Investing in Energy Improvements

At Advantage Home Performance, we encourage consumers to do some research before they invest in a new solar system, heating & air conditioning system, windows, insulation or any other type of energy improvement.   We call this section of our web site “investing in energy improvements” because, if done well, the upside of your investment is a more comfortable, energy efficient and healthier home.   As with most investments, there is a downside risk and our goal in this section is to help you minimize the risk by sharing some valuable third party resources and practical advice.

Whatever your goals are, we think there is just some good common sense worth following when investing in energy improvements.  We often observe homeowners making what we consider to be incomplete decisions when purchasing energy improvements.  For instance, we believe that it is logical to reduce your house’s heating and cooling loads (needs) before you put a solar electric system on your home.  Investing in efficiency before the solar panels, might mean a smaller and less expensive solar system could be purchased.

Another example would be that if you are going to invest in a new heating and air conditioning system, it is prudent to determine the condition of your air distribution system first.  Leaky duct systems waste money and compromise indoor air quality.  Our auditors often see brand new mechanical equipment attached to poorly designed, constricted and leaky ductwork.  It is a travesty.  The air distribution system must get the same attention the equipment gets.  It must be properly designed, installed, sealed and tested to make sure it meets nationally recognized standards.

Unfortunately, common sense has to compete against the myths, misconceptions and blatantly false claims being perpetuated in the marketplace regarding energy efficiency improvements. Improving the energy efficiency or indoor air quality of one’s home can be a pretty confusing and frustrating journey.  Think about all the acronyms, foreign terminology and jargon you’ll have to deal with en route to finding a solution. This complexity understandably wears many homeowners down, which leads to suboptimal purchase decisions.

To compound the problem, there is no shortage of uneducated or unscrupulous sales people who will lead you to believe their one product will save you twenty to thirty percent off your utility bill. Many of these salespeople are well intentioned believers who are simply trying to make a living.  Others are simply ethically challenged.   They may work for companies that only pay them commissions, so if they don’t sell something, they don’t get paid.  Whose interests are these salesmen and technicians really representing, yours or their own?

There is also the problem with the shortcut. Many salesmen want to sell you a prescription without performing a proper diagnosis. Logic dictates the first step in solving a home’s problem is that you have to first identify it. These same salesmen want to skip the diagnostic and evaluation process because it is time consuming and hard work.  In other words, they are more focused on driving sales, than solving problems.

Just like any investment you make, arming yourself with quality information and then making informed decisions is one of the keys to seeing a positive return.  To help you get quality information we’ll provide some great independent resources.  The best independent resources are obviously organizations that have nothing to sell.  We’ll also encourage you to bring a healthy level of skepticism to many manufacturer’s, salesmen and contractor’s claims.

This section of our web site will succeed if you become better educated in the process of selecting home energy improvements.  As an adjunct faculty member who has taught building science and weatherization for the past two decades, I have a pretty good handle on basic building science theory.  As a contractor who has competed in the marketplace, I know from firsthand experience how the marketplace often fails for consumers when it comes to energy improvements.  I have acquired some practical insights that will increase your odds of success if you are willing to invest a little time doing some research before you open your checkbook.  I happen to believe that for Advantage Home Performance an educated consumer is our best customer. This is why it is in our interest to help you learn how to invest wisely in home energy improvements.

What Are You Trying to Accomplish?

The first step we recommend you undertake is to clarify what it is you are trying to accomplish in your home.    What will you measure success against?  Most people don’t want an air handler, insulation or a solar panel; they want enhanced comfort, lower utility bills, good value and peace of mind.  So what is your goal?

  • Reduced utility bills
  • Improved comfort
  • Best return on investment
  • Reduced dust accumulation
  • Create a space where allergens give you a respite
  • Improve the resale value of your home
  • Invest in energy independence
  • Help the environment

The surprising thing that you will discover is that many of the problems that undermine comfort, efficiency and indoor air quality are all interconnected and related.  By fixing the building defects that plague most homes, you actually can satisfy most of the goals I just set forth.  For example, the missing insulation over your living room not only compromises your comfort, but also increases your utility bill.   Sealing up an air distribution system not only will reduce your utility bills, but it can also improve comfort, reduce dust accumulation and enhance indoor air quality.  See what the experts say to learn more about the house as system.

The Best Independent Resource

One of the best on-line resource centers we know is the Consumer Guide to Energy Savings published by the by American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.   This is a great website to get unbiased information.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy deserves a lot of credit for this excellent resource.  We appreciate this website and their book because the focus is on sharing excellent information in a way that is accessible to most people.  They are not selling any products, which makes them objective arbitrators of energy improvement advice.  The book is a much more complete resource than the web site, if you want to invest the time.

One of the clearest recommendations in the Consumer Guide to Energy Savings is that you should invest in an audit first.  Take the time to educate yourself and get a complete assessment before you head down any one energy improvement path.

“Before making major efficiency improvements to your house, find out from a pro where and why energy is being wasted in your home and what you should do about it.  These contractors use sophisticated equipment like blower doors and infrared cameras, to help pinpoint air leaks and areas with inadequate insulation.  Auditors that are properly certified should also test and tune-up your heating and cooling equipment, and check for duct leakage.”  Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, ©2007, p.16.

When done well, a comprehensive audit generates a substantial amount of actionable information. Our auditors use sophisticated audit processes and diagnostic tools to identify the causes of comfort complaints, high utility bills, excessive dust accumulation and indoor air quality problems.  We also provide a report that details problems, cost of repairs and potential energy savings.

Your Utility

Fortunately, here in Arizona, your local utility companies have recently rolled out a great audit program.  After decades of providing mediocre clipboard audits, these utilities have finally put together a substantial audit program.   APS, SRP and UniSource are all offering the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR audit program.  They are subsidizing the cost of a comprehensive energy audit, so it only costs you $99.  According to APS and SRP the audit is a $400 to $500 value.

Your utilities are also providing rebates for some of the most cost effective and basic energy improvements you can make: air barrier work, insulation, duct sealing and shade screens.  These improvements, when coupled with rebates, can have a simple payback of four to six years and a return on investment of over ten percent.  Your utility also has a great finance program for the measures they approve.

We recommend that you follow the logical advice in the Consumer Guide to Energy Savings and invest $99 before you spend thousands of dollars on energy improvements.  An audit performed by a capable individual can help you better understand your home.   The audit should help you determine what it will cost to make repairs and how the rebates can offset these costs.

If your home is comfortable and your utility bills are low, you probably are not a good candidate for an audit.   We have no interest in selling something you don’t need.  It is a waste of your time and ours to perform an audit on a thoughtfully designed and carefully constructed energy efficient home.  Unfortunately, these houses are by far the exception and not the rule.

The Private Sector

The farther away you get from organizations like the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and your utility, the more suspect the information you receive becomes.  Manufacturers and contractors who make unsupportable claims about energy savings are the ones you want to avoid.  You’ve all seen the ads “… and save 25% on your electricity bill.”  Or “save 20-30% on your utility bill” or “start saving up to 30% on your energy bills.”  These types of advertisements make responsible home performance contractors cringe.  These charlatans often sell radiant barriers, attic fans, ceramic paints and other products and services that we refuse to sell to the public because of the independent research that doesn’t support these types of claims.

At Advantage Home Performance we are very skeptical regarding any manufacturer’s or contractor’s claims about immediate or guaranteed energy savings.  We know you can’t realistically forecast energy savings in a home until you perform a comprehensive audit and evaluate a years’ worth of utility bills.  If any manufacturer, contractor or salesmen makes these types of claims without performing an in-depth audit, this should be the first sign you are dealing with the wrong company.

what the experts say, is that a house is a system.  We know from years of experience very rarely, if ever, does one product ever resolve a house’s problems.  It is typically a combination of proven strategies that make the difference.  This is why your utilities have done the research on these measures to ensure they meet their savings criteria.  They also offer rebates for the most cost effective envelope repairs: duct sealing, air barrier work, insulation and solar control.  They realize that an integrated approach is essential to saving energy, improving comfort and indoor air quality.  It is also worth noting that your utility is not providing rebates for radiant barriers or attic fans.

Sales People

The sad fact in the market place today is there is more pressure to develop sales than expertise.  This is a contributing factor to much confusion in the marketplace.  Too many salespeople lack the discipline to learn building science, so they fabricate answers to customer questions.  Princeton University professor Harry Frankfurt said it best, “bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  Thus, the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligation or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic.” On Bullshit, ©2005, Princeton University Press, p.63  At Advantage Home Performance our auditors and sales people know that fabricating answers to questions is a an offense that could lead to termination.

Many of the sales people you are going to meet can’t sell you a comprehensive solution, so their offer is limited.  You have most likely heard the old adage, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails.”  Your salesman, be it heating and air conditioning, insulation, radiant barrier, attic fan, solar control, etcetera, makes his living selling their product lines.  Many of them don’t get paid if they don’t sell you something.  As a result, they are going to work pretty hard to sell you what they have to offer and not necessarily what your home really needs.

There is also a class of heating and air conditioning salesman you need to be aware of who call themselves “comfort consultants.”  This name is bit of a stretch, if not a charade.  If the goal is enhanced comfort, you would think a comfort consultant would want to thoroughly examine the whole house and not just the HVAC system.  You can’t meaningfully consult on the dynamics of an HVAC system or house without performing comprehensive tests.  Replacing HVAC equipment is a much more profitable sale than properly sealing duct work, repairing air barriers … thus the singular focus is on selling heating and air conditioning systems and not solutions.

Auditors

There are some great audit companies in the state of Arizona, but there are even more mediocre ones.  Make sure you select a professional audit company.  Do not be fooled simply because someone is BPI (Building Performance Institute) certified.  BPI certification is one of the first steps one needs to take to prove competency.  To become a great auditor an individual needs to perform a lot of audits and be involved in delivering a lot of repairs.  There is no way to short cut experience.

We also are suspect of companies that subcontract out audits.  This is a flawed business model.  We believe a company that farms out its audits is a second tier company.  They are obviously not serious about the audit process because if they were they would be performing their own audits in-house.  If you are doing business with a company that subcontracts out audits, have the original auditor come back and test out after the work is completed.

We also think that you should scrutinize companies who subcontract out work.  An audit company is only as good as their subcontractors.  Is your auditor subcontracting out with reputable firms?  Are the companies they are employing quality conscious or simply the cheapest?  It is critical to note that the building defects that we are repairing are so commonplace because the lowest price often trumps the higher priced quality job.

Whole Home Solutions

We highly recommend that homeowners invest in a comprehensive solution, as opposed to performing the recommendations off our scope of work in a piecemeal fashion.  If the goal is to achieve optimal comfort, energy efficiency and indoor air quality then an estimate that deals with the whole house as opposed to part of it, is the most logical way to proceed.  Our goal is to get the most cost effective results for our customers and not simply run up the cost of the job.

Inversely, if an audit company only finds one recommendation in your house we would be suspect of the quote.  The vast majority of homes we have audited have a variety of issues, never just one.  This is why the utilities offer rebates for repairs on the four most common problems with the biggest paybacks.

Quality Installation

Quality installation never gets the attention it deserves.  This is especially true if the work is being performed in your attic, where it is less likely that anyone will carefully inspect the work after it is performed.  Contractor selection is critical because duct sealing, air barrier work and insulation installation has to be extremely thorough.  Small mistakes can have large consequences.  For instance, five percent missing insulation in an attic can lead to a 54% drop in R-value.

Make sure you hire a company that puts quality on the same par with profit.  According to the Consumer Guide to Energy Savings, you should “try not to let the lowest price be the main reason for selecting a contractor.  Better contractors might charge more, but they may offer better value.”  The value we believe is in the attention to detail during the installation.  Qualify the quality if possible: you need to check references, ask questions, do research, etc.

You also need to keep in mind that good products can be installed poorly.  Just because you purchased a high SEER air conditioner doesn’t necessarily mean you will achieve high efficiency.  That new system has to be attached to an air distribution system that is air tight and properly sized.  Again, it is not uncommon for our auditors to see high efficiency air conditioning equipment installed to an air distribution system that is leaky and constricted.

Why Advantage Home Performance?

At Advantage Home Performance we have a very strong customer service ethic.  We show respect for our customers and their property.  If you already haven’t, please take a moment and watch the short video titled, “our customers say it best.”  We delivered for these customers and in turn they were kind enough to endorse us.

Advantage Home Performance is one company with one comprehensive solution. It is a lot easier for our customers to deal with one company as opposed to two or three companies.  Our installers have been through our training.  Our crews know our customer service polices.  Our crews know our standards for cleanliness.  Our crews know our company’s fierce commitment to delivering quality work.    See our Guarantee in the About Us section of the web site.
Advantage Home Performance is not a newcomer to the audit and repair process.  Mike Uniacke, the owner of Advantage Home Performance, has been testing buildings, writing technical articles and teaching building science since the early 90’s.  He has built a team of like-minded individuals who are now delivering some of the best home performance contracting work in the state.  Correctly diagnosing and repairing buildings is in Advantage Home Performance’s DNA.

Summary

We genuinely hope this section of our website provides insight that you can put to good use when purchasing home energy improvements.  When you make prudent home energy improvement investments you win, the country wins and the environment wins.    The Home Performance Contracting industry wins when you get results from your home performance contractor.

The Criteria