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 Ben Jacobs on August 4, 2014 at 11:53am

Hi Ted, 

I think that the world would be a much better place if homeowners, builders, home energy efficiency experts, and government agencies would share information that is more useful.

For example, builders and owners of the Passive House at 16th and Nebraska in Salem, Oregon, shared a lot of very helpful information that can be used by others to benchmark home energy performance.   You can find a lot more on this through a GOOGLE search. 

See the data below:

The project’s PHPP data at a glance confirms that both Passive House criteria are met: the annual heating demand criterion with 4.02 kBTU/sqft yr as well as the peak heat load with 2.9 BTU/hr.sqft. There is no need for cooling.

The general specifications of the exterior envelope components are:

  • R-45 in the wall, the roof has R-96, the floor over crawl space has R-51.
  • The average window installed U-value is 0.226 BTU/hr.sqft.F with orientation specific SHGC of 0.23 for E-N-W orientations and 0.46 SHGC for the South

Note: The window figures are unadjusted NFRC values. Passive House window calculations will result in slightly adjusted values. The PHIUS Technical Committee is developing a method for converting values and/or a protocol to more accurately calculate the window values needed for PHPP. The Tech Committee will make it available for comment in an upcoming PHIUS e-Newsletter.  Many thanks to Graham Irwin, John Semmelhack and Graham Wright, who already have devoted a lot of hours to this project!

Energy consumption at the project was monitored for a full year. Over that period, the home was occupied by its new owners (a young couple and a dog, and eventually the couple’s newborn baby. The owners blogged about their early experience — check it out.)

A detailed monitoring report on the first year was prepared by the company Ecotope. (Many thanks to the Ecotope team that graciously gave PHIUS permission to make the information available to the Passive House community. PHIUS plans to share more monitored data from other projects soon—stay tuned.)

Download the full report here. From the executive summary:

The 16th and Nebraska Passive House project located in Salem, Oregon is an impressive example of an energy efficient home. The home is built to the stringent requirements of the Passive House (PH) program. The home’s energy use for the first year post-construction place it in the top tier of the most energy efficient single family homes in the Pacific Northwest. The first-year stats for the project are listed below:

  • First Year Total Annual Energy Use: 5,413 kWh/yr
  • Electric Utility Cost per Year: $700
  • Energy Savings estimate over Oregon Code: 9,064 kWh/yr
  • EUI (using gross sq ft of 1,885 sf): 9.8 kBtu/sf/yr2
Comment by Ben Jacobs on August 4, 2014 at 11:28am

Hi Tedd Kidd,

Thank you for links to excellent websites.

The numbers that I reference on the test homes are:

 

Design/Standards                   annual total                Energy Cost per               Building Envelope

                                                Electric bill                 square foot per year         Blower Door Rating

 

2009 Passive House                 $750                          $0.42 /ft2                             0.6 ACH50

 

2009 Energy Star                    $1,300                        $0.72                                    6 ACH50

 

2012 Energy Efficient            $1,700                        $0.94                                    9 ACH50

Retrofit

Comment by tedkidd on July 31, 2014 at 12:27pm

Absolutely agree Ben, "How much do I use, how much do others use, and what is my reasonable opportunity to save" are the entry questions we seem to sometimes forget.  

How cool would it be if this: http://bit.ly/gainsvillegreen were nation wide?

Here's a tool for getting a rough idea of opportunity: http://bit.ly/Homescale

Love to have the blower door cfm50 number on each of the houses in your example. 

Comment by Ben Jacobs on July 31, 2014 at 10:04am

 I believe a major problem of government, of energy utilities, and home energy efficiency experts is the failure to properly help educate the consumer, to help them understand the problems of their homes and occupants behavior, and the failure to develop realistic projections/estimates of how much savings they can get from EE investments.  Below are comments from others on this matter and some benchmark information that should be readily available by region of each state and is not.  I wish to thank Home Energy Pros for their frank discussion on this matter.  

 "Home energy efficiency estimates are a can of worms for sure, everything from incentives that encourage contractors to exaggerate to meet a minimum % improvement, to home owners who simply want to enjoy their new warmer homes." 

 

I think there is a major lack of comparison information at the regional level to help consumers understand how the energy use in their homes compares to that of an energy efficient similar home.  Below is a information that I have gathered specific to Eastern North Carolina and provides a comparison of Energy Use by different models of homes.  Thank you for your leadership and assistance in this matter.

 The comparison models are:

 

1800 square feet,  3 occupants,  all electric, compact/ranch design

  (Home has appliances that meet 2009 Energy Star requirements,

residents follow regular home energy efficiency practices)

 Home is located in eastern North Carolina

Electricity costs are $0.11 per kWh

 

Design/Standards                   annual total                Energy Cost per

                                                Electric bill                 square foot per year

 

2009 Passive House                 $750                          $0.42 /ft2

 

2009 Energy Star                    $1,300                        $0.72

 

2012 Energy Efficient            $1,700                        $0.94

Retrofit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comment by tedkidd on July 29, 2014 at 11:16am

OMG, you are one of those myopic thinkers are you?

  • Others do it better therefore drastic action is required?  

Are you even listening to yourself?  Your argument is all over the place and full of fallacy and absurdity.  Justin Mikolay wrote: "sloppy writing is the only possible product of sloppy thinking."  

Some reading that might help you:

http://bit.ly/sloppywritingfromsloppythinking

http://bit.ly/wikifallacy

http://bit.ly/poorvsgoodreasoning

Comment by David Eakin on July 29, 2014 at 9:56am

Ted,

I'm coming at this issue from a national perspective. If the USA were leading the world in energy efficiency and housing comfort then I might agree with you. But a couple improvement projects here, a couple gut/rehabs there, while millions of existing home owners do nothing and hundreds of thousands of "code built" homes are constructed is not getting us (as a nation) to where we need to be. In the business change management world, the first order of is to create a virtual "burning bridge" - an attitude within the corporation that the current business course of action is intolerable and that the only way forward is to cross the bridge to the "new business" before the bridge collapses - and EVERYBODY within the business better get on board! This is what I'd seek to accomplish with the national building code standards and the retirement of old housing stock. See this article for more info on why I think we (again, as a nation) need much more drastic action than just everybody doing their own thing and "hanging some carrots out there to create an enticement": US Compared to the Rest of the Industrial Countries

Comment by Nate Adams on July 29, 2014 at 4:18am

Interesting conversation. David, I completely understand where you are coming from. To me it's rather like the dream of communism - for everyone to be equal. Wonderful on paper, really, really, really difficult to execute. From what I've seen legislation just makes people get creative in how to avoid it. Look at Wall Street, they have mastered how to pay people despite caps. Our industry has tried to ram things down people's throats for years, and we are a joke of an industry. That hasn't worked. Another way of forcing things seems ill advised, IMHO. I would rather find a market based way to get there - find a way to get people to eat their vegetables and like it. Ted and I's process ain't perfect, but the early success is surprising.

The big key I've found to selling projects is homeowners that want to stick around for at least 10 years. 'Payback' is often immaterial to them, they just want their house to be nice. HP can be like a bathroom or kitchen remodel, especially if they are thinking about changing out their furnace and AC. In those cases they have a $10K expenditure coming up anyway, so fix the shell at the same time and get a ton of benefits. It doesn't have to be a killer fix, either. Adjust the attic and basement and reduce leakage a fair amount.

Are there a ton of these clients yet? Nope. Could we handle a ton of clients as an industry? Nope. So they are a really good place to start. As energy costs go back up and more houses make sense to fix, more will get fixed. My 1835 home needs nearly $100K in work to make a substantial dent in it's energy use. It doesn't make sense today. Does that mean that my National Historic Register home should be torn down (even if it wasn't historic)? No. But I am planning to move so I can truly upgrade my own home rather than just talking about it and helping others do it. At some point in the future it will be worth doing to my house. If I was the type who dug in and lived places for a long time I would do it. As it is my wife and I tend to buy a home, fix it up, and move every 3-8 years. So I'm a mediocre candidate for my own services.

As far as payback goes, the projects I've done so far land in the 40-60 year range. I'm frank and up front about this. No one seems to mind, they are chasing something emotional like comfort, money is not that important. If you dig and ask questions for a while, you may find your clients will actually admit to this. (I'm shocked, but it happens almost every time - the payback doesn't really matter, I just want my icicles to go away/my wife to be happy/my kid's allergies to get better/etc.)

It is our fault for training people to think EE is free. Occasionally it is, and for a while when natural gas was triple what it is today, it may have been more than occasional. Today, it's not. And that doesn't really matter. The people who only want the money don't have enough pain for us to work with, that's like me exercising to not be too fat vs. my wife being national champion in her class on quad skates and second on inlines - she has a lot more reason to exercise than me, she wants to win. We have to uncover whether there is something that big in our clients. If not, it's a poor opportunity and we need to move on. It sucks to admit this, I just had an initial yesterday that didn't go to audit, but that's life.

So did I just make you mad, or is it making sense a bit?

Comment by tedkidd on July 28, 2014 at 1:32pm

David, 

I don't think forcing people to do things works out well for anyone.  Any place your ideas force things upon people see if you can come up with an approach that creates rewards.  Incentive. 

Carrots cost a lot less than clubs, and enthusiastic participants net much greater results than slaves. 

I have a question.  I don't know what "your area" is, but if you are seeing "$5/10/20K projects", how do those pay back in 5 years?

Comment by David Eakin on July 28, 2014 at 1:19pm

"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."

Ted - I year you, but (at least in our region) comprehensive, building science, remedial projects that exceed about 25% of the value of the property are not well represented - unlike large-scale projects that involve adding new/modified floor space or more decorative related (great room conversions, kitchen/bath redo, deck/sun porch additions, hot tubs/spas, etc.) Typically when project costs for perceived comfort or energy efficiency get to this level, homeowners look to relocating rather than remedying. Or maybe the perceived issues were "not really that bad to begin with". Way too many older home owners who think that their 19__ (or 18__) house was good enough for them back then so its good enough now (but it was neither good enough then nor now) to invest that large an amount. And we have millions of houses that would take a huge amount of investment to remedy (both for comfort/EE and for current code compliance like kitchen electrical requirements). Millions of existing double-wythe brick, cinder block/brick face,old balloon frame houses, no attic ventilation/walk-up attic houses, 2/3/4 unit connected townhouses in the MId-to-North Atlantic region that makes it way too difficult to remedy w/o tons of labor or reconstruction design.

Now if you are looking at a different region where new housing is problematic (not enough building lots of sufficient size located within the desired area, new code offset or foundation requirements preclude desired design) then maybe the cost of large-scale projects are more palatable. Especially when the end value of the residence will be in line with surrounding values. Otherwise you will get degenerating old neighborhoods that are losing their value every year because they are no longer desirable (and making huge investments in properties where the inherent value is not supported by the neighborhood) and new construction is more reasonably priced. If you and Nate can do 100s of almost-gut/rehab-priced-projects a year to maintain a successful business model - good on you. Otherwise mostly what I see are the $5/10/20K projects that are the 80% solution of the complete list of original issues.

My thoughts are that building codes are supposed to be a protective device for most average home buyers who are mostly clueless about most facets of home construction, durability (how long products can be expected to last) or building science. Why is the current attitude about houses completely contrary than any other consumer item? No appliance, automobile, piece of clothing, sports equipment, technology item or any other consumer product expected to increase in value as it ages nor is it expected to have an infinite lifetime. Why houses? Why do building codes (mainly) only protect new home buyers from "lowest possible cost/highest possible profit margin" builders? Why not buyers of previously-owned homes (and DO NOT talk about building inspectors of existing houses who are mostly in cahoots with real estate agents and are mainly called in on behalf of the lending institution)? If mandating a 50-year lifetime for residences sounds too "communistic", how about 50 year's-old AND change in ownership? [And "lifetime" means the ability to meet existing building codes, not just grandfathered into perpetuity.] That way any person who does not want to modernize their home is free not to do so, and those owners who have been continually modernizing their residences stand a good chance of passing the codes as-is. But in either case, the next owner will be protected.

Comment by Tom White on July 28, 2014 at 11:47am

Ted, I understand and share your concern about the lack of guidance on the part of the "Home Performance" industry on how to bridge from product sales to consultative solutions sales.  I would encourage you to read Mike Rogers' article, "Your Home Performance Marketing Plan" and other articles in our Business Development and HVAC-2-HP topic areas. 

Mike also publishes a great blog with lots of resources on consultative selling at http://omstout.com/blog/

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