Musings from a Deep Energy Retrofit: Ignoring Staged Retrofits is Nuts

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This week, I’m sharing a few observations, some technical, some not, from a deep energy retrofit of my own home in Burlington, VT. Part 2 of the series.

tax assessor street shotAs I tackle this deeper retrofit project, I’m reminded of an ongoing debate about staged retrofits. I touched on this last year in a post that generated some good discussion in several forums (see “Staged Retrofits, The False Debate”). The arguments have been reinforced since.

At market prices1, the retrofit work I’m doing on this house would be more than $250,000. Most people don’t what to spend that on efficiency improvements. And among those who do, most wouldn’t be interested in, couldn’t afford, doing it all at once.

For many, even an emergency boiler (or furnace, or air-conditioner, or…) replacement is going to be difficult to swing. But does that mean we shouldn’t replace a boiler right now because the house isn’t insulated as well as it could be? We’re looking at 10 below zero again today. Are you going to say, “Sorry, can’t do it. I only take on projects that subscribe to my views of loading order.”

Some do. Nate Adams says “low handing fruit is poisoned.”2 The reality is, though, until we have better financing mechanisms for everyone, not everyone can afford the upfront costs of even an energy nerds optimized first step, let alone a myriad of other tweaks that logically make sense to do together, but that in aggregate simply are not financially in reach. In today’s world a couple steps at a time is the way most homeowners will tackle most efficiency improvements in their homes.

There is also no doubt that an all-at-once approach allows the biggest results at a lower cost. It’s often most cost-effective to do several things at the same time, or a particular order (and “doing it all”, frequently goes way beyond cost-effectiveness from a narrow energy savings perspective). I agree completely. So stipulated. Nope, you don’t have to convince me of that.

But you do have to convince the people paying–and they have to be able to pay. Both are real challenges. So, with non-energy efficiency priorties, real world financing constraints, and currently low energy prices, almost ALL retrofits in the home performance realm will happen over time, not all at once.

Quite simply, homeowners only buy what THEY want to buy, and it doesn’t matter as much what YOU want them to do. Sometimes you get them to go deeper. Sometimes you don’t. (They’ll go a lot deeper if you focus on things they value–often non-energy benefits, cold beer and warm showers, rather than BTUs.)

Now, if you’ve done a good job selling–which means helping customers figure out want they want–they’ll often want a lot more than they thought initially. That’s great! If your best doesn’t get them to move far enough, all the way, give them want they want (Repeat, “do no harm”. Repeat again.).

Don’t just promise them what they want. Set real expectations (and guarantee the energy savings if you insist that’s the most important thing), given the needs and the ability to tackle them within the contracted budget. And then deliver.

And then revisit the customer over time and keep chipping away. A customer-for-life approach, rather than “eat what you kill”, works well for contractors delivering quality. You can also turn unintentional and planned piecemeal approaches into something better thought out. Some smart contractors are already doing this. At least of couple of market actors are working on ways to make this more sophisticated. Staged retrofits are here to stay.

That’s true, even if the homeowner tackles a deep energy retrofit. They’ll still need something later.

1I’m handling all of the construction management, and providing most of the labor, myself. This is partly because I wanted to swing a hammer, use the SIGA-Wigluv tape, and play with funky flashing details. And partly because I didn’t want to write a $250,000 check.

2I buy Nate’s underlying argument, if not the hyperbole. But he skirts some important issues. People don’t just care about energy-savings, they care about other things, too, and projects get optimized on factors other than energy savings. Modeled savings don’t equal guaranteed savings. That touches on what modeling nerds touting the accuracy of models miss with their arguments: average “realization rates” don’t mean that every home hits its modeled target. (Measuring only comes after–a promise to measure doesn’t appear to be a big sales driver. Heck, even energy guarantees, especially with low gas prices, don’t appear to be big drivers.) And incentives based on measured savings? That’s still too inefficient. Want efficiency? Raise energy prices. Simple, effective, and efficient, without unnecessary administrative costs. Probably unlikely, too. But I digress.

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About the Author:

Mike Rogers is the President of OmStout Consulting. A nationally recognized expert in residential energy-efficiency, he works with contractors and programs to scale sustainable market approaches to improving homes. More on Google+


  1. Sydney Roberts  February 16, 2015

    Absolutely agree. There is nothing wrong with leaving work on the table, as long as prior work does not prevent future improvements. For instance, take care of attic air sealing prior to adding insulation, because no one wants to mess up the fluffy stuff. Just make sure that your customer is so happy that you are invited back when it’s time for the next meal. -Sydney


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