A new building science mega-resource center
Home performance pros seeking "fast, free and reliable building science knowledge" may wish to carve out some time for the Building American Solution Center, a new resource launched by the U.S. Department of Energy in January. This massive online database gathers recommendations from top building-science experts, along with hundreds of guides, images, CAD files and case studies on topics from insulating and air-sealing attic knee walls to whole-house performance.
Big plans for national energy savings
2012 was a boom year for the energy industry, but all that growth points to an intensifying need to reduce energy use. Two national-level energy conservation initiatives have recently rolled out, including:
- Advancing Healthy Housing -- a Strategy for Action, unveiled by several federal agencies.
- This analysis from the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy
Public support for such efforts appears to be rising. A new poll from Duke University shows that 64 percent of Americans favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and half of Americans are (finally) convinced the climate is changing.
Don't try these in clients' homes
- Green remodeling expert Carl Seville dislikes batt insulation so much that he proposed outlawing it in 2010. Last week he revisited this pet peeve with the case that most installers of batt insulation are poorly trained.
- A popular winter home-performance DIY project involves putting foam gaskets behind electrical switch and outlet covers. Too bad they "do next to nothing about the holes in the switches and receptacles," writes Allison Bailes on his blog.
How to sell your work
- In Home Energy magazine's "Selling Energy Conservation: the Art of Educating, Listening, Partnership, and Flexibility," Minneapolis-based green designer Cynthia Ojczyk draws from four remodeling projects to demonstrate how to educate sometimes wary and misinformed homeowners on the benefits of investing in home-performance improvements.
- How fresh is your website content? EnergyCircle has posted a number of useful "SEO Quick-Tips" for the websites of home performance contractors who want search engines to find their sites. Good ideas here, along with a link to a free downloadable white paper.
- Know your target market, partner with utilities offering rebates, and have a well-rounded marketing collateral program! These are among the marketing tips provided by pros in this discussion on Home Energy Pros.
As a way to get away from email and blog posts, I've long been a fan of remote wilderness backpacking, especially in the Grand Canyon. This past fall, I took a trip that added something new for me, and something well beyond my existing experience and skills: technical canyoneering. The technical part involved ropes, harnesses, helmets, wetsuits, and carrying a lot of stuff to hard to reach places. It was physically hard, neophyte nerve-tingling, and absolutely amazing. So much so that I'm planning an even more difficult trip for this spring.
This will be an extended version, more technical, further from any potential rescue, and with the extended distances, days, and gear - I'll be carrying more weight. Without adequate planning and readiness, it would be an extreme risk. And putting it all together reminds me a lot of some of the key elements of starting or growing a home performance business.
The big pay-off comes after you take the risks. There really is no way to see some of these beautiful areas without taking risks. I'm not talking about being reckless. But I am talking about risking losing something in a very calculated way, with due diligence, careful preparation, and hard work to reap big rewards.
You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Risk usually means some degree of discomfort. Being in a remote side canyon that very few people have ever gone down, that isn't likely to be travelled while you're there, and that involves substantial risk, can be daunting, especially when it's new to you. Sounds like moving into home performance. And the first step of the cliff can be one of the most unsettling.
It's good to research what's been done. It often seems like moving into home performance is like heading into a remote canyon that's been traversed less than a dozen times. The good news is there are examples—and more and more every year—of companies successfully taking the plunge. You can even learn by what has NOT worked. By building on the experience of others, you're more likely to succeed, and you can do it much more efficiently. I know I was glad I knew that 200 feet of rope was enough, and we didn't need to carry 600 feet just in case.
You've got to have the plan and the working capital to meet it. On an extended backcountry trip, you need enough food, water, and rope to get you through. That rope for instance - it's nice knowing that you only need 200 feet. See above. But if you need 200 feet, then 100 feet won't do. If you need $50,000, then $8,000 won't do. You've got to do the research. And then you have to put together a plan and track how you're doing against the plan. And you've got to have enough working capital to get through the plan. Yes, sometimes the unexpected happens, and you fall short. That's the risky part. But it's better to go in with a plan, and the resources to meet the plan. You don't want to start off knowing you won't have any way to meet payroll, pay your vendors, or keep the doors open. Oh, and if the plan says you can't possibly survive, you might want to pick a different vacation.
Similarly, it's good to have experts to check in with. You may be able to figure out home performance on your own. I could have experimented with anchor building techniques and rappelling methods—but it was safer and faster to get guidance and training from those who knew what they were doing, even though they would not be on the journey with me. It's also okay if you have an expert along for the trip (thanks, Bob!).
You don't get ready for an epic journey with a one-hour course. You have to learn the skills, even if you learn them on your own, and practice, practice, practice. And train, train, train. You've got to have the fundamentals ingrained in the company's muscle memory so that you can clear the difficult and unforeseen obstacles that will likely be there. Can you apply the building science you've learned to fix the problems you've never seen before? If you work to make the hard stuff easy, then you've got a good chance at making it through the challenges that at one time would have stopped you cold.
You do need to stop to look around, admire, and celebrate. Sure, I was nervous dropping off that slippery rock the first time, and swinging in the air, dropping down into a frigid pool of water over my head while wearing a heavy pack. But there was much to see along the way, and it's great to take in the success as it comes with a small moment of appreciation, and a big celebration when warranted.
Home performance is not easy. In a tough economy, it's even harder. And success is not guaranteed. But it's possible to thrive. We're at a point where some of the routes have been traveled. Experience has built experts who can help. There are proven techniques to add to your skill set. Yes, you need to learn. You need to practice. You need to get better at the hard things. But it's doable. And the rewards are there if you're willing to step off the edge.
To the lay person, "brand strength" may seem like an intangible that is tough to measure, though you should not for one minute underestimate its importance to your business. It is the path to commanding a premium for your services. Consider the Lexus sedan. For a number of years, the Lexus was basically the same car as the Toyota Camry, but cost a heck of a lot more. The difference? Brand strength. The company built the perception that Lexus meant luxury, that a consumer had "achieved something" simply by owning a Lexus.
The same applies in our industry. Regardless of your position in the home performance space – whether your company began as an HVAC contractor that has embraced the home performance industry, or you recently opened your doors as an "energy audit only" operation – the strength of your brand will be critical. It will be a major factor in how long you sustain success in your market, how much you can charge for your services, and how well-defended you are against the up and coming competition.
Strong Communication = Strong Brand
You will need dedication and a commitment to regular, consistent communication to influence how people think about your company. One direct mail postcard every six months, or one billboard on one highway, is not an effective means of building brand strength. When you commit to positioning your brand as a leader in your industry, with appropriate messaging and a consistent, aggressive communications plan, then you'll have a good chance of affecting the way the market perceives you. Here are some communication tips and messages you can use that will thrive, even in the face of widespread competition.
Send out communications, like newsletters and e-newsletters that share relevant sustainability information and identify "green" trends. This will allow you to open a dialogue with your customers. Ultimately, they will turn to you for the information they want, and start asking questions. This is the kind of relationship building that fosters strong customer relationships. As we all know, relationships build loyalty. By giving your customers the information they seek, you establish yourself as a trusted industry leader. Plus, a communication like a newsletter can generate leads and sales if developed properly.
Develop your "Creation Myth" to make your company history come alive. Focus on the green initiatives you've undertaken and how you came to be your area's premier home performance company over the last few years. You can drive this point home by including success stories on your website, creating a timeline section that highlights the important milestones in your company, and by aligning all of your employees around the company story so they speak it and live it when talking with customers.
Seek out Memorability in Marketing. While you may not have a marketing budget to support a major broadcast initiative – TV, radio, billboards, etc. – you can still have long-lasting impact by seeking out creative avenues to display your company. Explore local trade shows where you can engage and interact in fun ways with prospects. Get involved with local organizations (Little League, Boy Scouts, etc.) where you can bring your message to the grassroots level, showcase your company as an important part of the community, and build long-lasting relationships with potential customers. You don't have to spend tons of money to get in front of your audience. But you do have to get creative (and put in some sweat equity) if you want to be memorable and strengthen your brand.
Go above and beyond with your energy-efficiency services, and communicate that added difference. Don't just position your company as "an energy auditor who replaces HVAC systems and caulks windows." Focus your communications on the cutting-edge sustainability work that your company is doing. Talk about the advanced, hi-tech energy savings services that you provide. Don't lose sight of what is going to motivate consumers to think about you above all other companies AND motivate them to buy.
Build loyalty with honesty. Make sure everything you say has substantial supporting evidence, and maintain company integrity at every step of the sales and execution process. Consumers appreciate true transparency and will respect your brand because of it.
Building your brand is like building a house. Every communication piece, every job completed, and every conversation your employees have with a prospect or a customer is a brick in building your "brand house". Strong houses will be around much longer than weak ones. So will strong brands. Invest the time and energy into building a strong brand for your company, and you'll be well-positioned for success for years to come.
To commemorate BPI's 20th year of raising the bar in home performance, BPI is pleased to introduce a new collection of limited edition shirts and hats for public purchase. The items are branded with BPI's new 20th anniversary logo, and the tag line: "Look for the GOLD standard in home performance contracting."
Now is your chance to get your hands on the new BPI gear! Click here to visit the e-store and place your order today!
Congratulations to Chris Wanca of the Summit County Home Weatherization Assistance Program in Akron, Ohio for cracking last month's home performance conundrum.
Last month, Ken Tohinaka of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation in Burlington, Vermont told us about the owners of adjacent condo units who banded together to address energy performance and maintenance issues in their community – specifically excessive snow melt and dangling icicles. Ken's team was employed to perform a retrofit consisting of extensive air sealing in the attics, and adding another six inches of insulation – which were both completed successfully. Ken was stumped when the owners reported snow melt and icicles resulting from heat loss, even after the successful retrofit.
Chris, who has had experience with similar issues in the past, came to the rescue explaining that many condo units are separated by "party walls" or "fire walls" built out of cement blocks. "The cement blocks have hollow cores which are piled one on top of the other, creating a cement pipe that heats up through stack effect – transmitting hot air to the attic." Chris also adds that "the problem can be amplified if the wall terminates at the roof deck." Chris's solution is to "drill into the block cores and inject foam at the attic level, which fill the cores of the blocks, stopping heat from rising above the ceiling level and provide a continuous building envelope."
Thanks to everyone who submitted an answer to last month's Stump the Chump!
This Month's Stumper
Thanks to Bo Jespersen, President of The Breathable Home in Manchester, Maine for contributing February's home performance head scratcher.
Bo was stumped after his company was hired to install some spray foam insulation in a second story bedroom side attic.
When Bo arrived, he noticed that the work was exclusively on the north slope of the home, and that the owner had installed three layers of 2" thick rigid foam in-between the rafters, and applied one-part spray foam along the edges (where some stuffed fiberglass was found as well). A small air channel was left between the top of the foam and the bottom of the roof sheathing. The ridge beam was exposed and required ending the rigid foam to the southern slope to make it air tight.
This configuration was used on the entire north slope but stopped short of the soffit and top plate by about 2.5'. This final section had been previously stuffed with fiberglass, and rolled in plastic sheeting - and looked like a big pink burrito. The soffit venting was nearly cut off by the fiberglass.
Bo's team removed the fiberglass burrito, and spray foamed the exposed 2.5' of the roof sheathing with 6" of high density foam, and made a tight seal to the existing rigid foam which had been installed by the owner.
After two weeks, Bo received a call from the homeowner who told him that water was dripping into the downstairs room, directly below Bo's work!
"We immediately returned to investigate," said Bo. His team found multiple air leaks along the seams of the rigid foam, especially along the ridge beam. Warm air was found racing into the air gap left on top of the rigid foam, and to the cold sheathing, which condensed as soon as it hit dew point (which happens very quickly in Maine during the winter).
Bo's team determined that when the frost on the roof sheathing was heated, it dripped down the top of the rigid foam. It originally collected in the pink burrito – but now that Bo had removed the burrito and installed a non-absorptive material like spray foam - the water searched for weaknesses in the foam attached to the rafters, and leaked into the home.
What can Bo do to solve this problem?