What Really Sells Energy Efficiency Upgrades

Indoor air quality is one of the side benefits of energy efficiency upgrades

With over 40% of the country's energy being used by commercial and residential buildings, there is no question we need to make our buildings more efficient. Improving energy efficiency in new construction is relatively easy, just modify the building code to mandate improvements. In existing buildings things get harder. Energy savings in commercial buildings is demanding but effective. The real challenge is the existing residential sector, arguably the most difficult and important piece of the puzzle due to the sheer number of homes built before 1978 when energy codes were created. 

Too Focused on the Rebates

Convincing homeowners to invest their hard earned dollars in energy improvements, which are frequently out-of-sight and expensive, is a real challenge. Often times we place a tremendous amount of confidence in rebates and other incentives to encourage homeowners to invest in energy efficiency measures. Is it possible that in our attempt to incentivize the market to save energy we are overlooking the most important benefits?

Other Benefits Are Important

What distinguishes energy efficiency (EE) upgrades from other measures such as solar, is the additional benefits gained from improving the house as a whole. For example, if you add solar PV to your roof your bills go down and that’s it. Spend the same money on EE upgrades and your comfort is improved, your indoor air quality is improved, your allergies are less, your house is safer, and you save energy. It’s these non-energy benefits of EE improvements that make the whole building approach a much more comprehensive and effective solution. 

For Better Comfort

What are some of the non-energy benefits of EE upgrades? First and foremost, in my opinion, is comfort. Living in a home that is drafty, cold in one room and hot in another, stuffy, smelly, and paying huge utility bills should be a thing of the past but it is not. You might think I am describing an old home with lots of issues but many brand new homes have the same problems. Insulation, properly designed heating and cooling systems, moisture control, and good ventilation make a home function as well as it looks. These should be a part of every home’s design but unfortunately, most builders are blind to how important these basic concepts are, and what a dramatic effect they have on the long term comfort and livability of the home.

For a Healthier Home

Health is important too. Many homes make their occupants sick or at least contribute to their discomfort. Studies have pointed out how indoor air quality is often many times worse in our homes than the air we breathe outside. Building materials and fabrics off gas all kinds of wonderful chemicals into our living environments. Moisture collects as we go about our daily routines, showers, cooking and even breathing releases large quantities of moisture into our homes. Often times air from our attics and crawlspaces is forced into our homes by wind and pressure differences created by things like bath fans, clothes dryers and heating and air conditioning systems. Controlling where the air we breathe comes from and mitigating excess moisture in homes has a huge effect on the health of the occupants. Creating a comfortable environment that is warm, dry and clean should be the goal of every builder, unfortunately, this is not the case. 

Home Performance is the Difference

Part of the reason our homes often don’t perform well is we build them using a variety of construction specialists who may know their specific trade very well but have no understanding how their work might impact others or what effect it might have on the end product. For example, a plumber knows how to make your sink work but do they realize that the 6” diameter hole they just cut in your floor to install a 2” pipe will allow cold air and moisture into your bedroom? Forever! Another favorite example is the HVAC crew. It’s not uncommon for HVAC installers to have a chainsaw as part of their arsenal of tools. I have witnessed an installer compromise the structural integrity of a multi-million dollar home by cutting a key supporting beam, in order to make it easier for him to install his ductwork. It is this “my trade first” approach that causes many of the issues in our buildings today. Perhaps the only contractors that recognize or can identify these types of problems are the ones who use a whole building approach. With a few simple diagnostic tests, you can reveal myriads of details about how a building functions in its final configuration. This is a huge benefit of energy upgrades and we should be promoting it at every opportunity.

Predicting Savings Less Important

One of the challenges of energy upgrades is quantifying the results. While it’s easy to measure kilowatts saved by a solar Photovoltaic system, it’s harder to measure the savings from EE upgrades, although new technologies are now making this a reality. It’s nearly impossible to quantify the non-energy benefits of EE improvements. This presents a huge challenge when we try and justify the costs of EE upgrades, at the customer level when selling jobs, and at the policy level while seeking funding for incentive programs. Without some consideration of the non-energy benefits, most of our efforts simply don’t pencil out.

Our Industry is Not Doing a Good Job

A serious concern with our industry is we seldom place enough value on the non-energy benefits. If you are a Home Performance contractor and you are not promoting the non-energy benefits of a whole building approach you are leaving money on the table. Energy savings might be a part of the motivation but it is typical to couple them with some other need as part of the offering. Personally, I have sold far more EE jobs based on comfort and savings versus energy savings alone. Combined with another “pain point” such as comfort or health, saving energy completes the deal. If you are an energy efficiency contractor I suggest you consider this concept in your marketing and sales efforts. As a stand alone motivation, energy savings are a pretty hard sell, especially in a place like California with our mild climate.

 Time to Take Credit for Other Benefits

I think at this point you get the idea, the non-energy benefits of EE upgrades are as important, if not more important than the energy savings themselves. We need to stand up and take credit for these benefits as they are an undervalued and often overlooked component of energy upgrades. As an EE contractor, non-energy benefits need to be a part of your sales teams vernacular. Are non-energy benefits a part of your sales strategy? They should be.

There is no question that It is difficult to measure or quantify things like health and comfort, none the less, we need to get credit for these unique, important, and real benefits of EE upgrades. We need to use them to sell jobs as contractors. We need to promote them to the “powers that be” when it comes to funding incentive programs. The non-energy benefits of energy upgrades are a tangible and valuable part of a whole building approach and need to be recognized for their true value.

- Charles (Charley) Cormany, Executive Director


Asking questions and storytelling are part of the solution

Great post, Charlie! I fully agree, we suck at selling NEBs. I'm getting better with a long way to go still. You know I'm not a fan of rebates for just the reason you pointed out: they skew the focus from fixing problems to getting some money.

We can start to fix this by asking better questions about what people want to solve in their homes. They get to tell us what they want rather than a program (or us) telling them what they want.

Once we fix a house, it's time to tell the story with case studies. Peter Troast did a great webinar on them last week. Tell the story of the homeowners, problems to solve, how they got solved, and what the homeowner thought. Here is one of my nearly complete case studies. http://dev.heynowmedia.com/energy-smart/case_studies/1970s-two-story-col...

Keep going, brother!

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