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Separation Anxiety

When Home Performance with Energy Star launched in Maine in 2006, we defined the energy improvement process as test-in, upgrade, test-out. The parenthetical testing was part and parcel of the process, similar to a physician talking with a patient and running diagnostics to glean what’s going on – before prescribing remedies or lifting a scalpel.

Coming into home performance, energy auditors, home energy raters, and home inspectors had a predisposition – for different reasons – to distinguish the ‘test-in’ as a separate, billable service.

Now that home performance (HP) programs offer subsidized, or free, ‘test-ins,’ the mindset separating the ‘test-in’ assessment from the actual upgrades is even more pronounced. Problem is, without the upgrades, there are no energy savings to claim, not for the homeowner, the renter or the government agencies that sponsor the programs.

Residential energy efficiency programs – whether administered by utilities or non-profit community-based organization – are contending with the “stuck” factor. That is, homeowners sit on their assessments and do not move ahead with energy improvements (in HP vernacular, conversions).

Call it separation anxiety. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Earlier this spring, Sustainable Structures in Hallowell, Maine conducted an assessment of my home, for a sum; they ran the data through RemRATE to produce a home energy rating, and have mailed me a CD of their findings, including infrareds and digital photos. I have yet to open the envelope. Cite a reason, and you’re probably right … money, other house maintenance and life priorities, fear.

One solution – amidst many – to the ‘stuck’ factor is to teach home performance contractors how to better sell HP. That is, how to sell the upgrade, not just ‘test-in’ assessments.

Enter Dale Carnegie. On Thursday and Friday last, contractors representing 14 weatherization companies attended Dale Carnegie sales training in Stratford, CT. Connecticut’s Neighbor to Neighbor program sponsored the class, aiming to infuse the Dale Carnegie “buyer’s mindset” into the companies’ sales processes.

The class trains contractors to do things a different way, encouraging them to get out of their comfort zone which is, often, to talk about building science (stack effect!) and products (heat pumps, insulation, air sealant!) With lots of role-playing, the class taught contractors how to ask questions, how to engage homeowners about their homes and their true wants. Questions for the homeowner are conversational, situational, and broad. “Ask what wakes up the customer in middle of the night,” said trainer, Scott Laun. “Ask a few questions, and listen. Do not talk, let them talk.”

Daniel Martins, of Santa Energy and a veterinarian in his previous profession, participated in the class, saying, “it trains your brain to behave. What not to do when we are selling. We have to naturally talk about ourselves, and less about selling the product, and know how to relate to customers’ needs.”

These lessons are helpful for conversions, but are also useful once the subsidies have gone away and contractors find themselves in a competitive marketplace.

Conducting Home Performance

“Home Performance” used to sound like something musically-inclined parents forced their children to do in living rooms.
It’s catching on, slowly, for what it really is, and that is tightening up houses – with an ear for proper ventilation, humidity controls and other riffs on indoor air quality, and fuel-efficient climate controls. (There are geographic oddities; in Westchester, New York a common refrain of homeowners is to call all heating appliances furnaces, even if they are, in fact, boilers, and builders here have grooved on locating air conditioner handlers in attics.. That’s hot … and not in a good way.)
A long-time friend invited me to a fundraiser Sunday night for Canticorum Virtuosi at the old JP Morgan estate in South Salem which is now home to Le Chateau, a French restaurant. Harold Rosenbaum is the founder and creative director for Canticorum and he conducted two choirs’ performances during dinner.
Two flutes of champagne into the evening, somewhere between Harold’s amateur and youth choirs, a handsome, lighthearted man to my left asked me the difference between closed cell and open cell foam, and did one need to apply a fire retardant to both? His attractive wife sitting between us said nothing, and later, I asked how it was that her husband knew so much about foam. (Of all things? Really?) She said she was as surprised as I was. He said he’d been doing a lot of reading online about making his house more energy efficient, and that he was about to call an insulator to give him an estimate.
I’ve read that musical conductors have different styles, some use ‘point of the stick’ and others a more fluid arm gesture that creates a time lag between conductor and choir or orchestra.
Sitting at Le Chateau in black lace and pumps, it felt, not strangely, that the invisible home performance conductor was using the latter method — that this concept was slowly catching on, with fluid gestures and yes, time lags.
I gave the man to my left my business card, urged him not to call an insulator but to look at the Energize NY website (energizeny.org), where he could fill out an application for an energy assessment by a trained home performance contractor. Energize has just the right contractors to conduct his home energy improvements.

Great Day

One upside to the economic downturn is the influx of finance and technology professional entering the sustainability sector. They are ubiquitous. (“And they are everywhere, too,” as an old friend used to say.) These professionals bring to programmatic endeavors around slow food, climate change, recycling and the myriad elements of sustainability not only valuable expertise, but alacrity, defined purpose and accountability. It’s refreshing.
Energize New York – a government-funded program that markets residential energy efficiency improvements — is overseen by a local development corporation, Energy Improvement Corporation (EIC). The founder of EIC is Mark Thielking; Mark came out of the finance world (UBS, specifically). He has a focused, data-driven mission to transform the residential and commercial energy improvement market through financing loans to building owners. He draws from a pool of talented corporate, legal, finance and grassroots folk, including the non-profit Bedford2020 which helped write the grant that established Energize for the Town of Bedford in New York’s Westchester County.
EnergizeNY is under the reporting gun to deliver results (as measured in the number of homes that make energy improvements). The program is dependent on infrastructures that have less va-va-voom than corporate finance. There is, for example, the issue of extracting data from government bureaucracies … data that is pivotal to effecting market transformation … data that resides within the orbit of a government contractor.
When things that may take mere weeks to effect in the corporate world, take months to bring about (like data access), it can feel a bit like Andy Samberg’s SNL skit, ‘Great Day’ (drugs aside):
“Any problem is solvable, we can feed the hungry and cure disease
But all of that would be a huge waste of time because we live in the
Matrix.”
You may remember … a business-suited Samberg dances and sings on a cocaine-induced high, and then backbends into a slow-mo Matrix move.
Energize has made, and continues to make, great strides in modernizing the IT systems needed for targeted marketing, with the essential support of a handful of forward-thinking contract managers at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), as we aim to get at the data that resides within the Authority’s orbit. NYSERDA is currently reviewing bids for an RFP to implement its home performance program, including the technology piece.
In effecting market transformation around energy improvements, it can feel like our hearts race along barupa papapam pam! And then we go into the Matrix. And then we’re off to the races again.

Paving Path to Realistic Energy Modeling

Once upon a time, in a land called Maine, a girl (of a certain age) couldn’t help but wonder, “if you want to reward homeowners for saving energy in their homes, doesn’t it make sense to look at actual energy usage, something that accounts for behavior, as well as structures?” Soon, there were others, too, in lands far to the west and south who shared this wonder, antagonized by a protocol of projecting energy savings based on structural details. Perhaps modeling needs to be in line with actual utility bills and oil deliveries, and those actuals would better reflect energy savings, and more realistic carbon savings. Perhaps there needs to be a “before and after improvement” verification of savings, and a way for everyone to keep track.
The girl (of a certain age) checked out of the world for a couple years, to Southeast Asia where she found her bliss in colorful silk, and when she returned to the world of energy, she met a man who had a vision, in a land called New York. And he was called Tom. And he introduced her to people paving a path of realistic energy projections. And they were called Snugg Home.