Comparison of Utility Energy Efficiency Programs

Larry Zarker and Tiger Adolf, Building Performance Institute

Improving energy efficiency is good for the economy, national security and public health—but only if the retrofits are properly installed and perform as promised. Building Performance Institute (BPI) standards provide a yardstick to programs to determine if local contractors are meeting the customers’ needs and expectations.

Why certify
The United States has an aging housing stock, with one third of houses over 45 years old, and another third between 25 and 45 years old. Upgrading existing homes is a slow process. New York State has had a program for eight years and it has only reached 1 percent of its houses. The rest of the nation is on a “10,000 year plan.” To make the goal even harder to reach, most of the hundreds of thousands of contractors working today don’t understand energy-efficiency retrofitting.

State, city and industry programs throughout the country are adopting BPI standard credentialing. Bringing all the standards together under one label reduces confusion for consumers, contractors and program managers. BPI standards ensure proper use of program funds and minimize the agency’s and the contractor’s risk. It may seem more costly at first, but better training and quality assurance pay off quickly.

BPI has published standard work specifications that the Department of Energy has adopted. The standards are going out for public comment right now. The new standards are producing a whole suite of specifications and desired outcomes, and giving companies a basis for developing proprietary approaches to retrofit projects.   

Over the last couple of years, certification exams have jumped from 30 per month to 1,000 per month.

Contractors who go through BPI accreditation understand that they have a commitment to meet their performance claims. Companies commit to hiring a minimum level of certified workers, offer comprehensive solutions, test in and test out, and follow up with quality assurance.

Recruiting trade allies
To get energy-efficiency gains, programs must help contractors understand what they need to do, help them get certified and help them market to the people who are looking for them.

Home retrofitting programs need solutions-based selling, wrapped up with quality assurance. People who call contractors about home improvements are rarely interested in reducing their carbon footprint. But once trained contractors are in the door, they can start recommending efficiency upgrades.

Unfortunately, the contracting community is very conservative. The cost of accreditation is one barrier, even though it is an excellent investment in building the business. Comparing the training and testing fees to the cost of setting up a business franchise is a good way to put the investment in perspective. The franchise EmbroiderMe, for example, costs $180,000 to buy in, plus required advertising and an annual percentage to the company. In contrast, a BPE quality assurance certification costs the contractor between $3,390 and $5,000 total.

We have to persuade contractors by showing them what is in it for them. Certification differentiates the business, reduces staff down time, retains high quality staff, minimizes call back costs, provides risk management and increases customer satisfaction. BPI also provides marketing materials, door hangers and leave-behind materials tailored to the region that contractors can use to promote their businesses.