It appears consumers are beginning to care more about energy efficiency. Two new reports released by Deloitte Consulting LLP indicate that the public is responding to the improving economics of renewables and energy efficiency as well. "We're seeing consumers transform from reactive to resourceful," said Greg Aliff, vice chairman and senior partner for energy and resources at Deloitte.
Despite political backlash from conservative leaning politicians, a huge majority of Americans support regulating carbon which bodes well for energy efficiency incentive programs around the country.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program has proven to be extraordinarily successful with results that include 100,000 upgraded buildings and energy bill savings that eclipse $730 million. Read more about the outcome of the program on Home Energy.
It looks like Google is broadening its reach in energy efficiency and renewables even further. It's now taking its talents to power grids with the development of software and hardware tools to help utilities better manage the flow of power to and from houses and businesses.
Efficiency First and the North Carolina Building Performance Association (NCBPA) have joined forces to strengthen both organizations' efforts to effectively collaborate and grow the home performance industry in North Carolina and across the U.S. The organizations will work together to provide members of both organizations with local, state and national industry advocacy and policy initiatives, educational and networking opportunities, valuable discounts on products and services, and more.
Where ever there is money to be made, there will be people looking for ways to make even more for less. Allison Bailes highlights three expensive ventilation system scams of which you should be aware.
And if saving yourself from scams isn't enough, how about saving some extra cash as well? Allison Bailes discusses the top two reasons why powered attic ventilators are a waste of money in this article published by GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.
From dehumidifying ERVs to ventilation systems, Martin Holladay discusses brand-spankin' new products in which you might be interested.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), clothes dryers are among the largest energy hogs in residential homes – costing about $9 billion a year to operate across the U.S. But a recent study suggests that upgrading dryers to most efficient models can cut that number by $4 billion.
As home performance professionals, the bulk of our time is spent focusing on how to reduce energy usage, and increase the health and safety of our customers' homes. But when was the last time you took the time to understand your own company's carbon footprint? Maybe that time is now? And who knows, it may even save you money!
Across the Pond
In many ways, Europe leads the US in the pursuit of energy efficiency, but a town in Germany has taken things one step further. Could this energy-self-sufficient community of Feldheim be the model for communities around the world?
We all know about how stack effect works in homes, but during presentations, I'm always surprised by how many hands are raised in response to the question: "How many of you think you can make a house too tight and cause problems with indoor air quality?" Generally, at least three-quarters of the room raises their hands. Really? My colleague Joe Kuonen says that getting a house so tight that you need to ventilate is a feat worth celebrating. "Now, we can get fresh air from a place we can trust," he says. Where do most of our homes get their fresh air? From places we cannot trust, like crawl spaces.
What do we know about crawl spaces? Generally, they are dark and wet. This is a perfect habitat for mold, rodents and insects to thrive – and gain access to the house. Those of you who have spent a lot of time in crawl spaces have horror stories about close encounters with both living and dead creatures. Allison Bailes once published a photo of a dead opossum in a crawl space next to a disconnected return duct!
On the other side of the band joist is the basement where the air handling unit often resides. If there is insulation on the band joist, it is generally discolored by filtering air that passes through the crawl space. Thankfully there is a furnace filter, you might say. If you look at most furnace filters in people's homes, you'll generally find them clogged and gross. And with the furnace filter slot at the end of the return duct, the furnace filter is protecting the blower motor from the air that everyone in the house has been breathing. This can't be good for your health.
Why should we care about the quality of indoor air?
- The U.S. is in the midst of an asthma epidemic. Asthma cases have increased by more than 60 percent since the early 1980s, and asthma-related deaths have risen to 5,000 per year. As a common, chronic disease, asthma affects more than 35 million Americans, including 6 million children. Each year, it causes more than 2 million emergency room visits and 500,000 hospitalizations.
- A Mayo clinic study reports a clear connection between chronic sinusitis and the presence of mold in nasal passages. The presence of mold in a home is directly related to moisture levels in the home.
- Sensitization and exposure to cockroach allergens is associated with increased asthma morbidity in the United States, especially among lower socioeconomic groups. Exposure to cockroach allergens in the first 3 months of life has been associated with repeated wheezing and asthma.
- The American Lung Association states that dust mites are one of the major indoor triggers for people with allergies and asthma. Kevin Kennedy, Program Manager for the Center for Environmental Health at Children's Mercy Hospital (CEH/CMH) in Kansas City, Missouri reports that, "dust mites are known to cause asthma development in people." A primary trigger of asthma is found in dust mite droppings. A mattress can sustain as many as one million dust mites. Four in five homes in America have dust mites in at least one bed.
- Lead, asbestos, and radon are also known health hazards. EPA estimates, for example, that 21,000 deaths occur each year from indoor radon.
Where Building Science Meets Health Science
BPI Building Analysts are trained to conduct diagnostic testing to measure air infiltration rates, check for gas leaks and evaluate the possibility of spillage from the by-products of combustion. They also examine the house for presence of moisture and recommend solutions. Any known hazards are noted through visual observation and through interviews with homeowners. Yet, to date the assessment does not comprehensively include the triggers that can create and sustain health problems in occupants.
CEH/CMH has conducted over 800 home interventions in Kansas City on behalf of patients under the care of hospital physicians. These are cases of pediatric patients whose health conditions do not improve through medical treatment. A full environmental assessment is conducted at the home along with an interview of the adults in the home. These assessments identify improvable areas of the home which, when retrofitted, can help improve the overall health of the occupants. Dr. Jay Portnoy is the division director of allergy/asthma immunology at CMH. He, Christina Ciaccio and Kevin Kennedy have created a set of environmental assessment protocols for use in homes. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3493798/.
How Does This Apply to Home Performance and the Work of BPI Certified Professionals?
There are two provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that could significantly alter the business model for home performance contractors. The first relates to the essential benefits rule under Medicaid. The new rule states that preventive services must be recommended by a physician or other licensed practitioner of the healing arts within the scope of their practice under state law. It used to require that the in-home services be provided by a licensed health care provider. For Medicaid patients, the proposed new rules allow for home assessment services by a non-clinical, licensed person, such as healthy home specialists, environmental professionals, or potentially even Building Analysts with additional training. BPI has organized a task force to address the question of what would be required of BPI certified professionals. Each state will develop their own plan for compliance. While the rules only apply to Medicaid, Kevin Kennedy suggests, "as goes Medicaid, so goes the managed care industry."
The second provision is a penalty for hospitals with repeat admissions for conditions. Asthma patients comprise one of the largest groups with repeat admissions. The cost of a single hospital stay can well exceed $10,000 – 15,000, if not more. The cost of a home assessment and corrective action is typically less than that. Factor in the penalties levied under ACA, and the home assessment and repair becomes a viable option for both the hospital and the health insurance industry.
Now is the time for the building science community, the medical community, and the insurance industry to build a collaborative model toward preventive health care that starts with a whole house home performance assessment.
In the constant quest for more and better leads, a highly performing website should be at the center of every contractor's marketing strategy. High performance on the web means attracting the right traffic and efficiently converting site visitors to leads. Getting your site to rank higher in organic and local search results--what we geeks call Search Engine Optimization, or SEO--is the holy grail: natural or organic traffic to your site is free, and generally will grow over time. And this kind of traffic, called inbound marketing, can be higher quality than other types because people are actively searching for something, finding your site, and clicking through to you.
So, you ask, how does Google determine what sites to show for any given search, and how do you get your site to rank higher? Google and the other search engines use highly complex, secretive, and ever-changing algorithms to serve up results. Many factors go into how a search engine views your site, but two of the most important ones are:
- Great (and fresh) content that matches up with what people are searching for; and
- A website that is considered to have good authority.
This post is about the authority factor--what it is, how you measure it, and how you improve it.
Back in their days as Stanford students, the Google founders focused on one particular metric as a way of measuring the authority of a website: the number and quality of links on other sites that link to yours. Because of this, link building has been the mother's milk of improving your web performance, and while it has become more complicated over time, we've repeatedly proven at Energy Circle that a good mix of quality links can result in a significant boost.
It has long been known in the world of weblinks that quality trumps quantity. But what has become increasingly clear is that having a few "Superlinks" (hat tip to Darren Shaw of Whitespark for this) holds immensely more value than having a high number of low and mid quality links. Before we dive into how to go snatch up those Superlinks, let's take a step back to discuss what defines link "quality."
Domain Authority -- A measurement of website Quality
While "Quality" can be a rather subjective term, Google's search algorithm puts a firm number on the quality of your website and ranks it accordingly in search results. The ever-changing, rather amorphous Google algorithm famously has over 200 factors that it takes into account -- all at different weights no less. While we can't simply go to Google and ask for this "number", the leading firm in the search community--Moz-- has developed a nice tool that allows us to approximate quality of a website: Domain Authority.
Domain Authority takes 40 different factors into account (including link profile, citations, reviews, internal linking, etc) and assigns a 0-100 number to your site. The scale is logarithmic, which means that it's much easier to climb from 20-30 than it is from 80-90.
Why you should care about your (and your competitors') Domain Authority
Because Domain Authority is an approximation of your website's quality in the eyes of Google, it should be taken very seriously. It is difficult to influence Domain Authority directly due to the numerous factors that are in the calculation, but over the long term you should look for an upward trend if you're taking SEO and content creation seriously.
While you might be initially disappointed if you see a low Domain Authority for you website, take solace in the fact that you don't have to outcompete the New York Times or Whitehouse.gov in rankings. The most important metric is how you stack up versus your primary competitors. If your domain authority is higher, you should work to keep that advantage. If it's equal or lower, there's no need to fret, with a couple Superlinks, you'll be up and out of the Domain Authority doldrums in no time.
Links to your website serve two primary objectives:
- As a referral source to drive traffic to your site
- As a "vote of confidence" from another website that your site is legitimate, relevant, and worth linking to.
While a slight increase in traffic is always welcomed, the second objective is why links are so vital to the success of your website in search. The more links, or "votes of confidence" your website has, the higher your Domain Authority -- leading to a better position in search results. This is all true, with one very important caveat: not all links are created equal.
Introducing, Superlinks! like links, only exponentially better
Links to your home performance website from kittensandpuppies.com do not have as much value as links from DOE.Gov and BPI.org. Intuitively, this makes perfect sense, but why is this the case?
Because, Google places an infinitely greater value on links from high authority websites -- aka Superlinks.
In practice, this means that a large quantity of low authority, irrelevant links will not help your website's domain authority and rankings in search. In fact, link buying, or sketchy links from irrelevant or spammy websites can have the opposite effect and get you penalized and removed from search results altogether. That's bad for business.
Fortunately, within home performance, there are "industry giant" Superlinks with high domain authority that will bolster yours and help you move up the search results. Remember, the amount of actual website traffic that the link generates is negligible, it's all about the boosted Domain Authority that you'll get by being affiliated (with a link) to any of the high authority websites.
The Home Performance Superlinks that many companies miss
Here's the amazing news: there are some easy to get, high authority Superlinks that are either free or you've already paid for, but that many home performance companies mistakenly don't take advantage of. Here are the big three:
Energystar.gov (Domain Authority: 97)
Most types of Energy Star Partners get a link within their listing, but we notice that many fail to capture this. Google loves .gov links.
BPI.org (Domain Authority: 72)
Goldstar Contractors and companies with BPI certified professionals are included in BPI's directory, which has a link. In our experience, many companies have incomplete listings without this incredibly valuable link. Major missed opportunity.
RESNET.us (Domain Authority: 68)
RESNET makes you pay for a premium listing over and above your membership, but it's still a Superlink and probably worth it for the link value alone.
Other General Categories
While not all quite hold Superlink status, they can still add some serious value to your overall link profile with their relatively high Domain Authorities:
for example Lennox.com (Domain Authority: 69)
Builditgreen.org (Domain Authority: 61)
Efficiencymaine.com (Domain Authority: 59)
What Should Your Authority Goal Be?
Our experience is that most home performance company websites fall in the range of 15 to 40. Again, remember that as a local business you're held to a different standard, so don't measure yourself against BPI's 72. We see real organic search lift when companies get to 35 and above, so that should be your initial goal. A good mix around 25 links with a smattering of Superlinks should get you there. Most importantly, of course, is how you compare to your competition.
A Final Word of Caution
As mentioned earlier, the relevance of links is increasingly important. Steer clear of low quality, generic directories, sites that aren't relevant to home performance and never buy or trade links. And, as is the case with almost all things Google, slow and steady wins the race. Do your best to avoid unnatural spikes of new link volume.
To check out your authority of any website, you can use Open Site Explorer.
While there were a number of concerted attempts to unravel last month's head scratcher, no one succeeded at hitting the nail on the head. Jerritt Gluck of Bonded Building and Engineering in Oyster Bay, NY stumped us all!
As a reminder, Jerritt was called to perform a home performance evaluation on a 2500 sq ft home in Brooklyn, NY. The two story house was originally built in approximately 1920, and was home to a family of four. The client complained that, "in the winter, the upstairs is too cold, and in the summer, the upstairs is still too cold."
The homeowner explained that no matter what the heating system was set for, the children's bedrooms on the second floor would always be uncomfortable. They were also concerned that their year-round heating and electric bills for cooling were far more expensive than they should be. But other companies couldn't figure out the problems.
Jerritt explains that once he completed his investigation, he found a number of issues in contributing to the discomfort in the home.
For one, the radiator air vents were not properly sized, and in some cases, were even painted shut. Air vents should be installed with the largest openings on the vents installed in the furthest radiator from the boiler.
Two, the heating thermostat was placed in close proximity to a steam radiator with a quick vent installed. This resulted in a fast rise to the thermostat set point and hence a short steam cycle. The short steam cycle would not allow an adequate volume of steam to be produced, resulting in the cold children's room, amongst others. After adjusting the size of the radiator air vents, the system began to heat the home evenly.
Finally, the cooling system was installed in the second floor attic. The system was sized to provide cooling for the entire house. But the installer did not install an adequate number of dampers to allow the system's airflow to be balanced. Jerritt installed thermostatically controlled motorized dampers that allowed air to flow where it needed.
Ultimately, the solution for both the wintertime heating problem, and the summertime cooling problem was the same even though the problem was associated with two distinct and different systems. Both the heating and the cooling system were out of balance.
Thanks to everyone who submitted an answer! Better luck next time!
Let's Play Stump the Chump!
Jerritt Gluck of Bonded Building and Engineering in Oyster Bay, NY is back this month to test your wits after last month's successful stumper. Can you solve this month's brain buster?
During a recent test-out, Jerritt was reminded of a recurring problem, a classic case of "what can go wrong when a test-in is performed in the spring, and the work is performed in the summer."
An owner of a colonial-style home built in the 1950's, situated on the north shore of Long Island, finally decide to go ahead with an insulation project. The project scope is fairly basic - dense pack the walls with cellulose and blow the attic flat too. During the initial test-in, all CAZ parameters were within BPI specifications. In addition, it was easy to tell the home was significantly under insulated. Both visual and thermal imaging was used to identify the current insulation levels. The test-in was performed on a day in March where the maximum temperature was 48F.
Blower door testing was performed along with all other health and safety tests required by BPI. The house was determined to be leaky.
Here are some characteristics of the home:
- Conditioned area: 1560 sq. ft.
- Number of heated floors above grade: 2
- Building volume: 12,480 cu.ft.
- Shell leakage was determined to be 3794 cfm50.
- The building air tightness limit is 1005 cfm50.
- The leakage is 278% greater than the limit so air sealing is highly recommended.
- Attic flat is 840 sq.ft. and is not insulated.
- Existing heating equipment is an oil fired boiler manufactured in 1996 with a tested SSE of 79%.
- The boiler's measured draft was -2Pa.
- The measured CO was 12ppm.
- The domestic hot water is produced by a separate, stand alone, oil fired machine that was manufactured in 2003. This machine had a measured SSE of 80% and a draft of -1Pa.
- The measured CO in the flue was 5ppm.
When Jerritt returned for the test-out, he found that the boiler and domestic water heater both displayed draft issues. The water heater was now spilling and after five minutes, still did not draft. The boiler was drafting at -1Pa. In addition, he needed to review the insulation project to ensure the wall insulation was gap free.
The day selected for test-out was in late June and the outside temperature was 86F. According to the homeowner, the annual service had not been performed on the heating equipment.
What was the cause of the draft issues measured? How can this be verified/corrected? What tools should be used to perform the necessary repair work? How can a thermal imager be used to evaluate the quality of the insulation work if the house is not air conditioned?