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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.

SnuggHome Surges Ahead

About ten years ago, my employer was a large investor-owned electric and gas utility in Denver. I was hired to manage the marketing of new energy technologies. Problem was, we didn’t have any new energy technologies. Not really. Our little team of two (plus a consultant) traveled to Minnesota to talk with Honeywell about smart gadgets, and then we flew to Manhattan for a trade show at the Javits Center to look at smart home networking. We hired a product ideation outfit out of San Francisco to test concepts in the newly re-structured electric market Texas called ERCOT. We met with Xanboo, a server-based web- and video-integrated home management company (err, start-up). Then it all tanked. Enron. The California power crisis. The utility dropped its pretense of interest in new energy technologies and decided to focus on ‘core offerings.’ Today, the interest in energy management has a lot more going for it. Investors and mentors, for one. Surge Accelerator out of Houston calls together entrepreneurs in energy efficiency software — among other energy-related technology — to convene for 12 week mentoring sessions: “Have you answered the call with a software solution that will manage and optimize energy consumption? We are looking for software entrepreneurs that are interested in making energy efficiency a worldwide reality with innovation.” Their key areas of interest in energy efficiency are home energy management, remote energy monitoring, and site energy optimization. The software design team of SnuggHome has answered the call and is participating in the current 12 week mentoring sessions. They are also delivering energy efficiency software solutions to that very same electric and gas utility in Denver!

A Geek’s Dream

The space where energy meets IT is a geek’s dream. Four years ago, about when I took an extended hiatus from blogging for cleantechblog, the available software and hardware options that supported residential energy efficiency were slim, and the solutions, clunky. Home performance and energy rating professionals had paper data collection sheets and time-consuming modeling software that unappealingly overestimated energy savings and sometimes heating load. No web-based solution – and none with homeowner-friendly graphically illustrated information – had made it to market.
The exercise for the home performance contractor went something like this …. collect the data in the field on paper, drive back to the office and (after working all day) enter data into software loaded onto a single a computer, then email or print and mail (or drive) it to the homeowner, and perhaps also to a government-funded energy efficiency program, if they gave you a compelling reason to do so, like volumes of sales leads, or better yet, cash. If a homeowner wanted a loan to pay for home energy upgrades, they were handed printed forms to be hand-filled and faxed.
I was curious about the possibilities of streamlining the data communication processes in this field when one home performance contractor in Maine showed up on a job with a handheld tablet. Disliking the software solutions available for the home performance profession at that time, I spouted off that the home performance industry would find its wings when Silicon Valley and the IT/telecommunications industry got into energy software.
This was 2007, before iPads, Android, SmartPhones, and Google Chrome … and before Central Maine Power installed a smart meter on my house.
Since then, the opportunity to collect and manage energy data has exploded with the introduction of these tools. (I am finger tapping this blog entry on an iPad2.)
The convergence of IT and energy efficiency nearly defines cleantech, and the leaders in this space are coming not out of Silicon Valley or the Massachusetts Tech Corridors, but San Francisco and Boulder…
more about them next week.