Preparing Customers for a Home Performance Assessment
Originally published: 02.01.13 by Paul Morin
Clarify expectations and minimize disruptions with upfront communications
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part report. Read the first article, “How to Become a Home Comfort Superhero."
Once you have landed a Home Performance Contracting (HPC) job, helping your customers prepare for an assessment is critical. Communication is key. This is an opportunity to clarify expectations.
Give the homeowner several days’ notice that you will need access to all rooms of the house, including th attic. If attic access is in a master bedroom closet, for example, they may need to clean out that room.
The homeowner will need to have all of their windows and doors accessible. You will need to be able to open and close all interior doors during testing. They will need to be aware of this so they can make arrangements for napping children or older adults living in the home. Service people can also upset dogs, cats or other pets, so be sure your customer knows what access you will need.
Be sure to ask them not to have a fire going in the fireplace and to clean out all the ashes so they don’t scatter during your testing. You will need to be able to close the fireplace damper.
You will need permission to be in the garage if attic access or mechanical equipment is there. Ask if attic access is higher than an 8-foot ceiling so you bring ladders that are tall enough.
Tell the homeowner that you would like to have a 10-to-15-minute interview or information-gathering meeting with them prior to doing any testing. It is a good idea to have a questionnaire prepared in advance so you don’t forget to ask important questions. You will want to know the homeowner’s comfort issues:
• Have there been uneven heating and cooling, drafts, moisture, or condensation issues in the past?
• Has there been water damage?
• Have there been ice dams, roof damage, damp insulation, or leakage?
• Ask if there is a high water table. Ask details about their concerns and ask them to prioritize them. It’s your job to identify pre-existing conditions.
• Ask how much money they have budgeted for this project. It’s part of setting and meeting expectations. Address ventilation, insulation, combustion safety, air sealing, duct sealing, and mechanical equipment.
Remember, all houses are different, so don’t use a cookie-cutter approach. Mention that after the remedial work is done, you will be retesting to assure building enclosure and the mechanical systems are working as a safe and efficient system and that all work is meeting expectations.
Walk around the house (with permission) and make a sketch of the home, noting location of roof vents, plumbing vents, exhaust fans, mechanical systems, and chimneys. Having this information provides a good baseline for developing your work scope.
Develop a Plan
Once you have your test data, use it to create a plan to guide your work. Write out clear work scopes, with specifications and expectations. Focus on safety with the budget in mind. To use a medical phrase, “First, do no harm.” If there is not enough money for combustion safety or mechanical ventilation, then air sealing or insulation work cannot be done. For instance, if the homeowner has a natural draft hot-water heater, this heater may exhaust fumes into the house if the dryer or kitchen fan runs at the same time. This may be a problem before work begins or may happen after air sealing work is done. Tighter homes may need mechanical ventilation systems to make up for the air that used to leak through the house naturally before the retrofit. Your test data and the information you gathered in the client interview will aid you in developing a plan.
Field Inspection, Verification and Comparison
As the HPC in charge, it’s your responsibility to verify compliance in the field. Have a checklist so you can keep track of:
• Are the right materials and equipment on the job site?
• Is the plan being followed?
• Are all the proper codes and standards being met?
• Is the job following the correct sequencing?
• Is the hand-off between contractors going smoothly?
Having a third-party person do inspections is wise. This is worth the extra couple hundred dollars it will cost. Document the progress and the end product for your files.
After the work is completed, it’s critical to compare your test results to the initial baseline to see the before and after numbers. Compare results to established guidelines. Were performance outcomes met? If not, why?
Get Your Customers’ Feedback
Conducting post tests should also be part of your proposal. As part of your proposal, request feedback after the job and post tests are done. For good HPCs, feedback is a required component for continuous improvement. Ask if comfort expectations were met. Getting feedback is especially critical when trying to get maximum results with minimum dollars. It’s the only way to increase effectiveness and efficiency over time. Chances are, some of the best learning nuggets will come from this feedback loop.
What an Assessment Should Include
At a minimum, a basic Home Performance Assessment should include the following:
• A blower door test to determine how tight or leaky the house is; and use of a smoke puffer or infrared camera to help find the air leaks.
• A duct blaster test to measure and locate duct leaks, if ductwork is located in the attic, garage, or crawlspace.
• A combustion safety test of all gas appliances, including measurement of carbon monoxide and a worst-case spillage test.
• An inventory of insulation levels.
• An interview with the homeowner to determine their comfort, energy, and/or air-quality concerns. You will be surprised how much information they can provide if you ask the right questions. This will be your guide to what additional testing will be needed.
Finding Home Performance Customers
The best place to look for new business is with your existing customers. If you are an HVAC, weatherization or insulation specialist, offer your new services to your current customer base. Ask these people for referrals to friends, family and neighbors. Offer them a discount, gift card or other appropriate incentive.
Join appropriate organizations and trade groups. Many of these sites have places to post your contact points. Ask colleagues for tips and tricks. Use online bulletin boards. Use business card bulletin boards at the grocery and hardware store.
If you want business in a certain neighborhood, print up flyers and hire a student to deliver them door-to-door. Neighborhood newspapers offer affordable business card listings in the classifieds.
State fairs, home fairs and local home shows are good places to display. Booth space can be very affordable. Spot and cable TV are more affordable in some parts of the country, and the exposure can be exceptional.
Paul Morin was a carpenter who framed houses for 15 years before becoming a weatherization auditor in 1991. He also worked for the Center for Energy and Environment for more than 12 years, diagnosing building shell, combustion spillage, ventilation, and moisture problems in single-family and multi-family buildings. He has been working as a Technical Sales Specialist for The Energy Conservatory since 2009 and is past president of the Minnesota Building Performance Association.