This article was originally published in the September/October 1993 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online September/October 1993




Trade Allies: Long Haul Partners


by Jeff Hammarlund

Jeff Hammarlund heads Hammarlund Energy Services in Portland, Oregon.

Trade allies can include anyone involved in residential energy efficiency. They can make or break a demand-side management program.

Utilities and demand-side management firms have made huge advances in recent years as they've implemented energy conservation programs. But some utilities have been less successful in understanding how to work with the infrastructure of private sector trades and support industries, public sector officials, and others whose support and cooperation is often critical to a program's long-term success. I optimistically refer to the many groups of individuals that comprise this infrastructure as trade allies. However, if not handled well, potential trade allies can quickly become neutral parties or worse, trade adversaries. A utility must pay the piper for a long time before they can hope to convert these groups to trade allies.

Depending on the conservation program, trade allies might include builders, developers, product manufacturers, wholesale and retail suppliers, contractors, lenders, appraisers, and many other groups. With support from these trade allies, the chances for program success are greatly enhanced. Without it, implementation can become a nightmare. To bring trade allies on board, utilities would do well by considering the strategy that follows.

It is important for utility planners to purge themselves of any vestiges of a regal mind-set. All too often, under pressure from regulators or top management, utility staff attempt to impose their programmatic vision on the marketplace without making an effort to understand the likely impacts of a program on those who have worked in a particular market for many years. It should come as no surprise when this generates suspicion and resistance among the trades.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest many of us involved in launching the Super Good Cents program for new residential construction initially assumed that we could bring most of the home builders in the region on board through a combination of incentives, marketing support, and formal builder training. We did not fully appreciate the importance of working with home builder associations. Skeptical leaders of this trade group concluded that the utilities' commitment to conservation was limited to providing temporary inducements to entice builders to give energy-efficient construction a try. They feared that as soon as possible, the utilities would seek to codify these new measures and practices into state building codes and walk away, leaving the builders and code inspectors holding the bag. The early lack of communication between the regional energy planners, utilities, and environmentalists on one hand, and the home builders on the other, contributed to some bitter disputes and significant delays in region-wide acceptance of energy-efficient construction. Fortunately we learned and recovered from this and other early mistakes and now have significant builder support.

The existing infrastructure of relationships in a particular marketplace does not emerge by chance. It is the product of a complex set of dynamic relationships that emerge and reemerge over time. Common influences include economic conditions, market signals, social norms and customs within and among the various trade groups, long-standing perceptions, regulations, and various institutional barriers. The market infrastructure typically functions the way it does for reasons that have little or nothing to do with a utility's latest position on conservation. Utilities are the new kids on the block who are treading on others' turf. They need to appreciate the complexity of this infrastructure of potential trade allies or adversaries, much as an anthropologist seeks to explore patterns of relationship in unfamiliar cultures.

One approach adopted by some utility staff and other program implementors to help them get a handle on the existing market infrastructure is to hire individuals who are already experienced with and respected by critical trade groups. Hired as staff advisors, they perform the role of cultural translators who help utility staff understand what motivates each trade ally group. They can also help with program design, and provide rapid feedback and troubleshooting services during the program's start-up phase. The Conservation Services Group in Boston, Massachusetts, has pursued this approach in implementing the Energy Crafted Home program in conjunction with utilities in New England. In Canada, B.C. Hydro has gone a step further by hiring only highly respected members of key trade ally groups to design and implement the Power Smart Home Improvements program.

Utilities should incorporate trade ally perspectives and concerns in the program planning process to establish the most acceptable strategies. It is not necessary to work with all the firms in a particular trade ally group. It is more productive to work with opinion leaders within a given trade. Developing a successful relationship with these leaders attracts others over time. There will always be some complainers and nay sayers who are best left behind. Programs should not be designed to meet the needs of the those members of a trade group that define the lowest common denominator. Focus groups are a valuable way to incorporate the views of representatives of key trade groups (see Bringing Trade Allies on Board).

Trade allies desperately need stability from the utility. Abrupt changes in funding levels and other radical changes significantly undermine trust. One of the most pervasive complaints from trade allies is that the utility is yet again jerking them around. Ideally utilities should commit program funding and support for a few years, something that is often difficult to secure from top management and regulators. The need for stability must be balanced by the positive benefits of continued program innovation and enhancement. Innovation should be encouraged, but it should be introduced carefully and deliberately.

Utilities should support ongoing training for trade allies. If the utility wants to be on the cutting edge of the conservation field, it needs to provide training and support to bring the trades along. Southern California Edison has developed a strong training program for developers participating in its Welcome Home program.

Consortiums of utilities have the opportunity to approach manufacturers to produce new products. The golden carrot reward offered under the Super-Efficient Refrigerator Program (SERP) is the most famous illustration (see Whirlpool Wins, p.5). Many other successful efforts of a smaller scale abound. By guaranteeing a market, the Bonneville Power Administration and Northwest utilities successfully convinced manufacturers to introduce high-density insulation batts, low-air-leakage recessed lights, and energy-efficient vented windows to meet stringent Super Good Cents program specifications. Builders had a range of viable options to achieve energy savings.

Utilities should make local suppliers aware of new program developments and have all products available before launching a marketing campaign. Smaller Northwest utilities with service areas outside the major metropolitan areas have sometimes intervened to help local suppliers secure the appropriate conservation measures. Some even helped facilitate the delivery of conservation products to local suppliers.

Utilities should use the existing infrastructure whenever possible. Make sure that long-standing groups realize that the utility wants them to continue to play an important role in the future. For example, seek the assistance of supportive manufacturers or trade organizations to co-sponsor training and, if appropriate, certification programs. Show the manufacturers and other trade allies how utility efforts can bring them customers.

A utility's trade ally strategy should focus as much--if not more--on ensuring that conservation measures perform properly on site as on verifying the actual installation of the measures. Utilities should not shy away from vigorous quality control and inspection efforts, but there should be no surprises. Trade allies need to know from the start exactly what will be expected of them, how they can meet the standards, how their performance will be evaluated, and what the consequences of poor performance will be. Utilities then need to hold firm on these conditions unless there are overwhelming reasons to modify them.

Conservation remains the most flexible of energy resources, but this flexibility is far from unlimited. Many utilities have licked their wounds after assuming the conservation market infrastructure could be readily turned on and off. A more enlightened approach recognizes what motivates key trade allies, appreciates the legitimate needs for program stability, and seeks to uncover the many opportunities for genuine partnerships that exist between the utility and its trade allies.


Bringing Trade Allies on Board


The recent efforts of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to incorporate a heat pump and duct efficiency component in the utility's residential new construction program illustrates one strategy to encourage the support of a critical group of trade allies. Over the past decade, LADWP had been very successful in building a coalition of trade groups--including builders and developers as well as heat pump suppliers and installers--to install heat pumps for heating and cooling in new multifamily construction, helping build new electric load.

When the utility decided to make a serious commitment to conservation several years ago, some staff and consultants began to question whether the utility's old marketing support and rebates for heat pumps were still appropriate. We had heard many duct system horror stories surfacing from other parts of the country, and wondered if similar problems existed in Los Angeles. If so, we argued, continued utility support made sense only if it promoted the most efficient heat pumps and included a quality control and building commissioning component. This component would ensure that the systems were sized and installed properly, and could be expected to operate efficiently.

LADWP faced a controversial and formidable challenge. Could the utility preserve an excellent working relationship with an important group of trade allies--developed so carefully over a number of years--if, at the same time, it might be necessary to radically change existing practice? If performance tests indicated that construction practices were no better in Los Angeles than they appeared to be elsewhere, could LADWP commit to a program to encourage the proper installation, operation, and maintenance of high-efficiency heat pump and duct systems without losing trade ally support?

A baseline study by John Proctor of 78 newly constructed single- and multifamily dwellings helped confirm substantial energy losses. The main culprits were duct leakage, improper air flow through the inside coil, and improper refrigerant charge. In addition, the location of some units made the inside coil and filter inaccessible for cleaning.

Rather than imposing a predetermined solution, LADWP invited key representatives of three trade ally groups--HVAC installers, builders, and designers--to a dinner presentation and focus group meeting. The objectives were to explain the reasoning behind the utility's new commitment to conservation, describe the utility's need for quality control and rapid feedback, and solicit ideas on how to address the problems. The audience was initially quite skeptical. However, after viewing a slide presentation documenting the pervasive problems, the owner of one of the largest and most respected firms signaled his willingness to address the issue directly. Others soon followed suit.

In the focus groups, representatives of the three trade ally groups at first seemed to try to blame each other. Contractors pointed out that their relationship with builders and developers was based on a low-bid, least-cost system that did not reward quality work. Architects and builders noted that developers and consumers placed a premium on living and storage space at the expense of adequate room for duct systems. All agreed that there was insufficient appreciation of HVAC and building science principles by most parties, that a lack of coordination among building trades resulted in dislocated or crushed ductwork, and that state and local codes and inspection procedures focused on products and rated efficiency levels of equipment rather than the actual performance of the system.

By the end of the evening, however, many seemed to view themselves as part of a team that could help forge a workable solution, including training, certification, and performance-based inspections and incentives.


Trade Allies for Residential Duct Programs


  • Architects and designers
  • Auditors
  • Builders
  • Building maintenance staff
  • Building scientists
  • Consultants
  • Building code officials
  • Electricians
  • Funding sources
  • Inspectors
  • Manufacturers of building products
  • Manufacturers of diagnostic equipment
  • Marketing staff
  • Mechanical contractors
  • Product design engineers
  • Suppliers, distributors, and retailers
  • Trade publications
  • Trade schools and other educators
  • Utilities
  • Unions
  • Regulators


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