Staged Retrofits, The False Debate

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Staged Retrofits

In several industry conversations over the past few months, there’s been debate about whether we should take a “staged” retrofit approach. Powersmith’s Dan Kartzman does a good job rebutting the notion this will be a panacea in his post “The Danger of Staged Retrofits”.

Dan raises some good points, and I’d certainly urge programs to use some caution here to avoid designs and messaging that undermine contractors who strive toward comprehensiveness. But in today’s world a couple steps at a time is the way most homeowners will tackle 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 in particular orders. Yes, reducing the load makes more sense before replacing the air-conditioner rather than after. And if we’re really thinking comprehensively, we get to “tunnel through the cost barrier” as Amory Lovins puts in, reducing the load enough to start dropping tonnage, eliminate sytems, and simplifying mechanical solutions, and avoiding some costs altogether.

It’s important, though, to focus on the real issues. 

Staged or not staged is a red herring debate. The vast majority—so vast that they would be rounded to 100%—of retrofits in the home performance realm will happen over time, not all at once. Yes, we’ll see the occasional deep energy retrofit or soup to nut gut rehab. But not in most homes.

It boils down to this simple fact. 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, rather than BTUs.) And again, almost no one, 0.00% to the nearest hundredth, goes as far as they can go on the first round. So, as a contractor, you decide whether you’ll deliver services for the homeowner even if they don’t want to do everything according to the theoretical best loading order. As long as you’re not doing harm, give them what they want.

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). Dan talks about $15,000 projects, which is certainly indicates his company is doing some important things well. I’ll argue, though, that isn’t really a comprehensive project in most homes. And it doesn’t change the wisdom of doing what so many in the industry fail to do. Go back. Over and over and over again, and give them the opportunity to go deeper over time. There should be no debate over the value of a customer-for-life approach over the industry standard of “eat what you kill”.

New customer acquisition is just too expensive not to work with your existing customers, too. 

Now, this is easiest if you’ve got something like HVAC equipment to maintain. (There is a “V” in HVAC, too.) Without that you’ve go to get a lot more creative. And of course, a good CRM system to track what you’ve done and what still needs to be done makes it easier.

This isn’t just speculation. One only needs to look at companies that have emerged over the last five years and started to post big numbers in home performance. The majority of bigger players recently have been savvy HVAC contractors (I’m not talking about the bottom 80% of the HVAC industry, I’m talking about some in the top 20%) who’ve been working within their customer base to go deeper. These very frequently are staged. And they’re gathering information that will help them continue to talk with these customers over and over and over to help move the customer forward over time and win the business when the customer is ready.

Contractors, you can start doing this today. I’ll talk more about implications for programs later.

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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. Peter Troast  March 5, 2014

    This has been a healthy and important discussion, so many thanks to Dan Kartzman for lighting the fire and to you for stoking it. As you know, Mike, I tend to be in your court on the customer centric/position for many phases approach.

    Where I don’t think the debate is false, however, is on the question of very small initial jobs–such as the quickie in-and-out air sealing measures that programs revert to in order to drive numbers. In my experience these supposed gateway drugs have had the opposite effect: homeowners think they’re “done”, contractor business models get massively distorted, and the kind of real customer impact Dan is arguing for never materializes.

    • Mike Rogers  March 6, 2014

      Peter, you touch on a very important point. It’s true for contractors. And it’s even more true for certain program designs, like for example a $600 air-sealing program in the great state of Maine. I will cover this and a few other reasons why I get concerned when programs try to tackle this. The short version: when programs try to pick business models they distort the market and squelch other business models which work even better.

  2. Shawna Henderson  February 26, 2014

    Amen, Mike. Thinking in absolutes (all or nothing DERs) leads, in my experience, to GCU (gross client unhappiness). If they have committed to an extensive DER, but can’t afford it all at once (which, face it is 99% of all homeowners), we have developed an internal design/consulting program that allows us to show owners a roadmap that includes estimated energy savings vs. rough cost estimates so they get a a sense of how long it will take them to get to the 70 – 90 percent reduction in space and water heating we aim at.

    • Mike Rogers  February 26, 2014

      Thanks, Shawna. I’ll have to remember “GCU”. So many causes, most of which ARE within our control.

    • Brennan  March 6, 2014

      Shawna, is there any chance you could provide an example of the staged-outline report that you provide to homeowners? I am currently working on a US DOE-sponsored project concerning staged retrofit guidance, and it has been very challenging to find good examples of occupant-directed content. Shoot me an email, if you’re able/interested ( Thanks!


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