No doubt if you follow energy or environmental issues, you’ve heard over and over again that the least expensive way to tackle our energy difficulties is through efficiency. One report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) suggested that $168.6 billion could be saved through energy efficiency by 2020. Still, some of those close to the ground have heard horror stories on how the whole process is sometimes carried out in real life. Significant energy savings cannot happen without a comprehensive energy audit. Quality energy audits followed by sound retrofits result in substantial energy savings. Poorly executed energy audits, no matter how good the retrofit, result in lower-than-expected savings, wasted investment, angry building owners, and a bad name for energy conservation.
Studies have shown a wide discrepancy in actual savings after energy audits. While some projects have delivered energy savings of less than 10 percent of original energy costs, others have successfully delivered savings of 40 percent and more. This divergence is not a mystery. Experienced energy auditors have learned to avoid the mistakes that lead to underperforming retrofits, disappointed customers and a struggling referral business.
Persuading homeowners and businesses of the benefits of energy efficiency can often feel like an uphill battle; there is no need to add the barrier of a poor review by committing the mistakes others have made.
Mistake #1 – Underestimating Installed Costs and/or overestimating savings
One can reasonably expect that if they install energy efficient light bulbs, they will lower their energy bill. But exactly how much will they save and how much more do the efficient light bulbs cost? These questions should be right up an energy auditor’s alley, but too often their answers promise higher benefits than should reasonably be expected. Overestimated savings arise from poor modeling, incorrect measurements or assumptions, or not accounting for the interactive effects between improvements.
It also is tempting for energy auditors (especially those who are also trained retrofit installers) to bias the assumptions to make an improvement seem more appealing, but this will only hurt business in the long run. Just like overestimating savings, underestimating installed costs can be a serious mistake, especially because the installed cost estimate after an energy audit often serves as the owner’s initial budget for the retrofit. When subsequent bid costs are received by the owner, and are higher than originally expected, there is a greater risk of the improvement being abandoned altogether.
Mistake # 2 – Using simple payback instead of life-cycle costing
In addition to the two questions above, there is an additional question that energy auditors should ask themselves, even if the owner doesn't think of it. How long will the improvement last? Life-cycle costing has gained wide acceptance in federal and state programs, as a more holistic metric for energy improvements than simple payback. Simple payback cannot distinguish between the merits of two improvements with the same payback, which may have dramatically different expected lifetimes. For example, a boiler tune-up and a lighting replacement may both have a payback period of one year. But the boiler will need another tune up only two years later, while the lighting will last over 10 years. An experienced energy auditor will present the owner with a savings-to-investment ratio and return on investment, as opposed to simple payback periods.
Mistake #3 – Thinking a great HVAC system is enough
Many energy auditors transferred their skills from careers in the Heating and Air Conditioning industry. It actually comes as a surprise to many of them when they learn that it doesn't matter how great the HVAC system is — if the house is not efficient, the homeowner is not getting what they paid for. It is crucial for energy auditors to internalize the 'house as a system' approach, where inefficiencies in one place have effects on the rest of the systems. Likewise, if the house is perfectly sealed from air infiltration, and is using an inefficient HVAC system, there are serious savings being missed. The real value of an energy auditor comes from their ability to view a home comprehensively.
Mistake #4 – Not being thorough
This one may seem obvious, and is probably common in every industry. Still, one study conducted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) found that 80 percent of energy audits missed at least three potential improvements. Even worse, these neglected improvements were not always the "deep" retrofits that have larger investments and longer payback periods; the study found that many readily available improvements were often missed. There may be reasons for this: insufficient training, lack of budget, and/or following owner's directions to not evaluate specific areas.
But often, thoroughness is the real culprit. Energy auditors need to evaluate all reasonable improvements to give the owner options from which to choose improvements for retrofitting. Often times it is quicker to go off the template of a previous audit. Experienced auditors know that it is critically important that prior audits not be used as templates for energy audits, because there is a high risk of mistakenly carrying forward material or assumptions from a different situation.
Mistake #5 – Not keeping a good record of previous audits and actual energy savings
While having a BPI Certification is a crucial first step to building an established energy auditing business, certification is simply authority to act, not confirmation of ability. Experienced auditors know that all the certifications, government incentives and marketing in the world cannot build a sustainable business model like solid testimonials and customer referrals can.
Too many auditors will perform their work, make suggestions and then move on to look for the next job. While starting out, auditors should start working on case studies or testimonials of what they've done, why they did it and the results (both immediate and long term savings and comfortability). For instance, most customers will remark how much warmer they felt, and how much they save each month on their utility bills. The difference between a service "that can save up to 40 percent each month" and one that "saved The Sterne Family an average of $80 each month" is enormous.
Hopefully this list will help future energy auditors avoid the common mistakes that many have made before them. Although there is no substitute for the proper training and real-world experience, having an idea of what to avoid and what to focus on can mean the difference between success and failure in this competitive industry.