HomeGauge

March 01, 2011
March/April 2011
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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As a longtime writer about software for Home Energy, I get asked one question more often than any other: What software do you recommend for companies involved in energy auditing, weatherization, or residential retrofitting? The answer is always the same—it depends on the functions you need. For instance, some companies need modeling software that can produce certified reports, such as HERS certifications or FHA energy-efficient mortgage documents. Other companies may have simpler needs that can be met with basic checklists, like the automated management of thermal bypass inspections. Every company’s requirements are different, and unfortunately, most software applications are not flexible enough to fulfill everyone’s wish list.

Steve Mann is a HERS rater, GreenPoint rater, LEED AP homes, Certified Energy Analyst, serial remodeler, and longtime software engineer. (April Wise Photos)

Recently, I looked at a software product called HomeGauge, from SHGI Corporation in Asheville, North Carolina. HomeGauge was originally designed for home inspectors. The company is quite successful—it has more than 7,000 licensed users of its software. Lately, SHGI has been venturing into the energy auditor market. It’s been able to do this because of the flexible nature of its HomeGauge software architecture.

Quick Tour

HomeGauge is not modeling software. It is designed for various types of professionals to record, in the field, information about properties, and to produce reports about those properties. Out of the box, it includes what SHGI calls templates suitable for inspecting single-family homes, condominiums, commercial and multifamily buildings, and more. There are also templates for mold and insurance inspections. You can record your results on a room-by-room basis, by construction phase, or by type of building system, such as structural or plumbing.

SHGI is able to offer so many options because its software has a very structured yet flexible architecture. Every template includes a set of Components, which are basically sections of a report. Within each Component you typically find the following items:

Inspection Items. Each Component contains a list of items that the field inspector needs to check; this is done by indicating the status of each item. An example might be “Test gas meter for leaks.” Status choices might include “Not Inspected”, and “Unsafe”. You can attach comments, pictures, drawings, and voice recordings to each Inspection Item.

Styles and Materials. Each Component contains a set of equipment- or condition-specific data. For example, there may be a Styles and Materials item called “Heat System Brand”, where you select the manufacturer from a list of furnace manufacturers.

Overview. Each Component contains a Report Introduction and a set of Footer Definitions. A Building Envelope Component, for instance, might include an introduction describing the quality of insulation installation.

Spreadsheet. Each Component includes a Spreadsheet that you can use to track calculations that you might want to include in the final report.

Content from any of these items can be inserted in the final report. For instance, you could include details about the way the insulation is installed in an Inspection Item comment. This comment might refer to a RESNET installation level as described in the Overview. You could also calculate heat loss from a poor-quality insulation installation and include that in the report.

HomeGauge’s real power comes from its customizability. You can change virtually everything about a report. You can add, delete, and change Components, Inspection Items, Styles and Materials, comments, and the check mark headings used to track each Inspection item. You can change report sections and headings. You can attach custom documents, in Word, PDF, or HTML format, that are included in the final report. For instance, the product ships with a PDF-formatted Thermal Bypass Checklist that you can fill out from within the software. HomeGauge also includes various customer contracts and pre-inspection agreements that you can incorporate into your report.

Unfortunately, this brief description doesn’t really communicate the product’s flexibility. Although the software is designed for home inspectors and now energy auditors, you can potentially modify it to be used with almost any type of business that creates reports from checklist-type data. You might think that, as with many software applications, all this power comes at a price (typically complexity and a difficult-to-master user interface). That’s not the case with HomeGauge. It’s actually harder to explain what the program does than it is to just sit down and use it.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. The BPI Combustion Appliance Zone (CAZ) template.

What About Energy Auditors?

The two newest templates that might be of interest to Home Energy readers are the BPI Combustion Appliance Zone (CAZ) Test and the Home Energy Survey. The BPI template is probably the simplest template that comes with HomeGauge. Figure 1 shows the HomeGauge main window with the BPI template loaded. On the left, the Sections pane shows those items that are included with every template—Customer, Report Info, Misc, General Info, Components, Optional, and at the bottom, Summary. The BPI template has only one standard Component—Combustion Appliance Zone—and one optional Component, Dryer Vent Piping.

Once you select a Component, the center pane first shows the Inspection Items that the field professional must address in order to complete the inspection. Each item has a status, in this case “IN” (Inspected), “NI” (Not Inspected), “NP” (Not Present), “US” (Unsafe), or “X” (Excluded). You complete each item by selecting one of the status indicators. You can add comments to each Inspection Item in the Edit window at the bottom of the screen. HomeGauge is loaded with predefined comments specific to each Inspection Item that you can easily insert. You use the right-hand side of the screen to attach pictures or drawings to items. You can edit pictures by, for instance, adding arrows or annotations. There is also a simplified drawing editor for adding floor plans or other types of line drawings.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. BPI CAZ template styles and materials questions.

In addition to the Inspection Items, the BPI template includes approximately 30 Styles and Materials questions about the heating equipment and combustion zone. These questions, shown in Figure 2, include such information as the equipment manufacturer, the number of combustion systems, and the location of the CAZ. HomeGauge provides predefined lists for most items, so all you have to do is select the question and select the answer. Very little typing is required. Some of the predefined Styles and Materials values come from the BPI testing Spreadsheet section, shown in Figure 3, where you enter your actual testing results.

Figure 3.

Figure 3. BPI testing results spreadsheet.

 

You switch back and forth between the Inspection Items, Styles and Materials, and Spreadsheet sections, using the tabs at the top of the center pane. When you’ve finished entering all your data, you can print the inspection report in a variety of styles and colors. The report contains a section for each Component, with a subheading for each Inspection Item. Various values from the Styles and Materials and the Spreadsheet are inserted into the body of the report where appropriate. Pictures and drawings are also inserted in the proper sections.

Home Energy Survey

The Home Energy Survey template is much more detailed than the BPI CAZ template. It includes the following Components:

  • Owner/Occupant Interview;
  • Baseload and Seasonal Energy Efficiency;
  • Water Control Layer;
  • Vapor and Air Control Layers;
  • Thermal Control Layer and Fenestrations;
  • Heating/Cooling Performance;
  • Building Enclosure Performance; and
  • Energy Conservation Measures.

The Owner/Occupant Interview, Water Control Layer, Vapor and Air Control Layers, and Energy Conservation Measures Components all contain fairly straightforward Inspection Items, minimal Styles and Materials, and no Spreadsheets. The remaining Components do most of the heavy lifting, primarily with Spreadsheets. The Baseload Spreadsheet does a detailed baseload analysis. The Thermal Control Spreadsheet includes window and wall assembly details, including effective R-values, wall and window areas, and so on. The Heating/Cooling Component is basically the same as the stand-alone BPI CAZ Component I describe in the previous section. The Building Enclosure Spreadsheet includes BPI infiltration calculations based on blower door testing, and ventilation calculations as per BPI and ASHRAE specifications. Altogether, the Home Energy Survey template contains pretty much everything you might want to include in a home energy survey.

As I stated in my first paragraph, every business does things differently. This is where HomeGauge really shines. If you don’t like all the specifics of their Home Energy Survey template, you can change them. You can add or delete Components. You can change the list of Inspection Items in a Component. You can throw out the Spreadsheets and create new ones. I think of SHGI’s Home Energy Survey template as a starting point that can be endlessly customized. The company has just done the bulk of the up-front work. You can tweak it to your heart’s content.

If I have any complaints about the Home Energy Survey template, it’s the Spreadsheets. First of all, the built-in Spreadsheet is not that robust a piece of software. Editing, formatting, and layout features are limited. If you’re used to Excel, you’ll probably find the HomeGauge Spreadsheet very limiting. Secondly, some data are just not that well suited to spreadsheet-style data entry. For instance, the fenestration data are laid out horizontally in rows. If you want to enter each window individually, you end up scrolling left and right quite a bit if your building has lots of windows. It’s not the most efficient data entry process. Finally, the HomeGauge Spreadsheets could use some refinement. It’s not really clear which cells are calculated and which require data entry. Some calculated cells are not locked, making it easy to mess up the calculations. The documentation on the larger Spreadsheets is nonexistent, making it tough to figure out how they work and what you’re supposed to do. The good news is that you can replace the HomeGauge Spreadsheets with your own, if you’re willing to take the time to redesign them.

But Wait, There’s More!

I’ve already talked about HomeGauge’s customizability, one of its strongest features. There are also quite a few other features that make it easy to use. HomeGauge has a Find feature that cycles through all your unanswered items, making it easy to make sure you complete every Inspection Item. You can also flag certain Inspection Items for subsequent attention, and cycle through those flagged items with the Find feature. This can be useful if, for instance, you want to attach a comment to an item but don’t want to do it immediately. HomeGauge also has a feature called CYA, for Check Your Answers, which shows helpful comments for many of the Inspection Items and Styles and Materials. It can help you remember to inspect certain building details or ask additional questions. The program has a built-in contact database, but you can also import customer information from QuickBooks, Outlook, and Outlook Express. Some templates include customer invoicing. You can include your company’s logo on the cover page of the report.

HomeGauge makes good use of Internet technology. You can sign up for HomeGauge Services, which lets you upload reports to a SHGI-managed server for subsequent download by your customers or other interested parties, such as real estate agents. You can have the service send an e-mail to your customer with a link to the inspection report. This is much easier than trying to print reports on-site at inspection time, and almost as fast. You can archive your reports on the SHGI server for up to five years, simplifying record retention. SHGI will even set up a web site for you if you like. Its tech support department can take control of your computer remotely to diagnose problems and walk you through procedures.

HomeGauge doesn’t include any printed documentation. However, the SHGI web site contains more than 50 short video-based tutorials that you can watch to get up to speed. The program’s online help ranges from poor to excellent. As I’ve already mentioned, the software is quite easy to use overall, so the lack of printed documentation and occasionally poor online help is not a major drawback.

There are a variety of ways to obtain HomeGauge. The basic application, including a large number of templates, costs $845. It’s bundled with three free months of HomeGauge Services and web hosting (there are additional charges for those services after the first three months). You can get a version that includes a Pocket PC client for $1,144. There are also a variety of leasing options. The entry-level lease, which costs $200 plus $80 per month, includes HomeGauge Services and the Pocket PC client. Web hosting is an additional $15 per month.

I’d recommend that anyone looking for reporting software for a weatherization, energy audit, or retrofit business download the free trial version of HomeGauge and give it a try. The company has clearly spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to deliver high-quality reporting software to field inspectors of all kinds. HomeGauge could probably be adapted to work for HVAC maintenance, commissioning agents, or even green certification programs like LEED for Homes. It’s flexible enough that it just might work for your business.

For more information:

To learn more about HomeGauge, visit www.HomeGauge.com. Steve Mann can be reached at steve@green-mann.com.

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