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The Case for Comfort Over Energy Savings in Evaluating Home Performance Improvements

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We define the success of our home performance improvements by how the client FEELS in the home afterward. Comfort is simple to measure and immediately obvious to the people who matter. It’s no surprise that home performance clients are the happiest. They have usually suffered a long time before finding you. Your work has finally made them happy with their home (the single largest purchase in most clients’ lives).

Although public investment into home performance solutions are judged by how much energy is saved per dollar spent, this is not the best way to evaluate home performance solutions for your client. By increasing comfort, we make the home healthier, often safer, and usually more energy efficient. However, we only promise comfort. Pushing “utility savings” may result in an aggravating search for a cause (if you can’t fulfill the promise due to no fault of your own) and leave you with a very unhappy client.

Why? There are too many different factors involved in lower dollars on a utility bill. Here are a few:

1. Human Nature: Let’s face it, we like our creature comforts. When we only have five minutes of hot water, we take a 5-minute shower. When we have endless hot water, those showers or baths or both are going to take longer. When the home could only reach 78 degrees, the thermostat was set at 78 degrees. After home performance improvements allow the home to reach 72 degrees, that lower temperature may become the clients’ preference.

2. Life is Fluid: One of my favorite quotes is a translation from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The biggest mistake we can make is assuming our clients’ lives are static.

Think about the impact just having a new baby can have on every aspect of the utility bill. The person may be very small – but the impact is far from it. An endless train of family, friends and guests come in and out of the home that wouldn’t have otherwise. Some people may stay for weeks to help out with the new baby. One or both parents may even start working from home. All this leads to more laundry, dishwashing, HVAC, TV, bathing, cooking, garbage, opening and closing of the door/garage/windows, etc.

While you weren’t looking, the life of your clients changed. Their home, previously unoccupied during the day, may have become a 24/7 operation. As a result – they use more utilities – more of the time, for more people than ever before.

3. We Can’t Control Mother Nature: We can’t control the weather. A mild summer, followed by a hot summer may drive a client’s utility bill higher than it was before the home performance improvements. Granted, the bill will be less than it would have been without the improvements (assuming everything stayed the same as it was the year before – a dangerous assumption – see #2 above); however, this can be difficult to explain.

Some utilities attempt to highlight the impact “the weather” had on the bill for the end user through their on-line bill analysis tool. However, even that fails to take into account the impact of humidity. When the outdoor temps are mild, but humidity is high – people still run their air conditioning systems in an effort to lower the humidity inside. Arguably, this is an excellent reason to install a dehumidifier – but even that impacts the utility bill.

4. Changes to/in the Home Itself: Of course, major changes like building out the room over the garage, adding a sun porch or other addition to the structure are going to change the utility usage (though many do not realize how much ahead of time AND may forget to mention it if you don’t ask).

Changes may be very difficult to detect and the increase in utility usage hard to explain. New gadgets, appliances, big screen televisions, commercial gas stoves, air sucking exhaust hoods, and bath fans can be culprits. Landscaping changes, like removing shade trees; making “minor” cosmetic changes, such as new window treatments that let in more sun; using cheaper recessed can light bulbs that give off more heat; or a new roof of a darker color – can pose challenges. Even if you discover them, they can be impossible to quantify.

5. Utility Bill Issues In General: Rates may change. So you would need to multiply the usage by the old rate to compare. Some utilities charge different rates at different times of the day. A change in routine may result in your client using a higher level of utilities at the maximum rates than before you performed the work. What period do you use for comparison? Should you compare the same month from a year ago? What about this month with last month? A small change in the temperature or humidity may be the tipping point for using the HVAC equipment or not. Does the billing cycle have the same number of days? Are there any special assessments? If you do use utility savings, make sure to compare usage and not bottom line costs.

Unlike a utility, you don’t need an “objective” ROI calculation. Creating comfort is the ultimate subjective experience. Your clients know whether you have improved their comfort. When you succeed – they will shout it from the mountaintops.

Kathe Stewart

Posted In: ACCA Now, Building Performance, Residential Buildings

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