Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director
How contractors can continue to work in homes during a pandemic. Tips and new technology to help bid and complete projects in a COVID world.
The global pandemic has affected the entire world. Stay at home orders, social distancing, and needing to wear masks in public all significantly impact our way of life. The ability to work and earn a living, something we once took for granted, is a new challenge. For people who work in offices, stay at home orders have required adjusting to the complexities of remote work. But while this might be a challenge, it pales in comparison to the impact this situation has had on those who work in other people’s homes, namely the contracting community.
One of the challenges for contractors in times of COVID-19 is getting the information needed to accurately bid a project while reducing contact with the home or building occupants. Collecting data is critical in complex projects that involve multiple measures, such as a deep energy retrofit.
Contractors are using some innovative techniques to adapt to this new reality. We hope some of the ideas, concepts and technologies presented here will help you adjust your business model to meet the challenges of working in homes during a pandemic.
First off, let’s discuss some practices related to physically visiting homes or buildings during the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control has developed guidelines for consumers who are hiring in-home services. You are likely already doing most of this, but it’s an excellent place to start. Some of these ideas are pretty basic, and others are specific to our current situation.
Checking your workers’ temperatures for fever should now be a part of your day. Companies everywhere are doing this in innovative ways. A couple of weeks ago, I walked into a local grocery store and noticed a tripod by the front door with an infrared (IR) camera mounted on it. The camera pointed at a chair, a notepad with names was lying next to the chair. I soon realized that as workers show up for their shift they sit in the chair. A manager then takes an IR photo of their face. The infrared image checks for fever, as the camera measure the temperature of their forehead. More importantly, it records the info with an IR photo and creates a time-stamped record. I thought this was an ingenious solution. The manager has a digital history of all the employees, with a temperature, time, and date stamp.
We have incorporated IR into our own verification workflow. The IR camera allows us to quickly check our workers’ temperature and record it before they enter a home. When our verifiers arrive on-site, they take an “infrared selfie” with the temperature selection spot on their forehead. The IR “fever check” photo becomes one of the required pictures from their inspection.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is wear a mask. When you or your workers show up at a project, you should be wearing your mask before meeting the homeowner. It seems pretty basic, but it’s easy to forget. Face masks are a way of saying, “I am doing this to protect you and your family.” I encourage you to ask homeowners to do the same, out of respect for your wellbeing. Masks are a new part of life with COVID-19.
Social distancing is important. We perform field quality control inspections daily. Our verifier has made it a practice of announcing his arrival by phone. He calls or texts the homeowners and lets them know he is outside in the driveway. The call allows homeowners to prepare before they greet the contractor, which hopefully means putting on masks. It’s a pretty simple idea, but it has been well received. Some homeowners chose to wait outside if the verifier needs to look at something inside the home. Whatever the homeowners’ comfort level on social distancing, giving them options and letting them know you are paying attention goes a long way.
Cleanliness is paramount. I once worked for a contractor who told me you learn a lot about your sub-contractors by looking at their truck. Is it dirty on the outside and messy on the inside with a dashboard full of paperwork? First impressions speak volumes and indicate the quality of work you can expect from a vendor. Homeowners are making the same assessment of you and your company.
Protecting homes and workers has never been more critical. You should be wearing shoe booties when you enter a home. Your crews need to lay a tarp down before putting equipment down on the floor. Never let your tools come into direct contact with a homeowner’s property; this means no tools in the sink when working in the bathroom. I have always asked my workers to do this, and it is even more critical today. Finally, clean and disinfect everything: cameras, tablets, test equipment, etc. The last thing you want to do is get COVID-19 for merely doing your job, or worse, give COVID-19 to anyone.
If you want to avoid in-person contact altogether, there are a couple of solutions you might consider. A number of folks, for example, are using either remote or virtual data collection to minimize the need for site visits.
Remote data collection relies on someone else who is on-site to provide the information you need. Remote data collection can be elaborate or very simple. I have heard that contractors use smartphones and simples apps, such as Facetime, to collect information for bids. Remote data collection might be all you need to prepare a proposal, especially if the task at hand is pretty simple, such as replacing a water heater. I don’t think it would be a huge ask to have a homeowner take some photos of their existing water heater, so you know what it will take to replace it. Taking it a step further, you could guide your prospective client to “show” their water heater to you live, using their cell phone and video software. Some contractors are having success with this approach. Working together, they can ask the homeowner to get closer or move around to get a better view. This is a great way to get your potential customer involved in the project, which I can say first-hand helps to close jobs.
One word of caution: I suggest using photos or a remote guided tour with the homeowner rather than video. In our work, we found that it can be very difficult and labor-intensive to identify specific details in videos, and what you need to see might not even be visible anyway.
Smartphones can be a great tool. Apps are available that allow phones to measure and perform other useful tasks. Some allow you to measure a room remotely. The software then analyzes multiple perspectives from the data and determines the exact dimension of the space. You could have a homeowner take a series of photos of their home that allow you to accurately render the entire building, without setting a foot on-site. A measurement tool like this would be great for calculating heating and cooling loads in order to properly size a new HVAC system, for example.
Virtual data collection is another option. Virtual tools are typically software solutions. For example, you can use Google Earth to locate the house so you can see where it is situated. A bird’s eye view of a potential project can be beneficial. Solar companies use Google Earth, combined with other software, to predict how much solar a roof can support. Taking it a step further, LA County has developed an interactive solar mapping tool that lets you size systems and see how the shading from trees, nearby buildings, and other obstructions affect performance.
Public information is another powerful tool. The first time someone asked me to look up a potential client on Zillow, I felt like I was prying. The reality though, is that lots of people use this public information for sales. Being able to quickly lookup the square footage and number of bedrooms in a home can be beneficial information. If you dig a bit deeper, you can often find other useful details, such as how long your potential customers have lived in their house, and what the typical value of it is.
New software tools are taking this to the next level. The City of San Francisco is working on a project that uses data from building permits to identify households with water heaters near the end of their useful life. Program administrators can then use this information to target specific homes for replacements. Imagine how much easier sales would be if you had a city map that showed homes that had aging equipment in red; this will soon be a reality in San Francisco.
Utility meter data is another potential tool. Utilities use smart gas and electric meter data to streamline customer billing, but the data can also be used to identify and target high energy consuming homes. Concentrating on the buildings that consume the most energy and therefore have the most potential to save improves outcomes. In many parts of California, you can ask a homeowner to sign up for a program that gives you access to their natural gas and electric consumption through Green Button. Having months or years of utility bill data is an excellent way to target projects with the maximum potential for savings.
Home performance projects, or deep energy retrofits, rely on upfront data collection. In the time of COVID-19, this can be a challenge. I recently learned of a new software tool for smartphones that addresses this by walking the user through various questions and asking them to take specific photos and videos. A support center representative oversees the process and helps the homeowner understand where to focus their camera. The tool accurately measures distance and uses optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which is great for things like reading equipment name tags. The program also has onboard laser technology that allows the support tech to point to things in real-time. The tool also allows the tech to write directly on the screen, and it can log phone calls. Using something like this tool to perform comprehensive remote assessments could be a game-changer for deep energy retrofits. Hopefully, this type of technology will allow contractors to streamline the data collection process, which has plagued the home performance industry for years.
I learned that a program in Arkansas adopted this technology as part of their process. So far, the results are promising. They have seen an uptick in projects with positive customer feedback. I am sure some of this is due to customer engagement. We discovered a long time ago that having a potential customer participate in an energy assessment dramatically increases your chances of selling a project.
Adapting to the challenges of a social distanced, COVID -19 world isn’t easy for people who make their livings inside other people’s homes. Hopefully this blog has given you some ideas to meet this challenge. Many of these ideas have long-term staying power and can help you improve your business long after the pandemic has gone away. Together we can help each other by sharing information to overcome these difficult times.
If you have a unique method for dealing with in-person visits or would like to share other ideas or technologies, please respond by adding your comments to this blog.