Am I Smarter than a Seventh Grader? A Lesson in Communicating Efficiency

Posted April 24, 2015

Saturday morning was exciting for me. I convinced my husband (who is a custom home builder) to purchase LED lights from his electrician to replace the only 1 year old can lights that burnt out. He and my son went through the house and replaced a total of 27 lights. Pleased with myself for driving this decision and singlehandedly saving our finances, I pronounced that we’re going to save so much energy and money. At which point, my husband suggested I go figure out how much. (Note: knowing how much I like researching and analyzing this was probably less out of interest and more to get me out of his hair.)

Diligently I go about my task and come back to announce, making X assumptions, we will save about $9 a month. At which point my too-smart-for-his-own-good 13 year old asks, how much do we pay in electric bills each month? The rest of the conversation goes exactly like this:

Those of you who know what you’re doing, don’t judge

Me: “Oh, about $130”

Him: “So we are saving $9 out of $130?”

Me: “Yes, isn’t it great?”

Him: “I don’t get it, that’s, like, less than 5 percent, isn’t it? What’s the point?”

And it struck me: at that very moment I was a real-live subject in the storyline of barriers to efficiency in a widget-based world. What my son didn’t understand is that this was just another stepping stone in my effort to reduce the energy in our home. Several years ago it was my appliances. Today it was lighting. And tomorrow I might just get those whole-home controls and the smart thermostat I’ve been eying.

I have to admit, though, from the rational perspective I agreed with him. We spent hundreds of dollars to early replace these bulbs. The payback is somewhere around 6 years. I don’t think my husband was too thrilled with that analysis until I showed the benefit of not having to replace the bulbs for five years (compared with 1-2 years).

And herein lies the problem: our singular, widget-based perspective. A lack of perspective on the impact of treating our systems and embarking on that first step that will lead to more actions down the line. Getting customers to overcome the knee jerk reaction to the upfront cost of installing and/or changing out to the efficient model or recognize the longer-term non-energy benefits. It was such a real-world and personal illustration of the challenges faced in our industry. And coming from a 13 year old made it even more impactful for me.

Changing out lights: a family affair

At the end, my husband chalked it up to a selling point. But I wondered, what was the lasting take-away for my son? Will he continue to see efficiency as a marginally beneficially investment, or did any of our follow-up discussions on the compounding benefits of treating a home systematically resonate with him? And what are the lessons learned in how we communicate the benefits to efficiency to our customers? It undoubtedly has to move beyond our traditional pay-back period discussion, especially as our markets mature.

At the end I said I was excited to get my next few months electric bills. We are in shoulder months after all! Perfect timing. To which my husband rolled his eyes.