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 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., 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. and United Power 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 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.”
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, 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:
- Is there a problem?
- What is the nature of the problem?
- 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 . 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.
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.
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 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, 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 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, 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.