From the Field: Residential Energy Programs and Mobile Devices

CEE has always been attuned to advances in technology, whether assessing improvements in appliances and energy systems or applying new communication tools to innovate around program delivery. We recently interviewed Tom Spielman, Director of IT, and Rich Szydlowski, Director of Business Development and Engineering, for their perspective on the evolution of mobile technologies. Below is our conversation featuring their insight gained incorporating apps and tablets into CEE’s energy programs.

Anna: Thanks for taking the time to talk today. To start off, I’m wondering what you see happening with mobile devices and how we are using them at CEE.

Tom: There is a big trend towards mobile devices, both smart phones and tablets. People are connected all the time. Because of that, web services--things you can hook into as a web developer-- have become more available. We recently had one of our techs request a weather app, to check current wind speeds when performing blower door tests. Since there are web services that provide current weather information we were able to put that feature right into our own app rather than needing a separate app just for getting current wind speed.

Rich: There are two distinct tracks for doing mobile applications. One, like Tom says, is to use a web-based service that you can use on a mobile browser. The other direction is to develop a native application: something that runs locally that doesn’t require an internet connection. It has occasionally connected requirements, but in between it doesn’t require an internet connection. Both have advantages and disadvantages. There isn’t a clearly superior design. For field visits, and other projects like our Rooftop Unit optimization study, a stand alone product is convenient. You don't have to worry about whether you are connected while inside a building. But running locally requires much more processing power. For example, when you need to run a big database.

Certainly, the trend is better performance, better battery, better touch screens, all of which make it easier to build. And it has taken 20 years to get here.

Tom: Yes, we are literally just now reaching a point where it is starting to be practical to use a device in the field. In years past we've used PDAs in the field but they were only practical for very simple data collection needs.


Anna: What are the biggest challenges you encounter when programming and developing apps?

Rich: There are different programming challenges between a web-based approach and a native app approach. A web-based approach has everyone connect through one database portal. If you make a change, everyone sees that change immediately. As soon as you have a native app, you have multiple copies, and you have to manage them intelligently. People move records in and out. There are some fundamentals of programming, above and beyond the effort you need to make a website application.

Tom: That’s a problem we’ve been dealing with for years.

Rich: Decades.

Tom: Decades. And there are tools to help with that synchronization.


Anna: i.e. recently surveyed and reviewed commercially available apps for energy audits. What do you think are the biggest market gaps for our types of programs?

Rich: I don’t think I’ve seen a great commercially available app that is designed for a professional performing hundreds of audits. What is out there is designed for an individual doing something on their house. There was an app by a Canadian company, iViro, that won awards, worked well, and looked really good. But we are trying to develop an app to improve program delivery efficiency, and we don’t see that product out there today. Now, that doesn’t mean that corporations don’t have these things, but they are internal and proprietary, and customized for their programs. For example UPS has a package tracking app that they have been perfecting for years, but it isn’t available outside the company.


Anna: Could you say more about the difference between apps for a casual user versus a professional?

Rich: One of the things is navigation. As an auditor, you have to be able to efficiently move from one set of fields to another. If you have a set of 50 fields to collect in a house, you don’t collect data top to bottom in a continuous matter. You might go through and not know the age of the furnace, but you will ask the homeowner at the end of the visit. You need to be able to quickly go back and correct that entry. iViro is different – it has a wizard guide to you through. If you wanted to go back to a previous entry you had to go back into the wizard.

Tom: Exactly. The data entry has to be quick when you're doing hundreds and thousands of audits as opposed to just one on your own house. And as a professional, you can do the training up front to make it possible to use an app that provides less guidance but is ultimately faster to use.

Rich: In the case of iViro, the part you get out of it for the novice is the education process. The typical homeowner doesn’t know about their vents,  so the app shows pictures of three different vent systems and asks which you have. lf you are a professional you don’t need that prompt.

Tom: A good analogy is TurboTax. I doubt many professional tax preparers use it. But for an individual who does taxes once a year, it works pretty well though it might take awhile to get through. A professional can't afford to spend all that time on a single tax return. That’s not to say there isn’t something to learn from consumer apps in terms of ease of use. 

Rich: Another difference is that consumer apps tend to be self contained. For professionals you usually have to move the data off the device onto somewhere else.


Anna: Which trends do you see in photo integration?

Rich: Most devices now have built in cameras that are high quality enough that you don’t need an additional camera. Early mobile technology didn’t have enough resolution for certain indoor pictures of equipment or detailed parts of a home. So the technical ability is there across the board. The next step is to integrate the cameras into a dataset. That way, a photo doesn’t reside in a separate gallery, but is integrated with the rest of the information you collected. If you did five visits today, you no longer have to figure out which photo goes with what.

Anna: What are some other coming trends?

Tom: As more and more apps become available from third parties, the more likely it is that you will find something that meets your needs. We had our own database for our loan programs for years but now we are considering a commercial product. There are still times when we do things differently enough that a commercial product won't work for us.

Rich: The direction apps are going is to help with the delivery. They aren’t stand alone, they are designed to be integrated.

Tom: A big problem is still the speed issue – making the audit quick. Siri is able to translate voice to data; it will be interesting to see how successful Apple is with that. For now, even just recording notes is helpful if nothing else. But at some point being able to say a number and having it go to the right place on a form would be big. The other thing is collecting data from equipment placed in a building. Now a lot of testing equipment is starting to have wi-fi or other means of connecting to the Internet. We can pull info remotely from those devices, - pressure loggers for example, without having to make a trip to the site. This will be a real time saver.


Anna: Anything else?

Tom: With video capability, if a less experienced professional is in the field, they could contact someone back in the office, and show them what they're seeing rather than trying to describe it with words alone. The potential for that is there. Whether it actually will work well in practice is a different question.

Rich: We have a similar idea built into our app. You can email the audit and then call someone and say, "I saw this weird thing! What do I do next?"

Tom: During yesterday's first home audit in St. Louis Park, I could see them entering the data back here in the office, in real time. I could tell if they were going to have an issue completing the report. You can see the data before they’ve even left the site.

Rich: The whole issue of connectivity is changing rapidly. A few years ago you could get a cell connection in the Metro, but it was hard outstate. That is not the case anymore. But when you run a wide ranging program, you still have to build for worst case scenario, not the best case scenario.

Anna: Thanks so much, that’s all I had for today! 


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Comment by George Kopf on August 2, 2012 at 9:16am

Thank you for posting this.  Residential energy auditing + mobile device apps = natural fit.  Not only will this help keep data organized in the field (which can be challenging), there's also the image that is projected to the client. 

Quick question for the blogosphere:  Anyone seen or have experience with this device?  Looks very interesting. 

Comment by Evan Mills on July 26, 2012 at 3:13pm

I might add that iViro is powered by our APIs.  It's been great to see third parties innovating beyond what we have done in our own calculators, like Home Energy Saver, Home Energy Saver Pro, and the Home Energy Scoring Tool.

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