LES looks to cloud for better program implementation, evaluation

Maintaining a successful utility efficiency program involves a never-ending quest to improve the customer experience and evaluate the effectiveness of each measure. Moving its Sustainable Energy Program You are leaving WAPA.gov. to the cloud has given Lincoln Electric System (LES) of Nebraska a win on both fronts. 

Launched in 2009, the Sustainable Energy Program was intended to show that energy efficiency and demand-side management were viable alternatives to building new generation and buying expensive energy to meet peak demand. “It had a healthy participation rate relative to our expectations from the beginning,” said LES Energy Services Manager Marc Shkolnick. “But you still have to keep refining and evaluating.”

Always room to improve
In its current iteration, the program provides incentives to residential and commercial customers for whole-building sealing and insulation and high-efficiency heat pumps and air conditioners. Lighting and prescriptive energy-efficiency measures are available to commercial and industrial customers, as well.

The Sustainable Energy Program offers incentives for whole-building insulation and sealing to both residential and commercial customers.

The Sustainable Energy Program offers incentives for whole-building insulation and sealing to both residential and commercial customers. (Photo by DOE Weatherization Assistance Program)

For end users, participation in the program is simple and straightforward by design. Customers select a participating contractor to install the measure, LES pays the incentive to the contractor when the work is completed and the contractor passes it on to the customer as a credit on their invoice. Beyond searching the online trade ally list, the customer does very little paperwork, and that did not change with the move to the cloud. “The big difference for end users is that the system makes it easier to keep our trade ally list up to date,” Shkolnick noted.

For contractors and utility staff, however, the cloud system has significantly streamlined the process, Shkolnick said. “There was something of a learning curve the first year, with transitioning to a paperless system,” he recalled. “Once the contractors got their information entered, it became much more efficient for them.”

Given that more than 90 percent of the customers who use the Sustainable Energy Program come in through contractor recommendation, LES has a big stake in improving their trade allies’ experience. Make life easier for the people who are driving customer engagement in your efficiency program and your program will become stronger, too.

Learning from data
Evaluation, measurement and verification is one of the greatest challenges of customer program management, and one of the biggest attractions of automating program administration. In the two years since LES converted the Sustainable Energy Program to cloud management, the system has confirmed hunches and revealed trends.

LES customers who took advantage of the air conditioner incentive also had a high response rate to the post-project survey.

LES customers who took advantage of the air conditioner incentive also had a high response rate to the post-project survey. (Photo by Energy Star)

The post-project survey the customers can complete online has proven highly useful to Shkolnick. Air conditioning customers respond at a high 20-percent rate. One question in particular—“How much impact did the incentive play in your choosing the higher-efficiency unit?”—has allowed LES to adjust the deemed energy savings attributed to the program. “You know there are ‘free riders’ who were going to spring for a high-efficiency unit, incentive or not, but we now have a better idea of how many participants that is,” he said.

Another lesson from data is that incentives play different roles in motivating residential customers as opposed to commercial customers. This is a fact that experienced program managers already grasp intuitively, but, “The difference is just stark,” Shkolnick declared. “Businesses clearly look at efficiency as an investment, while a lot of homeowners give as much weight to comfort, convenience and other intangibles.”

A significant number of customers have given their names and addresses on their surveys, allowing LES to contact them for testimonials to include in future outreach. But negative responses are just as valuable. “Customer experience is the part of the program where we have the most control,” explained Shkolnick. “If someone rates their experience as poor, we can contact them, find out what went wrong and use that knowledge to improve our customer service.”

Future is cloud-y
In choosing the cloud system, Shkolnick observed that flexibility was a top priority. “We are in an ever-changing industry, so we needed a system that would be easy to modify from year to year,” he said.

The LES Technology Services department was very helpful in developing the requests for proposal (RFPs) and evaluating bids to ensure that the system was easy to use for trade allies, had robust reporting abilities and had a reasonable price tag. “One thing we learned in the RFP process is that the market space is not overly populated with services targeting utility programs,” Shkolnick acknowledged.

Perhaps software developers will take note and address that gap in the near future. A great deal of industry attention has been focused on systems and devices that track consumer energy use and assist with load management. But LES knows that building more responsive, effective customer programs is just as important, and the cloud has helped the utility do just that.

Source: Public Power Daily

New Better Buildings toolkit dives into training techniques

Utilities often struggle to educate contractors, staff and volunteers on building science; sales and marketing; program offerings and business development. To help residential energy-efficiency program managers plan technical, outreach and professional training, the Department of Energy Better Buildings Residential Network recently launched a Training Toolkit.

Eden Housing affordable housing developer in Alameda County, California, has partnered with the Better Building Initiative to reduce the energy intensity of its properties by 20 percent. Reduced energy intensity results in lower utility bills for tenants and building owners. (Photo by Eden Housing)

Eden Housing affordable housing developer in Alameda County, California, has partnered with the Better Building Initiative to reduce the energy intensity of its properties by 20 percent. Reduced energy intensity results in lower utility bills for tenants and building owners. (Photo by Eden Housing)

This toolkit—the fourth Residential Network Voluntary Member Initiative—includes tips, resources and examples to help you realize the value of providing training opportunities for contractors, staff and volunteers. A study of more than 140 energy-efficiency programs across the country found that contractor training activities led to more comprehensive upgrades, a higher assessment-to-upgrade conversion rate, improved program processes, improved quality control and increased revenues, among other benefits.

To achieve such results, program staff, volunteers and contractors must have a thorough understanding of building science; sales and marketing; residential energy efficiency program offerings and business development. In the Training Toolkit, program managers will discover training resources and opportunities, compiled and reviewed by Better Buildings Residential Network members, to build that expertise in-house.

The toolkit provides resources on three types of training:

  1. Technical training – Covering building science, energy assessments, technologies and techniques
  2. Outreach training – Covering promotion of program offerings, sales training and customer engagement
  3. Professional training – Covering business development and management for participating contractors

Additional resources at the end of the toolkit include more details on the Better Buildings Residential Program Solution Center. This online collection of resources and lessons learned concerning training and other topics is based on years of on-the-job experience in residential energy-efficiency programs.

Get involved
The Better Buildings Residential Network connects energy-efficiency programs and partners to share best practices and learn from one another to increase the number of energy-efficient homes. Several Western customers, including the cities of Fort Collins, ColoradoYou are leaving WAPA.gov. and Palo Alto, CaliforniaYou are leaving WAPA.gov. participate in the initiative.

Members of the Residential Network join with other energy-efficiency programs and partners to identify and address common challenges and market opportunities through voluntary initiatives that result in the development of new tools and resources. Your feedback concerning this toolkit and your training efforts help the network improve its resources and identify new issues.

Contact the Residential Network for more information about joining or participating in the next voluntary initiative.

Source: DOE Better Buildings Initiative, 3/25/16

New OSHA Regs for Confined Spaces Safety

New confined space regulations from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) taking effect Jan. 8, 2016, have significant implications for home performance companies and weatherization professionals.

This rule is designed to help prevent tragic situations like a recent one where a construction foreman died from asphyxiation after entering a manhole with an uncontrolled hazardous atmosphere.

Under the new rule (29 CFR 1926 Subpart AA), permits to access specific confined spaces are granted by the general contractor or lead contractor on each job. There are numerous safe entry procedures that require the contractor to plan and prepare ahead of time. The rule will apply to any space that meets three criteria:

  • It is large enough for a worker to enter it
  • It has limited means of entry or exit
  • It is not designed for continuous occupancy

A space may be a permit-required confined space if it has a hazardous atmosphere, the potential for suffocation, a layout that might trap a worker through converging walls or a sloped floor, or any other serious safety or health hazard.

Employers will be required to train workers to ensure they know about the existence, location and dangers posed by each permit-required confined space.Report - Protecting Construction Workers in Confined Spaces

To help small businesses become compliant, OSHA has published The Small Entity Compliance Guide (pdf). This is plain language explanation covers all aspects of the Confined Space in Construction Rule, including how eliminating or isolating hazards can allow the contractor to reclassify a permit-required confined space as a non-permit confined space.

Learn more about the new regulations on OSHA’s Confined Space website, or check out The New Confined Spaces in Construction – The Big Picture, You are leaving Western's site. a free archived webinar from the National Association of Home Builders.

Also, if you have found a good resource for training energy auditors, customer program representatives and preferred contractors to comply with the new regulation, please share it with Energy Services. Safety always comes first!

In-home events jump-start outreach, says DOE Better Buildings program

Keeping customer outreach programs fresh is a challenge for even the most customer-oriented utility. The Marketing and Outreach Handbook from the Energy Department’s Better Buildings Program recommends using in-home events to show customers the real-world benefits of energy-efficiency upgrades.InHomeProvenPractices

Unlike remodeling projects, the benefits of a home energy upgrade are generally not immediately visible to the casual observer. Strategies that demonstrate tangible benefits from upgrades can help customers understand the value of such projects and motivate them to invest in improvements.

Utility-sponsored house parties and demonstration homes help make energy efficiency real by showing potential customers what a home energy assessment or upgrade entails. In some cases, the hosts of these events were interested or satisfied customers—trusted marketing sources—who invited friends and neighbors to their homes. Utility program staff and contractors were typically on hand to walk the guests through an assessment of the house or to point out the efficiency measures in upgraded homes, and to answer any questions.

The handbook offers case studies of successful home tour programs across the United States. A few proven practices that make upgrade benefits visible include:

  • Show how assessments work
    Energy Impact Illinois used “house parties” to build momentum for energy assessments and upgrades. Trusted neighbors hosted contractors who showed guests where energy was being wasted and explained ways to improve comfort while saving energy.
  • Hold house tours
    New Orleans, Louisiana Worthwhile Investments Save Energy gave open house tours in the upgraded homes of happy clients. Signs highlighting completed work were posted throughout the house, and the upgrade contractor was present to talk about the associated energy savings. These showcase events produced high-quality leads who were likely to undertake projects.
  • Invite the whole neighborhood
    ShopSmart with JEA, You are leaving Western's site. a Florida utility rebate program, threw a Home Energy Makeover: Block Party to raise community awareness about its rebate opportunities. Homeowners who had received home energy assessments from a local energy professional hosted block parties for their neighbors. The energy professional reviewed the assessment and upgrade process, discussed rebate options and answered questions from friends and neighbors who attended.
  • Make efficiency personal
    The California Center for Sustainable Energy You are leaving Western's site. provided demonstration tours in homes that completed upgrades in Chula Vista, California. Potential customers could learn about their neighbors’ experiences, ask questions of the home performance professionals who installed the upgrades and sign up for an energy assessment of their own home for less than $50.

Start here for success
You will find more residential energy-efficiency outreach tips, step-by-step instructions and program examples in Marketing & Outreach – Develop Implementation Plans to jump-start your outreach program. If you haven’t used the Better Building Residential Program Solution Center, take a tour through its resources for key lessons and best practices drawn from the experience of utilities, energy organizations and their partners.

Source: DOE Better Buildings Program, 8/25/15

Around the web: Find qualified HVAC installation

An energy-efficient heating and cooling system can yield significant energy savings for home and business owners, as long as it is installed properly and that is the rub.HVACcontractor

Installation can make or break the system’s performance. Unfortunately, finding the right contractor—one experienced with today’s sophisticated, high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment—is not easy, even in a big metropolitan area. Some utilities solve this problem by creating a trusted contractor pool to support their HVAC efficiency programs. You may not have the time or budget to do that, but you can introduce your customers to online resources to help them select the right person for their job.

Ask questions, look for credentials
Energy Star’s 10 Tips for Hiring a Heating and Cooling Contractor is a good place to start for basic common-sense advice. It includes a link to the Energy Star Guide to Energy Efficient Cooling and Heating, also available in Spanish. While your customers are on the website, they can research Energy Star-qualified heating and cooling equipment.

Air Conditioner Contractors of America (ACCA) has an outstanding page for homeowners Redirecting to a non-government site that discusses system maintenance, interviewing contractors, and even talks about Manual J, the industry standard for determining the size of an HVAC system. There are short, informative videos about the value of licensed contractors, questions to ask before hiring one and what to expect from a professional installation.

ACCA strongly recommends hiring a licensed contractor with technicians certified by North American Technician Excellence Redirecting to a non-government site (NATE). The nationally recognized, industry-supported certification organization has its own website with helpful Tips and Resources covering everything from safety to HVAC terminology. However, visitors should use the ACCA contractor locator to find local credentialed technicians as it is more up to date than the NATE database.

Building Performance Institute is another organization that certifies contractors and provides a searchable databaseRedirecting to a non-government site The results include not only company location, but technician core certifications as well.

Visitors will find BPI’s contractor comparison form useful when getting estimates. The form lists 10 questions and space for the answers from three different contractors for easy comparison. It also lists the steps homeowners should expect during the installation process.

Be proactive
Homeowners generally don’t think about HVAC purchases and repairs—not exactly the stuff of daydreams, after all—until something goes wrong. Utilities can think ahead for their customers by creating a bill stuffer with contractor questions and links to online contractor finders. Make sure your customer service representatives have hard copies and electronic copies they can share with anyone who asks.

If you offer an incentive program for high-efficiency HVAC systems, place links to selected online resources on your program Web page. Make sure equipment vendors have copies of the contractor questions on hand to pass out with sales.

Educating customers about the value of hiring certified HVAC installers can create a ripple effect that motivates contractors in your service territory to seek certification. Utilities can be ready with information about credentialing organizations in case contractors call with questions. In a business where much of the training is passed from generation to generation, technicians in small towns and rural areas may not be aware of certification opportunities. If enough customers are asking about contractors’ credentials over time, you may find that your trusted contractor pool builds itself.

Report: Utility-contractor partnerships affect success of energy-efficiency programs

Fast Water Heater CompanyRedirecting to a non-government site has released a white paper suggesting that utility energy-efficiency programs built around strong cooperation between contractors and the power provider are likely to get more customer participation.

Approaches on Utility-Contractor Partnerships compared the experiences of two utilities marketing very similar rebates for an almost identical product over a similar time period. The major difference between the programs was the level of contractor engagement and accountability—and the results. A large utility serving 5 million customers used a conventional, partner-neutral business model with minimal contractor evaluation. The second utility, with 700,000 customers, actively collaborated with approved contractors on program promotion and follow-through.

The results, summarized in an article in Intelligent UtilityRedirecting to a non-government site, were strikingly different. The utility using the partnership model achieved a 63-percent penetration rate, in contrast to the 8-percent penetration rate of the program relying on the traditional approach.

The effect that the difference in the size of the utilities might have had on the results does not get much attention in the article, but may be explored in more depth in the report. Also, the report doesn’t state whether the utilities are investor-owned or public power, which might reflect on the pre-existing relationships with their customers. Even so, the correlation between the partnership model and program success is worth noting.

The author, who is the CEO of Fast Water Heater subsidiary Demand Management Installation Services, addresses some of the reasons utilities prefer contractor neutrality, offering credible arguments for a more hands-on approach to energy-efficiency programs.

Studies like Approaches on Utility-Contractor Partnerships will be the focus of the Smart Cities conferenceRedirecting to a non-government site, Nov. 3-5, in San Diego, California. Innovative utilities and industry leaders will be presenting case studies and hosting discussions on the future of the energy and water efficiency as well as municipal-level sustainability programs.

Get ready for appliance replacement boom

According to Research Analyst Jim Lyza at sustainability marketers The Shelton Group Redirecting to a non-government site, the United States is poised to see a boom in appliance replacement over the next few years.

Housing starts exploded in the mid and late ’90s, and all of those new homes needed refrigerators, washing machines, clothes washers and dryers, ranges and HVAC systems. The lifespan of most appliances is around 13 years, while heating and cooling systems last about 15 to 20 years.

That adds up to a great opportunity to get consumers to upgrade to more efficient appliances—if utilities have a marketing plan. A major challenge to getting energy-efficient products into the home is that consumers buy when the appliance breaks down, instead of planning ahead. And if the contractor doesn’t know about a rebate, or a manufacturer doesn’t have the more efficient model in stock, the consumer is likely to go with the most affordable, most available choice.

Utilities should start working with contractors, manufacturers and retailers NOW to build a plan for the coming boom. Make sure your rebate offerings are as streamlined as possible for both DIY and contractor installs, and encourage retailers to carry the rebated products to reduce initial out-of-pocket costs. Also, keep in mind that the more integrated incentive programs are, the more likely consumers will be to make multiple, pro-active improvements. Source: The Shelton Group, 10/10/12

Standards, certifications meet consumer demand for quality energy-efficiency upgrades

Consumers are catching on to the value of home energy-efficiency improvements, and building contractors are following.

Last year alone, the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the national standard-setting and credentialing organization, issued 14,571 certifications. That’s an increase of 120 percent over 2010, and represents 63 percent of the total certifications issued from 2001 to 2010. More than 22,000 home performance contractors, weatherization assistance program providers, utilities, home inspectors and other residential service providers hold a total of 31,662 active certifications.

The number of building professionals seeking BPI certification has surged since 2008. This is partly because state and local governments and utilities are getting serious about their energy efficiency programs, observed BPI Marketing and Communications Director Leslie McDowell. “They are offering substantial incentives, rebates and loans to homeowners to have their homes upgraded for energy efficiency. The workforce is reacting to that demand,” she said.

The certifications BPI offers to contractors currently include:

  • Building analysis – Focusing on whole-home assessments that go beyond traditional energy audits to identify and correct problems at the root cause through building science.
  • Building envelope – Quantifying the building shell performance and prescribing improvements to help stop uncontrolled air leakage and optimize comfort, durability and HV/AC performance.
  • Residential building envelope whole-house air leakage control installation – Installing dense-pack insulation materials to reduce energy loss from air leakage, and reduce pollutants and allergens through air migration.
  • Manufactured housing – Applying house-as-a-system fundamentals to the specific needs of various types of housing technologies.
  • Heating – Optimizing the performance of heating equipment to help save energy and ensure occupant comfort, health and safety.
  • Air conditioning and heat pumps – Integrating these systems within the whole home, and diagnosing and correcting problems to achieve peak performance.
  • Multifamily housing – Diagnosing problems and improving the performance of larger, more complex residential structures.

Starting in June 2012, BPI is adding pilot exams for new Home Energy Professional Certifications for the four most common jobs in the home energy upgrade industry— energy auditor, retrofit installer, crew leader and quality control inspector. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is supporting the development of the new certifications and chose BPI as the certifying body.

The new certifications will meet the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 17024) accreditation—the international benchmark for personnel certifications across all industries. Under ISO 17024, each new certification is developed and administered using international best practices, such as cross-disciplinary peer review and industry validation of technical materials.

BPI’s goal for the new ISO 17024-accredited certifications is to provide home energy upgrade professionals with more opportunities for career growth, while building consumer confidence in the value energy-efficiency improvements. BPI expects to roll them out nationally in the fall of 2012.

CARE Program

Gary Myers, Poudre Valley REA, and Deacon Taylor, Sangfroid Inc.

Poudre Valley REA serves 35,000 members in Northern Colorado, and had 2009 revenues in excess of one billion dollars.

In 2009, the utility sponsored a Home Energy Makeover contest, with a grand prize of $20,000 to install a geothermal heat pump. The ideal home would be 3,000 square feet and have high energy bills. Partners in implementing the contest included Colorado Geothermal Drilling, Roberts Heating and Air, and Thermal Partners. The winning family started with bills of $435 month for heating only. After the makeover, the bill dropped to $40 per month.

The general manager of Poudre Valley wanted to extend the benefits to other members, but at a lower cost. The Concern About Residential Energy efficiency program was born. The program aims to do as many homes as possible in the $1,500 range. Weatherization improvements are the most cost effective.

To qualify for the program, customer must be a Poudre Valley member and homeowner with a demonstrated need.

To begin the process an intern from Front Range Community College is performing energy audits. The auditor collects gas usage data and structural details, lighting details, outlet cover count, heating system type and water heater type and temperature data. Details about the attic structure and amount and type of insulation in the attic space are recorded. The homeowner gets a CO monitor, more than one for a multilevel home. Poudre Valley reviews the auditor forms and dispatches the contractor, who coordinates directly with the homeowner.

Locating qualified contractors was a challenge. Poudre Valley chose Lawton energy Saving Solution and This Efficient House to do the weatherization. The contract required a blower door test, combustion safety test and make specified improvements. An independent third party, Thermal Concepts, does another blower door and combustion safety test to insure proper installation.

So far, 55 applications have been screened, and the auditor has begun collecting information.

Bundling audits and efficiency—Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s New Home Energy Efficiency Program

Eric Stern, Director, Mountain Programs, CLEAResult Consulting, Inc.

The emphasis of this program is on customer education. Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s (OGE) audit program is for homeowners who want a piece of energy efficiency rather than a whole-house approach.

Based on 3-year energy-savings goals established by the state Corporation Commission, the program aims to do 30,000 audits at a cost of only $50 to the customer, perform 20,100 air conditioning  (A/C) tune-ups and duct repairs and issue 4,500 appliance rebates.

The premise is bundling everything. When a customer calls the OGE call center, they get the audit, duct repair and appliance rebates. The call center, staffed by contractor Clear Result, receives about 200 calls daily. The representatives are all trained to answer energy questions. Payment is taken over the phone. Eligibility can be verified over the phone and audits are scheduled.

The auditors are very customer service-oriented. Each customer gets a do-it-yourself weatherization kit. Audits are performed on tablet computers and include a 60 minute visual inspection and a 30 minute customer debrief. Don’t overwhelm the customer with too much information.

When the audit is completed, the auditor selects the next step—the A/C tune-up—and a contractor is assigned. The auditor tries to schedule the tune-up on the spot. If the customer wants to call back, the contractor must close the loop.

There is a very structured protocol for customer service, safety, operational service, efficiency and documentation. Not all contractors like it, but it offers the opportunity to create a relationship while the contractor is in the home. That was the value proposition for the contractors.

The program started in the summer and has done 500 audits to date. This is an aggressive program—results, not market transformation.