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How To Hide The BS In Your Work

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

Building Science (BS) is pretty powerful stuff.

Home performance contractors have been providing data and improving building science techniques for well over 30 years now. But while there is no question building retrofits have many benefits, selling the concept to homeowners and property managers is no small feat. While early adopters and others who have specific concerns (such as high utility bills or a child with respiratory problems) are relatively easy to convince, for the most people, investing in a home energy efficiency upgrade is not at the top of their home improvement wish list.

Millions of dollars have been spent on energy efficiency rebates, trying to build the momentum towards market transformation. While these incentive dollars have helped improve many homes and buildings, they have failed to transform the market and, in many cases, the rebates are dwindling or have already gone away. For those of us who are die-hard believers in the benefits of energy efficiency and building science, it’s a frustrating situation. We know we need to increase the number of energy efficiency upgrades both to meet the state’s EE goals, and to help reduce our impact on the planet. The challenge is, how do we convince consumers that energy efficiency retrofits are a good idea? Incentives can stimulate a market, but real market transformation will never happen without consumer awareness and participation.

The benefits of home performance upgrades– comfort, improved indoor air quality, reduced operating costs, less impact on the environment–are real. But these benefits alone do not seem to be enough to motivate a true market transformation. Perhaps the answer is to hide the BS (building science) and include it as a part of a more extensive solution.

I have always believed that energy efficiency and building science are much easier to sell if you present an intended result instead of purely focusing on the building science part of the equation. For example, having a goal of making a building more comfortable while reducing high energy bills offers a more compelling motivation than EE alone. One client might be concerned with health concerns while another wants to live in a Zero Net Energy building. Achieving these end goals requires building science principles, but building science is not the primary focus.

I wanted to share a few new business models I am aware of where contractors are using building science in their projects but are not calling it home performance or building science.

In essence, the (BS) is hidden in their approach.

1. Mini vs. Big

A couple of years ago, I attended the Dry Climate Forum in Yosemite, a brain trust of the best and brightest in the industry that focuses on energy efficiency and measured results. It was at this event that a traditional HVAC contractor who had been in the business for decades had an “ah-ha” moment after seeing data on how well variable capacity heat pumps match the heating and cooling loads in California. This contractor realized that by simply adding some basic building science measures and techniques to his company’s workflow, he could change its approach to heating and cooling.

After the conference, the company applied their newfound knowledge of building science to a couple of projects. The first step was to perform load calculations to determine what the actual heating and cooling loads were before they started. They then factored in some fundamental energy efficiency measures, such as air sealing and insulation improvements. Load calculations were done again, including the additional measures. In many cases, they found that with efficiency measures applied, the heating and cooling needs of the building were much less than expected. Often the loads were less than the capacity of the smallest traditional heat pump system. This is because conventional heat pumps tend to only be available in larger sizes and deliver one output.

However, inverter-driven variable capacity heat pumps (mini-splits) come in a broader range of sizes, especially on the smaller end of the scale. By adopting this new technology, the contractor was able to install a heat pump with a capacity much closer to the actual loads. In the end, the customers were much happier with better-performing systems and much lower operational costs.

Flash forward a couple of years, and this same contractor is now one of the presenters at the same DCF conference, making the case for the value of ducted and ductless mini-splits combined with some basic home performance measures. The building science (BS) allowed them to dramatically improve the performance of their installs and reduce the cost to their customers. Over 50 percent of their business is now based on installing mini-splits along with a bit of home performance instead of gas furnaces or traditional heat pumps. This is an example of how building science can play a critical role in a business model without being the primary focus.

2. Home Performance vs. ZNE Ready

A couple of years ago, I asked one of our members if he thought he would still be a home performance contractor in five years. I was a bit caught off guard when he responded, “No.” My first reaction was that it is too bad, as he was one of the early adopters and had done a significant number of home performance projects. He then went on to proclaim that he envisioned himself offering Zero Net Energy or “ZNE Ready” retrofits instead. A Zero Net Energy building produces as much energy as it consumes – hence the “zero net” part of the name. Zero Net energy is getting more and more play these days, as some see it as a path to an energy independent future. If you have an all-electric house, a large roof, and deep pockets, ZNE is easy–just add solar panels until you’re there. In most other situations, doing ZNE affordably requires making other improvements to the building—in other words, some BS (building science). Typically, this involves addressing the building shell or envelope. As with the previous example, this means air sealing to reduce losses and then adding insulation to improve thermal comfort. Once the shell of the building has been enhanced, you will want to find the most efficient way means to heat and cool the building. In most  cases this is likely an inverter driven heat pump with variable capacity (mini-split).

Most ZNE or ZNE Ready solutions rely on electricity as the fuel source. A heat pump water heater, a heat pump dryer, and an induction cooktop would be the right choice for an all-electric house, as they are the most efficient solutions available today. Once you have addressed the building shell and appliances, you can add rooftop solar to the equation and you are there. ZNE is a reality today utilizing existing technology.

One thing I like about this approach is that you can do it in phases. If you market yourself as providing “ZNE ready solutions” you can do a bunch of work to improve the efficiency up front and then later add solar panels to become truly ZNE. As with the previous approach, success will be based on solid building science principles (BS), but they are not the primary focus. Again, we are hiding the BS in the overall project.

3. Home Performance vs. Health

The last example of hiding the BS is related to making health the primary concern. Most people are aware that there are multiple benefits to energy efficiency upgrades. For many, improved comfort is the most compelling, but we are now seeing an emerging market in which health concerns are the primary driver. Once you seal up a building, you can control where the air entering the building is coming from. You might be surprised where a great deal of air infiltration (air entering) comes from in a leaky building. Often it’s from the attic and the crawlspace. I don’t know about your situation, but I really don’t want to use my attic or crawlspace as the source of “fresh air” in my house.

The reason energy efficiency contractors spend so much effort sealing things up is twofold. This first is to limit the heat loss or gains to the outside of the building, and the second is to control where the fresh air is being drawn from. In many cases, really tight houses need dedicated air supplies to provide fresh air. Typically, this is done with some form of fan or fans and is referred to as mechanical ventilation.

It turns out that as you control, and often filter, the source of fresh air to a building, the indoor air quality improves, often dramatically. This has led some folks to start marketing indoor air quality or health improvements over home performance or building science. It’s pretty common knowledge that we are spending more time indoors these days, so providing a healthy indoor environment is a good thing. In fact, some insurance companies are now paying for a building health assessment audit, which is basically an energy audit, to determine the existing conditions of a home or building.

I saw a presentation by a contractor who has a relationship with an asthma clinic. One of the first things the doctors suggest is having an assessment done on the patient’s home to determine if there are indoor air quality issues. As part of his evaluation, the contractor installs a low-cost indoor air quality monitor. There are a variety of inexpensive IAQ monitors available today for roughly $150. After a predetermined period of time, the contractor returns to collect the IAQ monitor and propose some suggested solutions. Typically, these include air sealing and improving the heating and cooling system, especially the duct systems. Again, these are fundamental building science (BS) improvements that have a significant impact on indoor air quality. His approach includes some additional IAQ measures such as a high-performance filtration system on the HVAC system and frequently some form of filtered fresh air system. All of this is basically home performance with some additional levels of filtration.

The foundations of home performance are well established, and the results are real and measurable. These are just a few ways you can “hide the BS” while still incorporating the long-standing principles of building science to improve your business.

Perhaps the best way to make energy efficiency work for your business is to build it into your workflow, rather than promoting it as a stand-alone benefit.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California