When an Energy Audit isn't an Energy Audit.

It's tax time so let's talk about auditing. This post is about the semantics of the home performance audit, aka assessment. The energy assessment process has the important role of educating consumers on the benefits of investing in building performance upgrades.

In Massachusetts, "the #1 state in energy efficiency investments" (according to ACEEE) I spend way too much time explaining to homeowners how the free  program 'energy assessments' differ from a comprehensive approach they are looking for to address complex building performance issues. The free services, funded by rate-payers (you and me) set the bar for the entire market; free is a tough price to compete with. These utility energy audit services are designed to meet the huge volume goals established by utilities. This is great- there are a lot of homes needing to be improved. Yet what about the folks who need something more? They should have the ability to access rebates and incentives following a comprehensive custom home energy assessment.  

Is a peek in the attic enough? A good auditor gets nearly as dirty as the insulation crew that follows. 

Is a peek in the attic enough? A good auditor gets nearly as dirty as the insulation crew that follows. 

Program Energy Audits  shouldn't be called Assessments if they aren't custom. 

In Massachusetts, there was a recent decision to re-brand the utility program 'energy audits' as energy 'assessments'. This re-branding included some program messaging that claims that the no-cost energy assessments are flexible and custom for each home. This messaging confuses homeowners about energy efficiency and what to expect from the industry. Furthermore, this messaging stifles any of what's left of a competitive free-market in Massachusetts in energy efficiency contracting, one of the most promising growth industries we have. 

The utility provided assessments, amazing rebates, and financing offerings serve many homeowners well. Yet for homeowners wanting to significantly change their homes- to address ice damming, solve comfort issues, or achieve 25-50% energy savings- these services are not appropriate. A more detailed assessment approach is needed to communicate the value of  comprehensive solutions to the customer.

In Massachusetts I wish the utilities had stuck with 'Energy Audit' and not moved to 'Energy Assessment'. In the interest of the rate-payers who fund these programs, the MA programs should either have more appropriate messaging, or evolve the program to allow a path for a true comprehensive 'energy assessment'.

Is an Energy Assessment a specific service?

Perhaps that this is the main question. An Energy Assessment is a systematic approach to assessing existing building performance and determining the root causes of flaws and available solutions. It is not a fixed service- a 3,000 sq. ft.  historic colonial needs something different than a 900 sq ft. 1960s ranch. 

The energy assessment professional should take time at the end of the visit to engage the customers.

The energy assessment professional should take time at the end of the visit to engage the customers.

Each homeowner and building has a specific set of needs. The energy assessment needs to be adjusted every time while following the appropriate principals and protocols of building science. The approaches and technologies needed to improve energy performance is fairly straight forward. Humans, on the other hand, are motivated by a range of drivers, some (most?) of which do not follow an easy cost/benefit linear style of thinking.

A good home energy assessment that is comprehensive and results in a successful conversion to remediation work is catered to the people as much as the building. Overcoming the information barrier often requires a custom service that should be as extensive as the customer needs and wants.

Why Massachusetts utility sponsored Energy Audits are not really Energy Assessments:

  • Most program auditors perform 3 visits per day. The report and recommendations are delivered at the end of the 1-3 hour visit. The substance of the reports is lacking the information most useful for the customer- easily understood, graphically presented  details about their house. 

  • Audit reports lack photos of the home and recommendations are focused on the limited pool of utility approved installation measures only. Many improvement options are not mentioned because they are not rebate-eligible including  spray foam insulation, and air sealing over 8-man hours.. etc etc. 

  • Advanced diagnostics are not encouraged by pricing structure of $150-$200 per visit. At the visit, there is not time to diagnose and carefully design solutions for specific building performance flaws. This is appropriate for some people who are happy with new lightbulbs and basic air sealing and insulation,  but not for others. 

  • Overcoming 'pre-weatherization' challenges (knob/tube, excessive moisture, mold etc.) is not prioritized. Customers are left hanging and the challenges are called 'roadblocks'. By enabling comprehensive assessments, these challenges are more likely to be addressed. 

Audit or Assessment- it's just a word so what's the big deal?

To solve our building energy crisis and invest in all cost-effective energy efficiency, it is imperative that programs appropriately represent the industry. If rigid program designs can't evolve to drive a fledgling industry by enabling a fair market price structure for energy assessments and improvement measures, then at least they can include the message that the rate-payer funded no-cost energy assessments may not be the right match for everyone. The basic canned service is an 'audit', not a comprehensive 'assessment'. 

Open the market.

If utility programs were focused on the long-game then they would help build a strong energy efficiency industry. This is absolutely necessary if we are not going to re-fix the millions of homes touched by the programs 20 years from now. We would have a greater chance of solving our building energy problem if steps were taken to drive an open-market model NOW. 

Two ways this can happen in Massachusetts:

  • Consistent state-wide messaging of energy efficiency programs should promote approaches beyond the basic utility sanctioned 'no-cost' audit and improvement measures. This includes an idea considered (then bagged) two years ago of having a state-wide standard audit report template that references possible improvements not available in the programs.

  • The State and utilities should provide more opportunity for qualified energy efficiency contractors to work in the retrofit programs. For example, there are about 50 skilled HERS raters in Massachusetts, very few of which have contracted with the lead vendors to be classified as home performance contractors. There should be a practical path for all of these experts to provide Mass Save energy assessments and deliver program rebates to rate-payers. 
The author in the depths of an energy assessment. This ain't no free service!

The author in the depths of an energy assessment. This ain't no free service!

What do you think?

Adin Maynard is the founder of HIS & HERS Energy Efficiency. He provides comprehensive custom energy assessment services for existing buildings as well as HERS ratings for code compliance. HIS & HERS delivers incentives through the Mass Save New Homes program and collaborates with Massachusetts home performance contractors in the Home Energy Services program.