Concoctions, Elixirs, and Potions, Oh My!
When I first got into home performance contracting back in 2003 in the San Francisco Bay Area, we were one of two companies trained and certified on home performance diagnostics and remediation. We were out there trying to convince our clients that we had the tools, technology, and knowledge to help them make their homes more energy efficient, more comfortable, and safer to live in. It was as much a tough sell back then as it still is today. People didn’t know what they didn’t know so no one was interested in buying what we were selling—solutions to their problems such as uneven temperatures, foul indoor air quality, or outrageously expensive utility bills.
We knew we had the talent, the skills, and the know-how to address almost any issue we came across and we slowly built a name for ourselves as solution providers and we were proud of the work we were doing and the families we were helping. Then something interesting happened. Others joined the fold…some of them probably shouldn’t have.
Some contractors got into home performance contracting because, like me, they were probably hoping to elevate themselves above the competition and provide more meaningful services to their clientele. Others, unfortunately, jumped into home performance trying to take advantage of the wave of early adopters who saw the value in what home performance offered. This second group of contractors relied on strong-arm sales techniques or scare tactics to sell more “stuff” to their clients. They knew that the typical homeowner hadn’t yet heard of home performance and therefore was not educated on what things should cost or the results they should expect. Sure, these unscrupulous contractors used building science diagnostics to create their case but, after that it was a pressure sell. I know because often we would get called to fix or complete another home performance contractor’s shoddy work and the common feedback from these homeowners was always, “Yea, they sold me a bill of goods” or “What they installed is so complex I can’t find anyone who can even service it.”
This is a shame. Here we are trying to build a new industry (home performance) and a few suspect companies could ruin it for all of us. We all need to be cautious of how we diagnose, what we propose, and how we validate what we did was correct and effective at providing a solution to the client without ripping them off.
Sell Them What They Need, Not What You Want Them To Buy
As well as providing home performance assessments and installing the solutions to get rid of the problems we found that our company also provided a number of other services, including LEED ratings, GreenPoint ratings, and HERS inspections and verifications. I have seen hundreds of green labeled homes and buildings in my career and in almost every one of them I have seen overly complex mechanical systems that went way beyond what was needed. Why? Why did that green builder think they needed to install systems that would take a rocket scientist to design and install? I don’t get that mentality.
Case in point: We had a call from a client who had many issues with their one-year-old house that was touted to be the “greenest in the county.” The homeowners had numerous complaints, including the failure of the hot water system to produce enough heat to serve the radiant floor system and barely supplying the needs of domestic hot water to the family. The dad actually gave up and started showering at the gym. There were also major comfort complaints and the utility bill was over a $1,000 a month, even in the mild seasons. To top it off, this home is located in central California where we don’t have severe weather or drastic temperature extremes.
When we started testing we could not believe the mistakes that had been made by the builder and the sub trades. The photo to the right is an external mechanical room at that house. You’re only seeing one side of the closet where the hot water system resides as well as some other mechanical equipment. After two days of testing and inspections we had a laundry list of items that we found and presented to the homeowner and their lawyers. We found reversed valves in the hot water piping system preventing it from ever working correctly. Windows were actually installed backwards; some did not even have the low-e coatings that the homeowners thought they paid for. The radiant heating system never worked because we found the under-slab insulation that was clearly spelled out in the construction plans was non-existent. There were several HRVs in the attic, all of them not functioning properly or correctly balanced. There was no attempt at air ceiling the attic before insulation was installed and the insulation itself we downgraded to R-19 due to poor installation. I could go on and on. My point is that this builder may have started with a great idea, to create a development of super-green houses but, in the end, they (and their subs) failed. There was no oversight, follow-up, supervision, or accountability. This was one of 10 homes in this “green” development. The rest of the homeowners are standing by to see if they’re going to file a lawsuit as well. I feel bad for that builder. I feel worse for those homeowners who got shafted.
I realize it’s tempting for us to try and pitch every item we can to homeowners so that they can improve their living conditions and help the planet but, at the end of the day, if that homeowner doesn’t refer you to 10 more homeowners, you have failed. You failed to listen to the pains and issues of that client and you probably sold items they didn’t even need.
It is our job as home performance professionals to complete a thorough and accurate diagnostic evaluation of a home to look for issues the homeowners have been complaining about. We all know every home probably has sub-standard insulation, poor HVAC systems with leaky ducts and dank, dirty crawl spaces that are contaminating the living space above. We can and should educate our clients about all these potential opportunities but, in the end, we’re like doctors. We have to find the source of the complaint and get rid of it. Just think if you went to see your own doctor for a sore back and they recommended a face lift? You might indeed need one but, even if you did, you probably wouldn’t purchase one from them because now you’re so upset that the doctor didn’t even address the pains you came to see them about. The same goes for our clients. Give them what they need so those referrals keep coming in, and they will. Be proud of your work and stand by the solutions you’ve installed.
Great word of mouth will bring home performance into the mainstream. Negative stories about us ripping off homeowners will be our demise. Go, do good work, and help families with issues in their homes. If they can’t afford everything they need right now, respect that and develop a long-term plan to help them in the years to come. Now that’s service.
Kevin Beck is the COO of the Building Performance Center, Incorporated.
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