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These are difficult times. While we all might hope that things can get back to “normal” soon, it’s likely that some things will change for good. Like a lot of businesses, contractors are suffering, as customers put off renovations and upgrades.

If there’s a silver lining though, it might be that after spending weeks indoors, some homeowners will finally be ready to consider investing in non-cosmetic upgrades that enhance the quality of their indoor environments and improve the functionality of their homes. Imagine touring a newly built model home and being offered a filtered fresh air system or a high-efficiency HVAC filtration system as one of the premium upgrades. In the current environment, some buyers might be so bold as to choose these upgrades over granite countertops.

Insulation, lighting, heating and cooling systems, and ventilation all have dramatic indoor air quality impacts that affect our health and comfort. Home performance contractors have touted the non-energy benefits of energy efficiency upgrades for years. Now, the public might finally be receptive to this message. If you are a contractor, this could be the moment you have been waiting for, when people finally realize that homes have to do more than just look beautiful, they need to work too!

When I was a home performance contractor, we were hired on multiple occasions to “fix” houses after a recent remodel. There are few things more frustrating than spending a ton of money remodeling only to find out you have rooms you can’t use because they’re too hot or cold, but it happens more than you might expect.  

On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times I have completed large retrofit projects where homeowners were pleased by the simplest things. I remember one deep energy retrofit we did. Of all the improvements we made–moisture control, HRV, new HVAC system, insulation improvements—the standout improvement for the homeowners came from an $8 backdraft damper which kept cold air from coming down the range hood when they were making their morning coffee.

The addition of balanced ventilation systems, Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRVs) and Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs), often provide another pleasant post-retrofit surprise for homeowners, who never realized how fresh a home could smell and feel.

I suspect several home upgrades will be much easier to sell in a post-COVID-19 world. If I were still a contractor, here are some of the improvements I would be promoting.

  • For filtered fresh air, HRVs or ERVs are significant upgrades. Controlling the source of fresh air in your home and filtering it first will appeal to many more people now that it did a few months ago.
  • High-efficiency HVAC filtration systems. When it comes to HVAC filtration, I prefer as thick of a filter as you can fit in the installation. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but thicker filters are less restrictive due to their larger surface area. I suggest you install 4” or thicker pleated media if you have space.  If space is an issue, I recommend using a filter grill that will accept a 2” pleated filter. If your goal is to filter out viruses, you will need a filter with a minimum rating of MERV 13.
  • Air sealing should get some renewed attention, and not just for energy savings. Air sealing a building limits infiltration, or leaks. This is critical for controlling where air enters the house. Air flows through the path of least resistance. Hopefully, that path leads to your filtered fresh air supply and not through a hole in the floor to the crawlspace. Filtered air only works if the rest of the home is tight.
  • Tight duct systems matter too. Air can infiltrate into the house via leaky ducts that run outside the home, as they do in most California homes. Tight ducts have other benefits as well, such as better delivery and energy savings.
  • Whole house fans are a good option. The ability to purge the air in your home in a few minutes is a great side benefit of a whole house fan. Burn the chicken? Use the WHF to suck the smell out of the home. House stuffy after a long weekend away? Use the WHF to bring in the fresh air. WHFs are an energy-saving way to cool homes, but folks seldom consider their other benefits.
  • Want to take it a step further? How about measuring indoor air quality? Indoor air monitoring is something contractors can do right now–without contact with the occupants. In the past couple of years, several low-cost particulate monitors have entered the market. For under $200, you can buy a sophisticated indoor air monitoring device. Measuring particles and other contaminants is a great way to sell upgrades that improve indoor air quality. I know that a few contractors include a low-cost air quality monitor as part of their energy audit. Imagine doing an audit, leaving a monitor in place, and then checking back in two weeks to go over the results. Indoor air quality data could become a great sales tool for you, and a real benefit for your customers.
  • All-electric homes are a good idea. It’s no secret that electric homes are safer, as there is zero potential for fire or explosion from natural gas or propane leaks, and no chance of being poisoned by carbon monoxide from damaged or poorly installed combustion appliances. In most cases, they’re also more energy-efficient and cheaper to operate. Perhaps you can convince your clients to use a heat pump instead of a furnace, or maybe a heat pump water heater instead of a gas water heater. If you have rooftop solar, the best practice is to use as much of the power you generate as possible. All-electric homes are the perfect solution to anyone with solar panels. Electric cars are already an excellent option for transportation; all-electric buildings are likely to become the norm moving forward.
  • The last thing I would suggest is some form of a service contract. HRVs and ERVs have a diffusor core that needs to be cleaning on occasion. High-efficiency filters for HVAC systems need to be changed, although less frequently than cheap furnace filters. Twice a year would be an excellent service interval for most applications. Filter changes, regular HRV core cleaning, and an overall visual inspection of your mechanical systems make sense to me. Service contracts help generate repeat business. If you can figure out how to work them into your business model, you should.

There is no doubt we are living in uncertain times. Life as we know it has changed. We all know way more about viruses and how to stay clean than we ever wanted. Perhaps this is the perfect time to promote the benefits of high-performance buildings and add a couple of offerings to help homeowners make their homes safer and healthier shelters. Let’s hope we never go through this again, but if we do, wouldn’t it be nice to be in a place that protects us from the elements and is comfortable too?

What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment below.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California