This article was originally published in the September/October 1995 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 1995



A Kilowatt
Is a Terrible
Thing to Waste

by Fairlie Firari

Education programs for building occupants ensure support for energy retrofits.


Several years ago, Syracuse Energy Service Company installed automatic, 8deg. set-back thermostats with small dials in a seniors complex. It became apparent that some outreach was needed when several people from the complex disembarked from a rented bus and stormed the office in protest. Ideas for an education process hit the drawing board shortly thereafter.

Those who don't recognize the importance of education may believe that it is not cost-effective or that the results are hard to quantify. Neither argument is true. Professionals in the field of energy efficiency and conservation are becoming more aware of the importance of energy education both as a separate program and as an aid to technical implementation.

Program Design

An effective energy education program must (1) actively involve all participants, (2) be built on reciprocity and flexibility, (3) be site- and people-specific, and (4) encourage motivation, involvement, and feedback. Specifically, it should

  • Help building owners and occupants to see that energy conservation serves their interests, by describing its benefits during workshops and face-to-face sessions, as well as in any literature provided.
  • Identify specific payback benefits for potential new behaviors. Educators can analyze energy bills to identify dollar amounts attached to specific usage, describe possible strategies to reduce this usage, and estimate potential savings.
  • Develop relevant knowledge and skills in the building operators, so that they will operate and maintain equipment and other treatments properly, to ensure maximum energy savings and to increase the life of the installed measures.
  • Provide feedback on residents' progress. After showing them how to analyze their energy bills, educators should help residents to assess their savings.
  • Be affordable. The most costly item of the budget should be the staff.
  • Materials

Once generic materials have been created, they can be updated or changed to suit the individual sites. Education materials should be explained to residents and managers, not merely left with the expectation that they will be read and understood. Many utility companies and government agencies have excellent free educational materials. Instruction booklets provided with new thermostats can be the basis of some material, and just about everything else can be done inexpensively on a word processor.


Everyone who comes in contact with clients has the opportunity to educate them, from the initial contact person to the final inspector. Weatherization agencies should train technical and implementation staff to be educators. Private companies can require, and train, contractors to educate clients. With proper training, people involved in the conservation process can divide the responsibilities for the education workload into cost-effective and time-effective duties.

To ensure high-quality energy education, a mechanism should be established for constant communication among the educators in the field, site supervisors, contractors, and program managers. This will foster program continuity and growth.

Syracuse Energy's Experience

Under a DSM contract with a major utility in upstate New York, Syracuse Energy has treated 4,000 units in 30 all-electric, multifamily apartment complexes since 1992. All of the occupants were offered energy education in group workshops and one-on-one appointments, with 65% taking advantage of the latter.

We developed a whole building approach to diagnostics and treatment that is tailored to the site and residents. We begin by meeting with the owners to inform them about program requirements, benefits, and possible challenges. Next, we gather technical data about the building envelope and mechanical systems, as well as human data about the owners, managers, occupants, and operators, in order to design a work plan.

There are complex relationships between the educators and the owners, managers, occupants, and operations staff, all of whom are affected by energy conservation retrofit work. Existing tensions between occupants and owners are often reduced when occupants understand that the owner is helping to make improvements to the complex. Owners, managers, and maintenance staff must be informed about how to manage and maintain the installed measures to achieve maximum savings and comfort.

Once a contract has been signed with the owner, we hold introductory workshops with site managers, operators, and occupants to explain what work will be done and why, how they will be affected, and what will be required of them throughout the implementation process and beyond. This makes it much easier for the contractor to work quickly, saving on labor expenses.

Educating Occupants

Residents who learn how to save energy will, at best, reduce their energy bills; even in the event of a rate increase, they may save money. But it is important to recognize that higher bills are not necessarily a sign of a failed retrofit. The main goal should be to increase the occupants' awareness of how energy is consumed and to teach them to use and maintain the energy-saving measures installed in their building. For instance, occupants who do not understand how to use setback thermostats may never touch them, try to bypass or disrupt them, or complain to management that they don't work and should be removed. All three scenarios have the same results: little or no savings!

Educators should seek to help people take control over their energy consumption, using tools such as their energy bills, written materials that have been carefully explained, and built-in support systems. These may include a toll-free information line, peer educators at the apartment complex, and informed maintenance and site staff. Syracuse Energy also conducts clinics at previously treated sites. These group workshops are generally held before the heating season begins, to remind occupants how to save energy in the coming winter and to try to reach out to new occupants and site staff.

From the start, energy education should include everyone connected with a given building. When properly designed, it should be considered as important as air sealing, dense-pack cellulose, or any other installed measure. Education is critical for extending the life of the measures, for obtaining maximum savings, and for achieving persistence of savings.

Fairlie Firari is marketing manager at Syracuse Energy Service Company.


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