felt, and how much they save each month on their utility bills. The difference between a service ‘that can save up to 40% each month’ and one that ‘saved The Sterne Family an average of $80 each month’ is enormous.
 
Hopefully this list will help future energy auditors avoid the common mistakes that many have made before them. Although there is no substitute for the proper training and real-world experience, having an idea of what to avoid and what to focus on can mean the difference between success and failure in this competitive industry.

This post originally appeared on the CleanEdison Blog

Views: 1280

Tags: auditing, bpi, certification, common, energy, mistakes

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Comment by John Redmond on February 4, 2013 at 7:46am

Daniel...I would have to agree with you in that a full blown-in energy audit is not necessary in all occasions. In order to determine whether it is or not, we sit down with the homeowner to find out what they are looking to accomplish with the work they are looking to do. Their budget will ultimately determine whether they want to pay additional money to have a full modeling performed. In a lot of cases, I tell them that I would rather they take their limited funds and put it towards something that will actually save them money...the retrofit itself, instead of performing a full-blown audit. Remember, an energy audit never saved one kilowatt!!!

While I understand that I will probably be raked over the coals for this stance, and following the same for my own business model, Daniel is correct that as professional energy auditors/home performance contractors, we already know where 80% of the energy loss is coming from before we even step foot in the home. Our expertise and commensurate diagnostic tools allow us to seek out those areas that are not necessarily out in the open to the naked eye, or from those areas that defy conventional wisdom.

My belief is that we as an industry have done enough measuring; let's start to save people on their energy bills and raise their level of overall comfort in their homes. We can continue to measure until the cows come home, but it is doing nothing to accomplish what our homeowner clients have called us for. That is not to say that our tools should not be used in some instances, or that they should not ALWAYS be utilized DURING THE RETROFIT for health and safety purposes.

For instance, if we are air sealing a home, we will ALWAYS run a blower door and pressure pans to maximize our effectiveness and make sure that we are not tightening the home too much without proper ventilation...but I don't not need a blower door or an infrared camera to determine that a home's 1000 square feet of kneewall needs to be backed.

Too many in this industry over-emphasize the scientific side of our business models. It really is not rocket science. It should definitely be used to make us more effective in our work, and that will result in happier homeowners. After all, we always endeavor to under-promise and over-deliver. But getting stuck on the diagnostic side of the business, will eventually make us forget why we have been called into the home in the first place. As the industry grows, the sheen on our pretty diagnostic tools we keep in the truck will eventually wear off and we will be wondering where all of the lost opportunities we had were lost.

Comment by Bradford E. White on February 4, 2013 at 7:39am

To Daniel Cullen-

I agree, solid article. Also am in total agreement regarding low hanging fruit. No sense in fine tuning the hydrodynamics of an ocean liner with a gash below the waterline. 

When doing a typical energy audit (blower door test usually with infra-red),I go around and close storm windows, make sure summer window AC units are put away, basically make the house replicate a "normal winter condition". Interior doors I leave all open for a full volume test, but then a second or third string with basement doors closed and/or attic doors closed if this is the normal winter condition.

Beyond the above, I will seal up obvious leaks but this is highly subjective.  A leak source may be a drain pipe that was knocked off and never sealed, obvious daylight gaps around the sill, those things that make any test results too wide or not indicative of a normal winter condition.  Sort of like closing a door that is ajar, but am walking a line when I do this.

Typically I will push off doing an audit if the amount of rudimentary sealing is extensive and requires more time than I have. (I am not a weatherization contractor but an independent auditor so keep away from doing the actual long-term sealing but if you are a weatherization contractor doing a "day of beauty", have at it). Too many daylight openings, ill-fitting doors, lack of fireplace dampers...

On this last point, there is some allowance for taping over an open fireplace or using a chimney balloon to prevent a soot storm, I suppose one admits defeat because the natural condition is lost. That is another topic..

Some homeowners want an audit anyway, even if it means they cannot reach 50 Pascals. I advise against it from a practicality standpoint, but if they insist, it is an informed decision. I can see the appeal of saying, "we went from not being able to make 35 Pa to less than 2,500 CFM50"... but this creates a false bottom line.  If a deep energy retrofit is in the cards, these higher numbers are sometimes desirable by owners, (greater bragging rights to be compare to the final test).   So it is a fine line we walk sometimes.

Comment by Daniel Cullen on February 4, 2013 at 6:49am

good solid article. thanks! may i make one small quibble? in our energy auditing and home inspecting experience the homes we see have so many blatant and obvious energy issues that a full audit is not needed. we typically do a simple walk through of the home and give the homeowner a game plan for grabbing that ubiquitous low hanging fruit we hear so much about. we encourage them to do the simple air-sealing, ventilation, insulation, and hvac improvements and THEN, consider a full audit with blower door, duct blaster, thermal scan, etc.   anyone else following this approach?  we're happy to be told that we're idiots and should be doing things in a totally different manner. thanks. 

Comment by Curt Kinder on February 4, 2013 at 6:47am

I'm not BPI-Certified, yet somehow have managed to deliver shallow-to-deep energy retrofits that are proven (by the utility meter, every 30 days) to deliver 20-60% energy savings. I don't even stay at Holiday Inn much anymore.

Some comments on the specifics above:

1) - no objection there - both the installed cost and savings need to be reasonably accurate

2) Life Cycle costing is appropriate - our reports highlight the payback period compared with expected life. New windows generally fail this test. CFL bulbs pass with flying colors.

3) HVAC efficiency vs house efficiency leaves out the most important element marrying the two - ductwork! A SEER 20 heat pump performs at SEER diddly-squat if married to undersized leaky ductwork located outside the conditioned envelope.

4) Thoroughness - I've read reports where the auditor clearly just about tripped over a single speed oversized pool pump running many more hours than necessary while pointing out the best roof location for $25k worth of solar panels...DOH!

5) I tell perspective clients our projects are graded each and every month...when the utility bill arrives.

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