The amount of federal and state money spent on improving residential energy efficiency starts to reveal how much energy inefficiency remains throughout American’s homes.
This government commitment, which took off in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, is led by the Low Income Weatherization Assistance Program and the U.S. DOE’s State Energy Program. Dozens of efficiency-related programs throughout the county represent one product of that commitment. The need for contractors to do a substantial amount of HVAC work among the overall weatherization workload is another.
Types of Weatherization Programs
“We weatherize about 100 homes a year. Fifty percent or so are manufactured,” said Jessica Taylor, weatherization for NeighborImpact, which provides a number of services to central Oregon residents. She estimates around 40 percent of the weatherization projects include HVAC work.
“Currently, we have contracts with three different HVAC contractors,” Taylor said. Those contractors range from one-man operations to bigger regional companies.
NeighborImpact calls for RFPs from contractors every few years. Part of that process includes an estimated price sheet, broken down by labor hours and standard materials. Taylor explained that this ballpark info helps NeighborImpact since key funding sources focus on the savings-to-investment ratio of its projects.
“This is not how all weatherization programs work,” she said, “as some ask for bids for each job.”
BETTER AIR MANAGEMENT: In her work with weatherization programs, Ecotelligent’s Amanda Godward sees “anything from a typical attic to crawl spaces and a new furnace, or even retrofitting windows.” The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that weatherization returns $2.69 for each dollar spent on the program, realized in energy and non-energy benefits. Image courtesy ldgregory7, CC S-A 4.0
Amanda Godward is the owner of Ecotelligent Homes, a home performance contractor located in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The company, which she founded in 2009, partners with multiple state and local efficiency-focused programs.
“Some [programs] choose to target a certain type of client, some choose to target a certain type of housing stock,” Godward explained. In some programs, the program simply lists recommended contractors, the contractors can bid directly to the customer with no special funding involved, and the customer can do their due diligence and select accordingly as they wish.
Elsewhere, Kentucky River Foothills Development Council accepts contractor applications for a qualified contractors list. Its projects are government-funded for eligible applicants at or below 200 percent of the poverty line for income.
When discussing how to calculate bids for work with these programs, Godward advised contractors to take into account any added administrative or other resource costs necessary to comply with a certain program’s requirements. And each program, she said, will tend to have its own nuances with regard to applications or the work process.
Godward advised constructing a bid accordingly while remember some potential benefits, too.
“At the same time, if the program is bringing you the leads … the percentage you might typically allocate to investing in marketing, maybe you don’t need to for this program and so you could reduce your pricing.”
Scope of Weatherization Work
In Kentucky River Foothills’ case, work scope covers the range of repair and replacement for heating, water heaters, and electrical. Its RFP states that “each job will be bid separately and awarded to the best bid submitted within the five-day timeframe.” Ecotelligent’s Godward sees “anything from a typical attic to crawl spaces and a new furnace, or even retrofitting windows.” In some cases, being an HPC helps a company like Ecotelligent since it already has the tools necessary for testing and determining what is needed.
In Oregon, Taylor said, “The work can run the gamut, but the most typical is removal and install of EFAs and heat pumps (ducted and ductless). We occasionally do repairs, but have found that it is a better use of time and money to just replace.”
COMMON GOALS: Manufactured homes make up about half of NeighborImpact’s weatherization projects. Regardless of building type, projects commonly involve duct sealing, insulation as needed, a fan upgrade, and a few other health and safety improvements. Image courtesy Riverview Homes, Inc., CC S-A 3.0
Their work occasionally involves rebuilding a plenum or a specific duct system repair, she said, but most duct work involves duct sealing or insulation.
A positive for partner contractors is that the work orders are based on a comprehensive home energy audit by a qualified auditor, so the resulting scope is detailed and specific.
NeighborImpact issues work orders to its contractors at the start of each month, aside from any emergencies. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the contractor is expected to complete the work that month. That aligns with Ecotelligent’s experience.
“The [programs] that we’ve seen are typically two weeks to 30 days,” Godward said. “That’s another detail you need to understand up front.”
NeighborImpact tries to keep the flow of work steady to contractors. It does focus on summer projects for areas that experience tougher winters, and special priority goes to “no heat” low-income households from October to March.
On The Job And After
With a job in hand, the contractor partner can then manage its own load accordingly and schedule the work with the customer directly, whether it is just a thermostat replacement or a full ducted heat pump or something else. When the contractor is done, the program’s auditor often comes back into the picture.
“Once the work is complete on any given home and we have all our invoices, our QCI energy auditor/inspector does a final inspection on the home and verifies that the work has been done and tests the improvements in duct leakage and air infiltration,” outlined Taylor.
“We very rarely see issues that need to be corrected. Once everything is verified, we issue checks to our contractors.”
When an auditor will be following up on a job, Godward said her team will still use its normal internal routine to check the quality and avoid callbacks.
“I also think that’s where having good, strong processes is important,” she said. “From how a lead is handled through your CRM to how you check the quality of your own work … if your quality standards are as high or higher than the program, and your crew just installs the same way every time, then it’s repeatable for them and is going to be more efficient.”
Energy and Business Payoffs
The energy payoff can be substantial. NeighborImpact sees an approximately 30 percent annual savings in MMBTUs for participating homes.
Those homes commonly receive air sealing, duct sealing, insulation (floors in all home types, and walls and ceiling in stick built homes), an ASHRAE fan, and a few other health and safety improvements.
Taylor reported that “we are regularly halving the duct leakage in some of these homes, which is a huge value and increase in comfort.”
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that weatherization returns $2.69 for each dollar spent on the program, realized in energy and non-energy benefits.
“For us, it does allow us to service clients that we wouldn’t typically service,” Godward pointed out, “because the program is able to bridge the introduction. And sometimes, the clients wouldn’t even necessarily know where to look for the work the contractor offers, so if the program can be a trusted source, that’s helpful for both parties.” Related, Taylor said that another contractor benefit of working with a weatherization program is that the public often sees them as a generally trusted resource.
“We are always asked for referrals by community members, coworkers, friends, etc.,” she recounted. “And we know we can always suggest the contractors we work with because they have demonstrated their quality over and over again.”
How Much Is Just Right?
While an organization like NeighborImpact does not guarantee a specific number of jobs, partnerships can create consistent jobs throughout the year, which can help a little during shoulder seasons.
Taylor emphasized that not all weatherization programs are alike, urging contractors to schedule a time to meet with a program’s contact to learn more about how they issue work, how consistent their funding is, and what the expectations are for contractors.
When it comes to contractor involvement with efficiency and weatherization programs, some embrace the opportunity more than one might think.
“For some contractors, it’s 100 percent,” said Godward, who also knows several who do none of this work at all. She encourages other contractors to be selective.
“Ideally, find a program that fits your business model as it is, and where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
A contractor who builds a business entirely around one program supplying a lot of work is ultimately vulnerable to shifts in budget or organizational leadership. Moreover, Godward pointed out, it can be a disadvantage to adapt too thoroughly to another organization’s installation preferences.
Rewarding Repair and Replace
What seems unlikely is running out of work. A 2017 white paper from the Home Performance Coalition stated that despite four decades of work among major initiatives like the Weatherization Assistance Program and the home performance industry, efforts “have not even begun to reach the potential market for home energy retrofits.”
While weatherization programs may continue to seek out and help a wide variety of customer demographics and building types, NeighborImpact’s Taylor finished by pointing out some psychic revenue for contractors who work with programs like hers.
“Being low income, our clients are very unlikely to be able to afford the repairs and improvements that we are able to provide. For many of these households, the cost of a repair or replacement to a heating system would be an incredible hardship,” she said.
“Our clients are incredibly appreciative of the work that is achieved through this program. We regularly receive thank you cards and kudos for the contractors. Our contractors see the impact that they have on the households we serve, which just feels good at the end of a workday.”