Unintentional Anti-Efficiency

Posted February 10, 2016 By Laura Schauer

I have a close friend who works for a small custom homebuilder. The company stakes its reputation on the quality of their home. For them, it is not about building cheaper, it is about building better, and longer-lasting, and solid. They spend an inordinate amount of time working through the design process with their customers making sure the bones of the home, that part customer doesn’t see is perfection.

I love talking to him about their building practices and interactions with contractors and customers. For one, I find it an interesting business. But second, it gives me great insight into new homes programs. We discuss the basics that I can understand I ask a lot of questions, such as: what types of lighting do you standardly install?; why do you instruct customers to run their furnace fan continuously?; and why don’t you engage with our statewide new homes program? (FYI – they’re barely aware of the program and not at all aware of the benefits – let’s giddy-up, Wisconsin).

The most recent discussion, however, really took me a bit by surprise and has me thinking. I asked him if they’re staring to get requests for smart thermostats and connected homes. Especially since they’re working with higher as well as mid-range budget homes. “Only a few,” was the response. But my friend, who is curious about these things as well, went to his HVAC contractor to ask his opinion about smart thermostats. The response:

He doesn’t promote them because he doesn’t think they save the customer energy.

In fact…

He programs thermostats at one temperature because he says energy savings is a wash when the system has to bring the home back up or down to the desired setting.

Wait, what…? Isn’t this one of those tried and true energy conservation tips? Like, since the late 1970’s? And isn’t here a ton of information out there around the building sciences of a home and why it makes sense?

Before you think this is an older contractor resisting change, think again. This is a younger generation small HVAC business owner. And he is a really nice, intelligent guy at that. Oh – and for the record – he’s told me that he typically recommends HVAC systems that are at or just over standard efficiency. Go figure.

As I do after all these discussions, I went to the Internet and sent along lots of articles and studies on this topic to my homebuilding friend, highlighting the benefits of setting temperatures and issues such as user behavior interfering with savings. But the discussion has had my brain churning on the question –where are we missing the boat on educating this important target market? Furthermore, to what extent do attitudes and misplaced knowledge regress, versus progress, market transformation? Especially when voiced by trusted contractors. This one contractor has impressed his opinion on a homebuilding organization, the homeowners, which will funnel down to others they communicate with. It’s an unintentional anti-efficiency initiative.

We spend a lot of time interviewing customers, contractors, and other trade allies as part of our research. And we continue to hear that the market is shifting and transforming, if not already transformed, for HVAC and new homes in particular. At this point, I disagree. Sure, for those larger most active trades that may be the case. But how many smaller trades are out there, comprising a critical mass, that still need to be educated? Furthermore, how do we provide them the right information so that they are convinced?

Last, we need to recognize that pushing the information out for the past 10 years is not good enough. While we may have convinced one group to make changes, this experience illustrates the need to continue educating, particularly the newer entrants. We need to consider what we are doing as continuous education, not just education until we think a market is transformed then stop.