Restoring Credibility in the Efficiency Marketplace

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and nowhere is this adage truer than with the assurance of a manufacturer’s compliance with energy efficiency standards and endorsement programs. If any link is broken in this process, then it is impossible to “haul up” those energy savings for the consumer. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are finally taking actions to repair some of the more fragile links in this chain, beginning with the actual verification of energy claims for the minimum energy efficiency regulations and Energy Star endorsements.

Before taking any action, DOE first wanted to be certain that it was working with accurate data from the manufacturers. So, DOE required all appliance manufacturers to “confirm” the energy use of their products already submitted to DOE. This was a huge undertaking, both for the manufacturers and for the DOE, since tens of thousands of “confirmations” were submitted to DOE in a short time. Then DOE hired independent test labs to verify the accuracy of the manufacturers’ claims for a representative number of appliances. For the first time, DOE actually tested products off the shelves rather than delivered from the manufacturers.

DOE Appliance Testing

The chart shows the early results of the DOE verification tests. These seven categories of Energy Star rated products alone represent over 25% of future residential energy use. Was it worthwhile? You be the judge. Even though not all of the results are in, you can see the trends.

About 17% of the units were noted as “Action Required”, which meant their energy usage was more than 5% outside Energy Star specifications. That means for every six products sold, one will perform worse than stated on their labels. Room air conditioners as a group tested the worst: 29% of those units were far outside of Energy Star specifications, not even meeting the minimum efficiency requirements. Take away the 5% tolerance and the fraction of failed units rises to over 80%. It is no surprise that DOE has taken legal action against certain air conditioner manufacturers for selling products that fail to meet minimum efficiency regulations. Consumers, utilities, and even the Internal Revenue Service, rely on honest reporting of energy consumption values.

But there are other links in the chain that still need mending. What about effective consumer communication and education during purchase? American consumers must study the EnergyGuide labels carefully before they can confidently identify an efficient product. And our EnergyGuide labels are dated and positively dowdy compared to the European rainbow A through G energy labels (which have their own problems). Given consumer trends these days, long term savings is still a tough sell against lowest price.

But do the test procedures realistically predict in-home energy use? That’s another critical step in the chain. Home Energy traditionally covers investigations of in-home energy consumption and savings from appliance replacements and has even done its own testing over the years. Field verification and updating test procedures is essentially the DOE’s responsibility but we haven’t seen much progress there. In fact, there are probably fewer field measurements underway now than there were twenty years ago. This is in spite of lower-cost meters and data-logging systems. “Crowd-source” techniques could help, too. Check out how consumers contribute measurements of auto fuel economy at Large-scale field-testing of appliances is complex, but it’s disappointing to see how little on-site verification is being supported on either the national or the local fronts.

Sadly, the “weakest link” situation is even worse for building codes. Compliance rates are low, even for the minimum standards. And when the buildings do comply, we have seen that the insulation will be poorly installed, thermal shortcuts abound, and ducts don’t get connected. Raising compliance rates–DOE’s goal is 90%–will be a huge undertaking because we need to reach 50,000 code officials in 5000 building departments in the United States.

Like cars that claimed high fuel mileage when in fact the reality of stop and go driving showed differently, appliances and buildings can be designed and operated inefficiently as well. We need strong links connecting manufacturing, testing, labeling, and field verification. Without this chain, we will end up with an efficient home on paper that becomes an energy guzzler in practice.

~ Alan Meier for Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Home Energy magazine

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Comment by David Eggleton on January 26, 2011 at 9:02am

Glen wrote: "We cannot predict how occupants will interact with their systems. We can model and repair a home to energy star and above parameters and not be able to pin down how much energy family A will use vs. Family B in exactly the same home. We cannot control how much heat they use or how long they leave the refrigerator open."

Alan Kay said:  "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Carol, after mentioning it, in the end Alan left off the operator consciousness (understanding/attention) link.  In the flash and noise of civilization, frontiers are so easy to forget.

I suspect Alan didn't forget and knew what he was doing there.  I'm very happy that we are converging for work on that link/edge.

Comment by Glen Gallo on December 16, 2010 at 8:52am

Great article

I think it highlights our two biggest challenges in our industry. Computer Modeling and Occupant Behavior.


Let’s take the MPG analogy as an example. We are not looking at one car when we model. We  are looking at all the cars that fuel up at a given gas station in one hour. We need to compile data from the diesel 18 wheeler with a full load (A five ton split system), a gas cargo box truck with a load of vegetables(water heater), a luxury high performance sports sedan (pool and spa), a family minivan(refrigerator), a pick up truck (insulation) a hybrid (CFL) and a motorcycle, (LED).

As we sit outside this gas station with our clipboard for an hour we now must come up with a annual fuel cost and MPG for this stations patrons for that one hour. This is where the MPG becomes OMG. We don’t know how many miles they are going to drive, the condition and maintenance of their vehicle, how many drivers will use the same vehicle, the driving habits of the patrons or where they live. Given these parameters it is difficult to produce a completely accurate report.

This brings me to my next point customer behavior. We cannot predict how occupants will interact with their systems. We can model and repair a home to energy star and above parameters and not be able to pin down how much energy family A will use vs. Family B in exactly the same home. We cannot control how much heat they use or how long they leave the refrigerator open.

What is important to look at is that the improvements will make both Family A and Family B use less energy over the lifespan of the home by having these measures installed. That is the most relevant point.

We must use some metric to prove this out. Whether we agree with all figures that or modeling programs produce or that those figures will be real world or not it is as close as we can get. There must be some standard. I can honestly say that with all the different metrics the modeling programs sort out they do a very good job.



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