Homeowners Study Up to Shape the Energy Management Market
More research, increased environmentalism open new doors to connect with consumers
The average American’s interest in energy management is dependent on several variables. It can ebb and flow depending on the economy (national and personal), the local price of energy (e.g., how gas prices affect vehicle selections), environmental awareness, code and law updates, and more. New waves of technology — and their evolving price points — can also create sea changes in defining the “normal” consumer outlook.
On the far end of the scale, net-zero homes have started to enter the picture. That idea didn’t really exist 20 years ago, other than maybe certain highly individualized residences, off-the-grid communities, and possibly the stray group of yurts. Now, it’s becoming easier to envision net-zero existence while remaining part of civilization.
FIRST COST BECOMING SECOND FIDDLE?
On average, homeowners are coming to their HVAC decisions as better-informed consumers. That seems to be the consensus on the manufacturer side. That said, they are seeing not only more widespread interest in giving environmental concerns more priority in purchasing decisions, but also that this interest is more impervious to other circumstances than it might have been in past decades.
“A study on home comfort reported that four out of five consumers prefer purchasing from manufacturers that are known for producing environmentally friendly products, and seven in 10 are willing to pay more for such products,” said Ken Ely, director of residential product management, Johnson Controls Inc. “Evidence of this trend has been a driving factor in sustaining the demand for these products over time, despite economic factors.”
Ely pointed out that this represents an opening for contractors to bring more energy-efficient systems into the discussion with customers who may have previously been assessed as more cost conscious in their focus.
John Anderson, Rheem’s business development manager, said his team regularly receives specific questions and requests regarding SEER, AFUE, and HSPF ratings. In the past, even the definitions of these terms would have traditionally been in the realm of the contractor or sales rep to explain to the consumer, never mind getting specific requests or criteria along those lines. That shift suggests that the traditional role of information-provider and professional authority may be changing in relationship to a potential customer, especially in the internet age. But that doesn’t mean the opportunity for building valuable connections as a knowledgeable and helpful resource is any less. If anything, contractors who keep up with available offerings and efficiency opportunities may build a more meaningful business relationship with better-informed customers who are more open to the case for higher-efficiency options with less first-cost pressure.
“As the cost of energy increases, the benefits to the homeowner increase as well,” observed Jim Lowell, American Standard’s product manager of air conditioners and residential solutions.
Investing in an efficient system is actually a hedge against unpredictable energy costs, according to Ely. Customers acknowledge they may only buy one substantial HVAC system and that efficiency just represents a more comprehensive way to assure return on investment (ROI).
“Millions of homeowners in the Northeast are spending thousands of dollars each winter heating their homes,” said Katie Ullman, director of communications for Dandelion, a home geothermal company.
That only adds motivation to look for solutions, Ullman said, describing customers who “see them as a huge pain point.”
Lowell also noted that as the ways to manage home energy get more high tech, many of those choices usually mean minimal disruption or adjustment to their existing habits. Nobody is looking to significantly complicate their daily routine in their own house, even in the name of a healthier planet. As a result, being more energy conscious has become an easier choice as well as a more rewarding option from an environmental or societal point of view, he said.
BUILDERS FOLLOW DEMAND
As more than one person has put it over the years, building to code is basically another way of saying, “I did the least I could do without breaking the law.”
However, shoppers in the new construction sector are giving more weight to homes that have higher energy efficiency ambitions, said Lowell.
“New home buyers are asking very pointed questions [about sustainability],” said Anderson, and “[builders] are responding to those demands without compromise. We see a big driver in this awareness being led by Title 24 regulations in California.”
In yet another verse of a now-familiar song, Anderson sees such baseline requirements moving “west to east, as homeowner awareness in California and Texas is propelling demand.”
MANUFACTURERS DO, TOO
One might wonder if it’s not a case of a new “extra” range of efficiency to go along with the normal array of offerings, while owners start to see what was once the efficiency standard as the new substandard. And that explains the ascendance of more sophisticated home controls and devices along with improved variable-speed options.
“We recently added a new two-stage, 19-SEER YXT Air Conditioner to the York® Affinity™ Series from Johnson Controls,” said Ely. “This newest addition provides efficient, high-performance comfort for a variety of applications, allowing contractors to meet a wide range of homeowner needs. This can be sold as a complete Affinity residential system or as a premium upgrade to an existing system, and it provides contractors and homeowners with flexible options by matching it with either a variable-speed air handler or a standard ECM [electronically commutated motor] air handler. In addition, units can be installed with a conventional two-stage thermostat or the communicating Wi-Fi-enabled Affinity™ Hx3™ Touch-screen Thermostat, which provides remote access for the consumer for adjustment and monitoring. For the contractor, using the Hx3 Pro App, with the consumers permission, they can provide remote monitoring and, if ever necessary, remote diagnostics.”
Dandelion’s heat pump, Dandelion Air, offers home heating, central air conditioning, and hot water. Each system comes with a smart monitoring system and a Nest thermostat in an effort to maximize efficiency and savings, according to Ullman.
“The new EcoNet Smart Thermostat was designed with builders, contractors, and plumbers in mind,” said Anderson. “Utilizing feedback gathered from our partners in the field, we’ve incorporated advanced sensor technology into the new smart thermostat that actively monitors integrated Rheem smart heating, cooling, and water heating equipment and delivers both routine maintenance notifications and critical service alerts (with diagnostic details to expedite repairs).
“The EcoNet Smart Thermostat was purposefully designed to streamline installation, setup, and service for contractors and plumbers,” he continued. “Plus, the thermostat automatically detects all connected equipment and configures itself to optimize system performance, while detailed diagnostics and service alerts improve service call efficiency.”
Similarly, the American Standard AccuComfort™ systems are connected to the cloud via Nexia, allowing homeowners to monitor and adjust their systems remotely, maximizing their comfort and energy efficiency, said Lowell.
ROOM TO IMPROVE
So what about the idea of homes that are energy neutral (or better) with regard to what they take from the grid? (See sidebar on Page 8). That question elicited little on-the-record response. However, Johnson Controls’ Ely weighed in.
“I am going to make an easy prediction: They will increase,” he said.
Much as variables affect customer commitment to energy management in general, he sees the rate of that increase over the next 10 to 20 years as uncertain, pending the impacts of contributing factors like regulations and energy costs.
But, for those homeowners with ambitions somewhere in between the status quo and net-zero, hope remains. According to the experts, untapped areas for improving energy management in the home still exist.
“We believe home heating is an area that needs more attention,” Ullman said. “Even natural gas utilities themselves, like ConEdison, are putting out RFPs [requests for proposals] for non-pipeline heating solutions.”
Lowell provided an even more optimistic outlook, well beyond what American Standard covers.
“High-efficiency residential energy management is still in its infancy, with plenty of opportunity for improvement and growth,” he said. “This would apply to HVAC, lighting, insulation, (or) windows.”
In fact, Lowell sees the upward trend in consumer savvy and acceptance of modern tools, technology, and equipment as only pushing the market of efficient products to develop that much faster. That, in turn, serves to invite increased competition, which will bring down the cost naturally over time.
In that scenario, when it comes to living the environmentally friendly lifestyle of tomorrow, consumers will still be able to go home to a house rather than a yurt.
HVAC Arrives Ready to Work (and Save) in Manufactured Homes
Contributed by Panasonic
As neighborhoods are redeveloped throughout the Jersey shore, lower-income households are finding it increasingly difficult to secure affordable — and comfortable — housing. Residents in Eatontown, New Jersey, were no exception, and when the Affordable Housing Alliance purchased land that had older manufactured homes already on it, it committed to building new models that were both reasonably priced and had higher-quality living conditions.
The Alliance knew that utility costs were a large part of what made older manufactured homes expensive for residents. Residents were paying approximately $400 to $500 per month in utilities and worse when oil and propane costs were on the rise. A lack of insulation meant the homes were wasting vast amounts of energy to maintain a comfortable temperature. Because of this, the new models needed to be well-insulated and offer energy-efficient and cost-effective utilities.
After receiving funding from the Department of Energy’s Building America Program, The Levy Partnership began coordinating the development of new manufactured homes for the Alliance, including one net-zero energy residence. While each of the manufactured homes was built by Champion with the goal of reducing energy usage, the goal of the zero-net energy home was to reduce energy consumption to zero.
In order to achieve this, the home needed solar panels, which produce sustainable energy, and energy-efficient equipment. In choosing a heating and air conditioning solution for both the manufactured and zero-net energy homes, The Levy Partnership selected Panasonic’s ductless solution, which could be installed at Champion Homes’ factory. That meant the unit was ready to use once the home arrived on-site, saving on installation and production costs.
“Our team wanted more than a vendor when we were selecting a heating and air conditioning solution for this project,” said Jordan Dentz, vice president of The Levy Partnership. “We wanted a partner who would collaborate with us to deliver the right solution for Eatontown residents’ energy and comfort needs. Panasonic’s team provided the technical guidance we needed, plus they have the sleek, low-wattage, and quiet products to back them up.”
Once Champion built the homes, Panasonic’s ductless solutions were installed. Space was maximized, since thick walls and soffits with ductwork were not required.
Utility bills in the new manufactured homes are now 25 percent of what they were in older units. They dropped from approximately $400 to $500 per month to about $36 to $80 per month for gas and less than $40 per month for electric. As a result, the Alliance achieved one of its primary goals for the project — lower total cost of homeownership for residents.
Publication date: 8/20/2018