Using Cell Phones to Create a Feedback Loop

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog --

In previous posts, I’ve explained how to incorporate smart phones and apps into energy audits (here and here). But in reality, most auditors and inspectors don’t take advantage of even the most common functions of their cell phones. In this blog post we will suggest ways of using some of these functions to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the home energy retrofit process.

Consider the communication between the auditor who prescribes the work, the contractor who performs the work, and the inspector (if there is one) who signs off on the work. Typically this is a linear process with little feedback. If a cell phone is used at all, it is to arrange scheduling with the homeowner, or the contractor might call if there are questions about a work order. Cell phones could be incorporated into the work process to enhance communication, document the process, and establish feedback loops between the auditor, contractor, and inspector. 

Let’s examine one possible feedback loop in the process: the post-retrofit  inspection. This step can occur either while the contractor is on-site performing the improvements, or when the contractor is off-site after having completed all the work. A few years ago, we delivered a residential retrofit program for our local public housing authority. Part of our task was to inspect every job completed. We found a number of advantages to performing inspections while the crews were still at the site:

  1. It saved time because the inspector could use the blower door that the crew had already installed for their work.
  2. The inspector could observe the contractors at work and therefore instruct on proper method and technique.
  3. It created a dialogue between the crews and inspector, clarifying expectations and objectives.
  4. The homeowner only had to schedule one visit.
  5. The inspector could ensure that the work was being done correctly the first time, reducing callbacks.

The main difficulty with these inspections was scheduling the inspector to be available on call to drive out to the house. Another issue was that the inspector either had to wait at the jobsite for work to be done or simply could not be present for certain aspect of the work.

Incorporating the use of a cell phone could increase the productivity of the inspector and make the inspection process more complete. Cell phones are practically ubiquitous and nearly all can send text messages and take digital photos. The exchange of information necessary for an inspection could be performed synchronously from remote locations via text messaging and photos within the text messages. 

In addition to the advantages (listed above) of performing an inspection with the crews present, this remote approach could add the following benefits: 

  1. We could reduce scheduling issues and eliminate inspector travel time to the site.
  2. The text messages and photos could serve as documentation of the inspection process for each house as well as a work record.
  3. Being on call could expand the inspector’s role to a mentor for the contractor and crew, available as a resource when problems arise. The inspector and crew could become a team working together to ensure completion and quality.
  4. By working remotely, the inspector could perform more inspections and oversee more jobs.
  5. As the process and expectations are defined, an asynchronous documentation of work could also be developed to replace a synchronous inspection. After recording the work with a digital camera, the contractor could email the photos along with the work order to the inspector for assessment. Everyone involved could use Dropbox  to transfer and store information.

Increased communication and feedback via cell phones could foster a sense of collaboration between the inspector and the contractor while instilling a common purpose. A team approach to learning and continuous improvement could be a very nice by-product. Taking a systems approach and  incorporating feedback loops helps create a true learning organization.

Eventually, the widespread use of smart phones could allow us to incorporate more sophisticated apps into the process. Whatsapp allows free text messaging for Android and iPhone users. Voxer is like Whatsapp but also allows voice messaging, which produces a walkie talkie-like effect. Skype and FaceTime add video conferencing to the mix, and Ustream brings video broadcast over the Internet, but more importantly, allows archiving of the video. How are you using cell phones in your program delivery? We welcome any questions, comments, or suggestions.

Related posts:

From the Field: CEE Programs and Mobile Devices

Review: Apps to Expand Smart Phone Communications Beyond Calls and ...

Review: Commerically Available Apps Adapted for Energy Audits

Photo credit: Samsung

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Comment by John Leeke on November 8, 2012 at 10:14am

You don't mention getting permission from the building owner to take, post on the internet and 'give' photos of their building to others. This presents a liability risk due to privacy issues or security breaches. For example, what if the photos fall into the hands of anyone who would do harm to the building or the owner, such as thieves looking for info on contents or security measures at doors and windows, etc.


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