TriState members get crash course in residential energy auditing

Following a long day in the classroom, workshop attendees discuss their experience with audit tools available from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. (Left to right: Instructor Jim Herritage; Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann; Tim Grablander, Cherry-Todd Electric; Andy Molt, Y-W Electric; and Alantha Garrison, Gunnison County Electric.)
Following a long day in the classroom, workshop attendees discuss their experience with audit tools available from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. (Left to right: Instructor Jim Herritage; Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann; Tim Grablander, Cherry-Todd Electric; Andy Molt, Y-W Electric; and Alantha Garrison, Gunnison County Electric.)

A home energy audit can do many things for a utility, from soothing an upset customer to reducing overall demand. To help its members realize the full range of benefits from their audit programs, TriState Generation and Transmission Association You are leaving Western's site. recently hosted a free two-and-a-half-day workshop on residential energy audits.

The intensive workshop offered a thorough overview of the many factors that affect residential energy consumption. Attendees also learned how to calculate energy savings from typical efficiency upgrades, so important for helping consumers decide how to spend their home improvement dollars.

The crowd of more than 30 participants included TriState’s five relationship managers and representatives from Western, all of whom joined in the class work. “I think we may have set some kind of attendance record,” observed instructor Jim Herritage of Energy Auditors Inc., You are leaving Western's site. the energy services company that presented the training.

What members need
Most of the attendees were member services representatives, key account managers or energy management specialists. Some utilities have a long-established home auditing program, while others were just thinking about starting one. Experienced energy auditors from utilities such as Mountain Parks Electric Inc. You are leaving Western's site. and United Power You are leaving Western's site. came to brush up on their knowledge. “This is a really affordable way to get my CEUs [continuing education units],” said Rob Taylor, a key accounts manager for Mountain Parks. “You could take this class three or four times and still learn something.”

Many in the class, however, were attending their first training on the complexities of the home audit. Donna Venable of Continental Divide Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. in Grants, New Mexico, was among those who had been doing audits only a short time. “We are starting an audit program because rates are going up and customers are complaining,” she stated. “Customers are also getting a lot smarter about energy and asking tougher questions.”

TriState Relationship Manager Gary Myers explained that the class was intended primarily to help member systems with less auditing experience. “I was getting a lot of calls from members about energy audits,” he said. “TriState has five relationship managers for 44 members in 200,000 square miles of territory. As much as we would like to, we can’t always provide technical assistance in person.”

A more practical approach was to bring co-op member services staff to one place to learn the basics of home energy auditing. “If we all learn the same concepts, steps and formulas, we can all speak the same language,” said Myers. “Our members may still call with questions, but it will be a lot easier for us to answer them.”

Curriculum evolves
Even a “basic” walk-through energy audit has many components and a laundry list of interrelated aspects the auditor must keep in mind.

The college-level class covered fuel characteristics, efficiency terms, heat behavior, the thermal envelope, types of insulation, caulking and weather-stripping, water heating, ventilation and energy-related math. To begin, each participant received a workbook and, most importantly, an Energy FactMonster, a laminated “cheat sheet” with terms, basic values and formulas.

The workbook contained a home energy audit checklist that Herritage said changes with each class. As the class went through each item, participants did, in fact, speak up with suggestions to add to the list. Member Services Director Andy Molt of Akron, Colorado-based Y-W Electric Association, You are leaving Western's site. introduced the term, “family living dynamics,” that was promptly added to the class lexicon, as well. “It describes how situations like having a new baby or an aging parent in the home might change the way a family uses energy,” he explained.

Hard, fast rules
Herritage said that he learns from every class and that the syllabus keeps evolving, but certain principles remain the same.

Energy auditors must always remember that their business is to empower customers to understand their own energy use. And that understanding can only be gained by approaching the building as a whole system, rather than focusing on the parts separately.

Herritage recommended that participants begin every service call by asking themselves three questions:

  1. Is there a problem?
  2. What is the nature of the problem?
  3. How do I fix it?

Get to the bottom of these questions, and chances are you will have a satisfied consumer. Just as important, your consumer will be likely to have a better understanding of his energy use.

When customers decide to make an improvement or repair, the best way to get the expected results is to hire technicians who have been certified by North American Technician Excellence You are leaving Western's site.. Too often, Herritage explained, on-the-job training is handed from technician to technician, and may date back decades. “Today’s high-efficiency systems must be maintained by people who studied the technology, not just each other,” he said.

Everyone benefits
At the end of the training, participants took a test and received a diploma, but the real takeaways were the intensive study, lively discussions and a clearer understanding of the audit process.

Joy Manning of High West Energy and Nancy Andrews show off their diplomas for completing Residential Energy Auditing, v.5.01.
Joy Manning of High West Energy and Nancy Andrews show off their diplomas for completing Residential Energy Auditing, v.5.01.

Participants with no auditing background discovered a new set of tools. Customer Service Representative Alice Morrison, one of six employees Sangre De Cristo Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. sent to the workshop, was surprised at how much the class covered. “A lot the material was over my head, but I’m learning so much,” she admitted. “Now when customers call, I’ll have a whole new frame of reference to deal with their questions.”

Susan Kroll, who has built a strong residential audit program for Intermountain Rural Electric Association, You are leaving Western's site. called the workshop the best auditor training she has attended. “It was good to hear that other auditors have the same concerns as I do. Learning more about the science behind steps we go through automatically will make it easier to explain our recommendations to the customer,” she added.

Tim Grablander, general manager of Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. in South Dakota, hopes to use home energy audits to make positive connections with residential customers. “Too often, we only see low-income consumers when they come in to pay a bill to get the electricity back on,” he acknowledged. “We would much rather help them lower their bills and keep the electricity on in the first place.”

Cherry-Todd is a member system of Basin Electric Cooperative, You are leaving Western's site. which cosponsored the workshop and plans to host one in its territory next fall. Myers considers basic audit training a good investment for wholesale power suppliers. “This workshop is helping TriState extend its workforce to better serve our consumers,” he declared.

Home energy checkup can find costly ailments

This excellent article from IntelligentUtility Redirecting to a non-government site illustrates the value of utility-provided home energy audits.

Jaspal Subhlok, a computer science professor at the University of Houston, thought his 1920s-era Montrose bungalow was ship-shape when it came to electricity efficiency.

Subhlok, who has owned the house since 2004, typically keeps his house at a moderate 78 degrees in the summer. He bought an energy-efficient refrigerator, energy-saving light bulbs and installed double-layered window shades for his front windows, to keep out the worst of Houston’s wilting summer heat. Read more. Source: IntelligentUtility, 9/23/13

Better Buildings Through Partnership: An Update from Boulder County

Ann Livingston, Sustainability Coordinator, Boulder County

Boulder has received an EECBG grant for $25 million to replicate programs the city has been pursuing for years to reduce its carbon footprint through more efficient buildings.

In 2005, the city adopted greenhouse gas emission reduction goals that reflect the Kyoto Protocols and are more ambitious than the state goals. The target is a city with net zero waste and energy.

Prior to Xcel launching its home audit program, Boulder’s Residential Energy Action program subsidized energy audits for city homeowners. Post-audit counseling was offered to encourage audit participants to make recommended improvements. Consumers who now get audits from Xcel can still get counseling from Boulder.

Audit participants who did take action invested about $7,000 in upgrades on average. The city launched the Climate Smart loan program to add more funding for improvements–$3,550 for energy efficiency-only projects, and up to $13,000 for projects that encompass both renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The overarching program goal for BetterBuildings program is to provide a one-stop shop for energy efficiency that will overcome the traditional barriers to consumer’s investing in energy efficiency. The city aims to save $100 million annually and to create jobs with the program.

RFPs for the residential, commercial and joint contractor services have been awarded. The city plans a soft launch for the program from late October to December.

BetterBuildings will provide energy audits with focused one-on-on assistance, financial assist and ongoing support. Energy Corps, a local business, will do onsite air sealing during blower door tests. An “energy concierge” facilitates conversion by helping homeowner to find contractors, apply for rebates, microloans and other financing. The cost will be same or close to Xcel’s audit program.

Xcel, Boulder’s power provider, is assisting with some of the direct installs. The city has synched up call centers with Xcel. The target is to hit 10,000 homes in three years.

Boulder’s commercial program involves direct outreach through neighborhood sweeps to identify energy-saving opportunities in small businesses. Rebates are available to encourage business owners to do maintenance that would improve efficiency, or to change out old, inefficiency equipment and systems.

Program partners include Xcel, which assisted Boulder with the application, marketing and implementation, and the city of Longmont, which helped with program design. Contractors and labor helped in the application phase and will help with marketing.

In the next phase of BetterBuildings, the city will work on successfully engaging contractors to sell energy efficiency, and not just “granite countertops.” Bringing the programs to self-sufficiency in three years is another goal, as is continued job growth and a sustainable jobs market. For every federal dollar spent, another 70 cents of Boulder money was spent. Developing closer partnerships with utilities will smooth the way to the goals.

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.

Existing home efficiency –covering all the bases

John Phelan, PE, Energy Services Manager, Fort Collins Utilities

The city of Fort Collins municipal utility has a home audit rebate program designed for maximum customer contact.

Residents are eligible for a comprehensive menu of rebates for air sealing, insulation, HVAC systems and more. A standard audit, available for $60, is followed by a report that recommends measures. The recommendations are targeted to the contractors as well as the homeowner.

The retrofits are performed by a list of approved contractors. To get on that list, contractors must sign a legal contract with the city agreeing to meet standards based on best practices and attend specialty trainings. The utility trains the contractors, provides a metric list and holds quarterly meetings contractors must attend.

Contractors must bid and complete the job according to the city’s in order to receive the rebates. The intent is to level the bidding field. Everyone is bidding on doing the job a specific way.

Both the city and the contractor can request a third-party evaluation.  The best practices list provides legal cover for the city having a preferred contractor list.

The program has a stringent quality assurance component. The city does improvement verification on 100 percent of the jobs. Performance testing was done on 100 percent of the first 10 jobs. Fort Collins is making sure that the program really works. We have the building science—use it!

Along the way, the utility had to figure out such things as legal contacts, replication tools and more. This is not a Home Performance program. The auditors work directly for Fort Collins. The training and quality assurance are also under the city, but the contractors work for the customers.

To date, Fort Collins has done 348 audits, and has processed 45 rebate applications. Most are for multiple measures. Insulation has been a popular measure, even though people start out saying they want windows.

The contractor list has 30 participating contractors. The utility has conducted trainings for insulation, HVAC and window installation.

Creating a compelling home energy audit

Jacqueline Ducharme, Xcel Energy, with Darlene Luca, Apogee Interactive, and Paul Kriescher, Lightly Treading

Xcel is looking for a way to create a more engaging format with a higher conversion rate. Currently, their conversion rate is 17 percent.

Program partner Lightly Treading looked into software and found the EnergyInsights audit program by Apogee International. The software is pending Best Testing certified.

Pilot launched
Xcel negotiated a pilot of the software with Apogee. The pilot is taking place from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 of this year. About 400 audits will be performed with the software, while Xcel auditors continue to do traditional audits for comparison. Xcel has completed 15 audits so far.

Xcel learned that auditors need a little more time to scale the learning curve. Two of the auditors are Xcel staff auditors, and three are contractor auditors. Some customers don’t want retrofit contractors doing the audit, because they want impartiality; others want a one-stop shop. The program allows for both.

The software is easy-to-use for auditors collecting data in the field. This has a very practical aspect. The homeowners appreciate the report format—it is less technical and provides the information they need. The report is being updated to be more Colorado-specific: construction types tend to be regional, for example, and evaporative cooling is used in the West.

EnergyInsights can be loaded onto a laptop for use in the field. Customer data can be pulled into the program. It gives feedback on heating and cooling, lighting, other major appliances.

The report is the most engaging piece. Homeowners get it on-sight, and gives them the top “to-do” list. It tells them what they can save annually by making these changes. The homeowner can move forward on recommended steps. Xcel also gets a home performance report.  There is room for infrared photos, as well.

Collaboration produces results in Roaring Fork Valley

Aspen Utilities Energy-efficiency Manager Jeff Rice eschewed the usual slide show on the Roaring Fork Valley Utility Collaborative to share his presentation with partners. Jason Haber of the nonprofit Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) and Rob Morey of the nonprofit Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) in Carbondale, Colo., joined Rice on stage to discuss the value of teamwork.

The Collaborative comprises utilities that serve the Roaring Fork Valley in the central Rocky Mountains—the municipal utilities of Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Holy Cross Energy, SourceGas and Xcel—as well as the two nonprofits. Rice explained that by working together, the utilities are able to provide a level of programming and services far beyond their individual resources. “If one of us doesn’t have the expertise, equipment or rebate a customer needs, someone else does,” he said.

Where funding is concerned, teaming up has created a larger pool. The utilities receive funding individually from sources such as Energy Star Partners, but leverage their funds to offer stronger incentives, or build larger projects. For example, working together on a solar thermal/photovoltaic installation on a senior housing facility, CLEEN and CORE were able to install a system that met 20 percent instead of 10 percent of the building’s load.

Aspen and Holy Cross teamed up with CORE to apply for Recovery Act funding. The nonprofit, which has funded renewable and energy-efficiency projects, and provided consumer education and policy recommendations to Pitkin County for 16 years, is administering the grants for the utilities.  “It frees me up to take care of my customers, instead of spending time on paperwork,” said Rice.

The advantages are not all financial, either. When Aspen set out to develop a program to improve the efficiency of existing buildings, Rice turned to Holy Cross and SourceGas to make sure he wasn’t duplicating any efforts. Borrowing from the two utilities’ established programs, Aspen has completed 91 home energy audits this year and has a dozen more scheduled. Local auditing and retrofit contractors have enjoyed an increase in business as a result.

Recently, the Roaring Fork Utility Collaborative successfully applied for a grant from the Small Commercial Efficiency Initiative, offered by the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office. They are now in the process of devising a program to deliver greater efficiency to small businesses. You can be sure it will benefit the entire Roaring Fork Valley.