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The Pros and Cons of Using Independent Energy Auditors vs. One-Stop-Shops

March 20, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Using Independent Energy Auditors vs. One-Stop-Shops

by Kay Mann, Publisher of the website, www.GreenEnergyMaine.com

 

Taking a walk with a friend recently, we discussed the relative merits of using an independent energy auditor who does not perform the work she or he prescribes for your building, versus a contractor who audits your home and also performs the work needed to improve its energy efficiency.  My friend said, "I'm of two minds on that". 

 

Two minds, indeed. I decided to go to the building efficiency pros and ask several of them to write about their rationales for approaching their work in the ways that they do.  What follows is the collected essays from three leading Maine businesses in the field. Get comfortable, read them all and make YOUR best decision.

 

I.        Writing from the corner in favor of using independent energy auditors and different contractors is Dewitt Kimball of Complete Home Energy Evaluation Services of Brunswick:

 

"Beware the Sales Pitch Audit".

 

There are two types of energy audit services available. One is provided by one-stop-shopping companies and the other is done by independent audit companies. The one-stop method has one company do the audit, recommend upgrades, do the upgrades, and do the quality control to decide if the work was done properly. I call these audits “Sales Pitch Audits.”

 

 The purpose of these “Sales Pitch Audits” is to get you to do your work with the company that does the audit. Often times the audit is greatly reduced in price or free. These companies will do anything to get in your door to do an audit so they can sell you what they offer. Don’t be fooled, the audit price is made up in the installation fees. There are even energy auditing software companies that promote their programs as quick and easy so that while auditors are at your house they can spend less time on their audit and more time trying to sell you their installation services. These “Sales Pitch Audits” are often superficial and are completed in an hour or less.

 

There are serious drawbacks with these “Sales Pitch Audits”.  One is that the companies will only recommend what they sell. Window companies push new windows, insulation companies push new insulation, and heating companies push new heating systems. They push what they can profit from, not necessarily what is the most cost effective solution for your home. Another problem is that the company that does the work also tells you if the work has been done properly. The fox is most definitely guarding the hen house with these companies.

 

The independent energy audit company avoids these conflicts of interest. An independent audit is done by someone that does not sell anything else. The auditor has no financial gain in making recommendations.  Their only purpose is to design the most cost efficient plan to upgrade your home. Their recommendations are not shaped by what they can sell you later. All of the independent auditor’s time at your house is used collecting detailed data for the audit. These audits can take over 3 hours to perform properly.

 

Once the audit is done the independent provides you with a full report and a referral list of contractors that is customized to match what you need to have done at your home. Upon request, a skilled independent auditor will also design a plan that allows you to do some or most of the work yourself. That most certainly will not happen if you have a “Sales Pitch Audit”.

 

When the work has been completed the independent auditor provides the all important third party verification, which ensures that the contractors have completed the work properly and left your home in a safe condition. The contractors must agree to a “Quality Assurance Pledge”, which states that they will not take final payment until the auditor has verified that the work has been done properly.

 

Protect yourself, prevent shoddy work, and save money by avoiding these Sales Pitch Audits. An independent represents you in your quest for energy efficiency savings. There is no conflict of interest with an independent audit company.

 

Thanks, DeWitt, you diplomat, you. NOW, keep reading!

 

II.       Writing from the corner in favor of the "one stop shop" approach is Kathleen Meil, Public Relations Manager of Evergreen Home Improvement LLC in Rockland.

 

Energy Audits: Just the First Step in Home Performance

 

Well-engineered, well-installed energy efficiency upgrades deliver true home performance.  These projects save homeowners 25-50% on their fuel usage, earn a 10% annual return on their investment, and deliver a level of comfort many people didn’t think possible.  A full-service home performance contractor is uniquely qualified to provide energy analysis, improvement installation, and performance verification, with a minimum of hassle and maximum returns.

 

The first step is an energy audit that provides comprehensive analysis of how a building’s component parts work together as a system.  Whether from an independent advisor or an advisor associated with a full-service home performance company, a thorough audit takes at least three hours and includes visual examination, infrared analysis, and blower-door analysis.  These tests generate the volumes of data that go into complete computer modeling of a home’s efficiency.  They also qualify energy efficiency projects for state and federal incentive programs, many of which require measurable results to secure financing.

 

Once the analysis phase is complete, qualified energy advisors use the data and modeling results to recommend specific performance upgrades and tie predicted energy savings to each upgrade.  Some homeowners seek this information to plan long-term home improvements, tackling some of the work themselves and acting as general contractors for the work they need to hire out.  This strategy works best for homeowners comfortable coordinating the work of various subcontractors based on the plan provided by their third-party auditors.

 

Homeowners seeking immediate results prefer full-service home performance companies for their seamless process.  Energy advisors connected with these specialized companies provide the same thorough analysis offered by independent advisors, then take it a step further, engineering and overseeing comprehensive improvement projects.  These knowledgeable, hands-on advisors:

•         Work with homeowners to shape comprehensive projects that tackle potential upgrades in order of their value, in terms of comfort and cost-efficiency;

•         Draw on their first-hand experience with various air-sealing techniques and kinds of insulation (including cellulose, spray-foam, and mineral wool) to engineer projects that meet each home’s unique needs;

•         Communicate directly with the company’s production crew during the planning stages and throughout the project to ensure that nothing is ever lost in translation;

•         Refer homeowners to other qualified contractors for any services they do not provide (such as new HVAC systems or solar energy projects) and coordinate directly with these contractors to ensure that the project is seamless;

•         Conduct additional post-production energy analysis to verify results, and make any refinements if necessary.

 

Certification by the Building Performance Institute, on-the-job training, an insistence on protective safety gear, and a commitment to providing family pay and health insurance benefits are all signs of a strong company that stands behind its employees, its performance, and its customers.

 

Quality-conscious home performance contracting is complicated to do right, and in the early days of the energy efficiency movement, it was difficult to find qualified contractors.  Homeowners relied on independent energy advisors to give them the tools to ask conventional contractors to do this new kind of work.  Gradually, a new breed of contractor has emerged, and homeowners can now find reputable companies with the values, experience, and resources necessary to provide full service home energy analysis and contracting. 

 

Every project adds to their understanding of the complicated balance of heat, air, and moisture that makes up a healthy, energy-efficient home, and homeowners benefit from that institutional knowledge.  Independent advisors still play an important role for do-it-yourselfers, but full service companies thrive because they deliver essential services that make homes energy-smart, healthy, and comfortable.

 

Thank you, Kathleen!  Don't stop here, though...

 

III.      Yet a third perspective is offered by Josh Wojcik of Upright Frameworks in Wilton.

 

In addition to our new construction projects, my company does about 120 weatherization retrofit projects each year.  I am an energy auditor and I have a full-time energy auditor on staff.  We have all the tools and equipment and modeling capacity to do energy audits and although I encourage every prospective client I meet to get an energy audit, my company does not encourage potential customers to use us in that capacity.

 

If a prospective client asks us who can do an energy audit for them, we offer them the names of reputable independent auditors.  If it is a client who has worked with us in the past (e.g. as a carpentry/construction client) and they know us and trust us, and if they press us to make the audit happen, then we sometimes handle the scheduling, billing, etc. on their behalf.  But we make it clear that the audit will be through an independent energy auditor and we make it clear that their audit report will include alternative installation contractors for their consideration.

 

I should also point out that not every retrofit project we do is preceded by an energy audit.  When a house has nothing in the attic, an audit is not always necessary.  In these instances, we will do a pre and post-project blower door test (to make sure we get a substantial reduction in air-leakage) and we will do combustion appliance zone (CAZ) tests to ensure our customer is safe.  We always use a blower door and infrared camera to do our retrofit projects.

 

So if we have the tools, the certifications and modeling ability, why don't we do audits on a regular basis?  Because we believe that there is value in a system that includes checks and balances and we believe that (with all things in life), two heads are better than one.  That said, when an audit isn't necessary or if a customer just doesn't see the value in having an audit done, we make the best recommendations we can (based on our experience) and we always do the best work we can.

 

I strive to run my business with the utmost integrity, but I also recognize that I am human.  I work extremely hard to keep my 15 employees busy day after day.  I have family and friends who work for me and I often work 18 hour days to find them new projects.  And I work straight through most weekends to make sure that if they want to work, there will always be work for them to do. 

 

Though my personal financial goals are fairly modest, I am sufficiently self-aware to recognize that the temptation exists within me to make recommendations to customers that would give preference to those tasks that will keep my friends and family employed.  And so I prefer a system that eliminates this temptation from the equation.

 

As good as we are at doing retrofit projects, we are also human and on occasion... we make mistakes.  As the project developer at my company, I have crawled through more basements and attics than I can count and I'm pretty good at finding a building's problems.  I take pride in my ability to come up with clever, inexpensive solutions to these problems.  But I have missed a problem or two and sometimes I am surprised and impressed by the recommendations our auditors develop.  I believe there is value in having two (if not more) perspectives when it comes to problem solving.

 

In the state of Maine, we are fortunate to have good companies using both models and I firmly believe that there is room in the market for the one-stop-shops and for the independent firms.  I recognize that other business owners may not feel the same pressures that I do and I certainly believe that there are smarter people than me in this field who may not need a second opinion.  My preference is for a system that incorporates multiple perspectives and that recognizes the inherent weaknesses that most humans face.

 

Thank you, Josh!

 

Now, dear homeowners, your editor bids you caveat emptor (buyer beware)!  Make YOUR best decision based on what you know.

 

However you choose to do it, the most important thing is to get your home weatherized as soon as you possibly can.  It pays you back faster, the higher the price of oil climbs, so get some bids TODAY. You can start looking right in the Green Energy Maine DIRECTORY of providers of clean energy products and services. There are some great financial incentives out there to help us, so what is stopping you?

 

Some helpful links:

This article on Green Energy maine website: Independent Energy Auditor or One-Stop-Shop? Three Pros Offer Guidance

Green Energy Maine Directory of Providers:  http://greenenergymaine.com/directory

 

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