Amanda Kolson Hurley’s recent post about her experience receiving a home energy audit highlighted the key role of the energy professional. It is a topic Earth Advantage Institute (EAI) has been studying for some time. On Aug. 31, 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a report called Behavioral Perspectives on Home Energy Audits in collaboration with Portland State University, Research Into Action, EAI, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The research takes a step back from the clutter, assumptions, and prejudices inherent in the energy efficiency industry and objectively analyzes the impact of energy assessments, audit reports, energy labels, and new technologies that promote home energy upgrades. What is it that really motivates homeowners to make upgrades to their homes? One key finding — relationships matter.
Major Efficiency Program Improvements
Energy efficiency program providers are making great strides in how they deliver relevant information and analysis to homeowners about their home. Utilities and community-based energy efficiency programs across the country are working with a wide range of techniques and tools to encourage homeowners to pay attention to their energy use and make upgrades to their homes.
Web-based utility bill assessments like Opower have now firmly planted energy efficiency in the Facebook generation. Yet not all of these new technologies, approaches, and social media connections actually result in a significant uptick in energy efficiency improvements. For the energy efficiency industry, especially utility program managers and home performance contractors, understanding the variables that motivate a homeowner to undertake an upgrade is critical to achieving broad energy savings and carbon reduction goals.
Focusing on the Homeowner
One of the important conclusions in the DOE study relates to the importance of recognizing homeowner perspectives. It asserts that a simple repackaging of energy efficiency should be focused on appreciating the unique position of each homeowner and their particular perspective about their home. Of course, understanding a homeowner’s needs requires building a relationship with him or her, which can take an investment of time. This can be challenging for energy assessors and home performance contractors, for whom time equals money.
If a professional has three hours to spend in a home, how should they be using that time to best ensure the homeowner’s commitment to undertaking an upgrade? The DOE study suggests that while the technical components of an energy assessment are helpful in catalyzing a homeowner, the homeowner’s interaction with the person doing the assessment is of considerable influence. The study underscores the benefit of having an energy professional actually in the home who can engage the homeowner and verbally explain how the home is performing.
So how does an energy professional balance these competing needs: the need to spend time doing a technically thorough assessment against the need to engage with the homeowner and build the relationship? EAI has carefully considered this conundrum. Its conclusion is that the key to freeing up critical time to build customer relationships is to provide those doing energy assessments with auditing tools that simplify their work while maintaining accuracy.
EAI, in collaboration with Michael Blasnik & Associates, has spent several years developing CakeSystems℠ (formerly EPS Auditor Pro) as one of these potential technology solutions. There are of course other tools on the market working to accelerate the home upgrade process, such as OptiMiser, EnergyMeasure Home, and the DOE’s Home Energy Score tool. Time will tell what tools deliver the right set of features to both energy efficiency programs and home energy contractors.
Relationships Equal Results
Whatever specific tool is used, if energy contractors have the time to get to know what the homeowner wants for their home — their place of family and security — the DOE study suggests that there is a greater possibility for energy upgrades. All the fancy energy efficiency marketing promotions, advertising, and even rebates can’t replace the time spent building a customer relationship that is backed up with technical details packaged in a consumer-friendly manner.
The home is an emotional place and the decisions that surround it are couched firmly in that emotion. The more personal and longer-lasting the contact, the easier it is to build trust. With the right tools that make the assessment easier and faster, the energy professional can truly function as an expert agent and advisor and have an important influence on what homeowners decide to do. But the energy professional must have the time to engage and advise.
Anthony Roy is the Policy & Strategy Development Manager at Earth Advantage Institute (EAI). At EAI, Anthony works on energy benchmarking and disclosure policy as well as the implementation of residential energy performance scoring efforts.