There is a lot of discussion and debate in the home performance industry about why home energy audits have only penetrated such a small portion of the U.S. housing market. We know that performance problems in existing homes are the rule rather than the exception. We know that most reasonable comprehensive home energy upgrades will result in a minimum 10-30% reduction in energy consumption and utility bills. We know that energy audits identify measures that can improve indoor air quality, reduce maintenance requirements, and make the home more comfortable and more safe. So why isn't the marketplace absolutely flooded with requests to have this valuable service performed?
There is no single reason, of course, but a clue to a major factor may be found in the phrase "valuable service." There is much value to be obtained from an energy audit, but if the homeowner does not perceive this value, there will be little demand for the service. Some say that price is a barrier to demand for energy audits. This hypothesis is not borne out well by results of some utility companies that offer low-priced or free energy assessments. The utility companies often have difficulty giving their services away, and when customers do receive the service, they tend to not value it as highly because they didn't pay much for it. It sounds crazy, but that is the way we humans are wired. When the results of the energy audit are not valued, the homeowner tends to implement few, if any, of the recommendations. With no positive results about which to get excited, the homeowner tells his friends and neighbors, "It didn't really help that much."
This disappointing result says a lot more about the homeowner's perception of and experience with the energy audit, rather than its actual potential value. So, where do we go from here?
The best I can offer at this point is better messaging to convey value to the homeowner. Two examples come to mind. We are all familiar with scheduled maintenance routines for cars. Typically, we car owners make monthly payments on our vehicles, which may have purchase prices of $20,000 to $40,000. When the 60,000 mile scheduled maintenance comes around, most of us are motivated to follow through with the $600 to $900 service because 1) if we don't, there is a greater chance that something will fail, and be more expensive to repair than the cost of the preventive maintenance, 2) we don't want to void the warranty, 3) we want to protect our investment.
Another example is the full physical examination or health check-up. Most of us elect to do this once a year or so, and expect to be charged several hundred dollars for 10 or 15 minutes of the physician's time and a few routine lab tests. Why do we bother? Pretty much for the same reasons that we service our cars: 1) the physician is a professional, and knows more about how our bodies work than we do, 2) it is better to find and treat a health problem early rather than wait until it gets worse, which may mean more pain, loss and expense, 3) we want our health to be optimal, and to protect and care for the only body we have.
We willingly pay these fees, because we recognize the value of the service. We fear that to not do so could result in much greater loss. Our homes are really not much different than our cars or our bodies. Homes are by far the biggest investment most people ever make. They affect our daily lives, and can affect our health and safety. Giving our homes a diagnostic check-up will benefit us in the same ways as will check-ups on our cars and our bodies.
Except for the low-income demographic, cost of the energy audit is not the barrier to acceptance; it's perception of value.
This post originally appeared on Home Energy Consultants' House Whisperer Blog.