A Rater with Security Clearence

January 01, 2005
Special Issue 2005
A version of this article appears in the Special Issue 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Energy Star Homes

        Lee O’Neal traces his development as a HERS rater back to the time when his company, NSpects Ltd., inspected a home in a Virginia subdivision.This home had utility bills that were $200–$300 less than its neighbors, and this piqued O’Neal’s curiosity.“We inspected his home four different times during the construction process,” says O'Neal. “We found insulation problems, HVAC problems, and windows and doors that were not installed properly and therefore did not seal properly.All total we found 142 construction defects, which where corrected during construction.”
        On top of the low utility bills, the homeowner was the envy of the neighborhood because his house was comfortable year round.“I used to live in a two-story home with my office upstairs,” O’Neal says.“I just got used to being boiled at my desk in the winter and freezing in other parts of the house in the summer. Like everyone else at the time, I thought you couldn’t do anything about it but complain.”
        O’Neal watched closely as 24 more houses were built in the subdivision, and began to understand that leaky ducts and missing insulation, while not seen after a home is built, will certainly be felt later by the home’s occupants, both in a lack of comfort and in the shock of the monthly utility bill.“Now I make a living telling people how to fix that,” he says.

Getting Started

        Since he completed the rater’s training at Southface Energy Institute in late 2001, O’Neal’s rating business has been busy.“I’ve done a few hundred, I think,” he says. Most of the ratings take place on military bases, and since O’Neal’s company is in Chantilly, Virginia, 35 miles west of Washington,DC, there is a lot of military housing in the area to rate.After getting his security clearance, O’Neal rated new housing at the Quantico and Fort Belvoir military bases in Northern Virginia and he has provided modeling at base housing as far away as Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Campbell,Kentucky.
        O’Neal is brought into the process when the plans for housing are being drawn up, with plenty of time for modeling, using REM:Rate software, and for giving input to the builders.The military has its own building program, Military Construction (MilCon), and the Mil- Con standards for housing are similar to Energy Star’s. O’Neal’s work for the military is audited by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and so far they have had no complaints.
        O’Neal doesn’t do a lot of ratings on new housing outside of the military bases. NSpects main focus is work on existing homes.“We did home performance testing and solved problems in 250 homes last year [2003].We expect to work on 300 by the end of this year [2004].” NSpects employs two raters (including O’Neal) and ten others who are trained for specific tasks. Each audit includes a blower door test, a Duct Blaster test, and the use of an infrared (IR) camera.
        NSpects acts as a third party evaluator. After an evaluation by NSpects, customers are given a report on their homes, a list of possible repairs, and what to expect in energy savings and comfort if the repairs are made. Then they choose from a long list of trusted contractors— that have been personally vetted by O’Neal—to do the work. NSpects evaluates the work after it has been done to ensure that the customers get the results they expect.
        “Some of the houses we work on were built as early as 1900. If we rated them before fixing them, they might rate a 15 on the HERS scale.After the houses are made much more energy efficient and comfortable, the house may rate a 56 or better,” says O’Neal. That’s not Energy Star level (which is 86 or higher), but NSpects’ work on existing homes is clearly providing a needed service.“Clients keep calling us, wondering what’s wrong with their houses and why their energy bills are so high,” says O’Neal. And they are very happy with his work.

Earning Loads of Free Advertising

        When it comes to getting the word out about NSpects’ services, O’Neal has, in the words of a fellow Virginian, “his [rear end] in a tub of butter.” It helps that NSpects was featured on the local NBC television affiliate, NBC4 in Washington,DC, in January 2003, in December 2003, and in December 2004—so far. A customer of NSpects worked out a trade to cover the $400 evaluation fee.The customer was a friend of someone who worked at the NBC affiliate and figured he could get the station to take an interest in NSpects. The publicity generated is worth much more than the $400 NSpects gave up in the trade.“They came with cameras and filmed us for four hours testing an existing house.Then they cut that down to three minutes and showed that during the local news.Then they started showing it on other NBC stations around the country,” says O’Neal. One day after the first airing of the show, NSpects phones were silent.Then they got booked with work for three months straight.
        O’Neal has gotten calls from people as far away as San Diego who want him to work on their houses. He referred the San Diego homeowner to a local company, but he has gone as far as Arizona and Maine to test houses.“They wanted the guy they saw on TV and were willing to pay my expenses,” says O’Neal. Even more free advertising comes through PEPCO Energy Services, an unregulated branch of PEPCO, a Washington, DC area utility.The head of the company saw O’Neal on the news,was impressed, and called him to take a look at the home of his vice president of marketing,who was having some mold problems.“The head of the company said to send him the bill,”says O’Neal.The mold problems got fixed, and now PEPCO Energy Services promotes NSpects’work to all its clients for free in Washington, DC, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey.

Setting HERS Standards

        Asked about the changes to the HERS rating system, O’Neal is unequivocal in his support (see “Setting the Standard for Quality,” p. 14). “I’m for all of them,” he says.“Of course I’m on subcommittees that worked on these changes for RESNET, and I am on the RESNET board of directors.” But O’Neal genuinely feels that the changes will make the industry better.The biggest change, O’Neal feels, will come from setting standards for quality control.“Now we’ll all be held to the same standard,” he says.The second biggest impact, he feels, will come from the standardization of the HERS inspection. “The changes will really tighten up the rating industry.”
        If the changes RESNET is making bring other raters up to the same standards as O’Neal, and bring about half of his success, then the industry should thrive. There is a lot of work to be done creating energy-efficient, comfortable, safe, and affordable homes in North America, and a great potential to get every rater’s rear end in a tub of butter.

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