Behavior Change Requires a Human Touch

October 27, 2014
November/December 2014
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Homeowner Education

People across the nation are seeking new ways to save energy, reduce bills, and increase comfort in their homes. Utilities, consumer organizations, and home energy service providers are poised to answer that call, using next-generation technology and teaching practices. The early rollout of these new approaches is yielding promising results as more and more homes achieve energy savings of 25% or more, and consumers enjoy reduced energy costs and increased comfort in their homes.

Sean Bleything
is a consultant with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation in Burlington, Vermont.

The Traditional Approach—Broad but Not Deep

In the past, consumer energy education has been piecemeal—delivered by multiple stakeholders with varying degrees of expertise and motivations. For example, utilities have often relied on bill stuffers, print ads, and their websites to communicate energy-saving tips to customers. While many of these tips may help certain people, they’re often watered down and rarely provide substantive energy-saving recommendations.

This outreach to customers has evolved over the last decade to include websites that tailor energy recommendations to specific customers. People can specify certain information about their home and household, and the website provides customized tips. While this is more specific than a one-size-fits-all approach, it still requires that certain assumptions be made.

Another approach is the homeowner education course—usually provided by a local nonprofit or energy efficiency advocacy group on a weeknight or Saturday morning. This approach is more interactive, allowing homeowners to ask home-specific questions of experts. While this is an improvement over the general information provided in a bill stuffer, it still lacks the individual attention that homeowners need in order to make real changes in their energy use.


The Energy Detective (TED) In-Home Display is an electricity monitor that shows homeowners how much electricity their home is using in real time on a wireless display conveniently located in the home.

Homes and the people living in them are complex and variable. This prevents traditional consumer education from achieving its full potential. Improving upon this traditional education could save customers real money and energy.

Coaching Consumers Leads to Winning Results

When you think of education, you may think first of the type of education you received growing up—broken into subjects and presented in a classroom by a teacher. This approach is tried and true, and is applicable to the fields of energy efficiency and conservation. It can be tailored to individual homeowners and broken down into subjects, such as General Maintenance, Upgrade Opportunities, and Usage Behaviors (see “Consumer Education Sheet”). Each of these subject areas can contain several recommendations—and questions designed to help the homeowner further understand the benefits of energy efficiency and conservation. The recommendations can be stepped, so homeowners can take on as few or as many as they can, or as they feel comfortable with.

An evolving method for providing this energy-saving education is to pair each customer with an efficiency coach. An efficiency coach is an expert in the field of energy efficiency who delivers customized information on how to save money and energy. The coach can help develop a plan and can provide ongoing motivation to overcome the barriers associated with inefficient behavior.

Customer Education Sheet

When working with clients, it is often helpful to leave behind resources they can use to reference the subjects that you and they discussed.

Here is a brief example of an Educational Resource Reference Sheet. It contains a section for each subject area, consisting of concise actionable recommendations.

Efficiency and Conservation Recommendations

General Maintenance

  1. Change furnace filters on the first day of each month.
  2. Install insulation on water heater tank and reduce set point to 120°F.
  3. Install low-flow faucets in kitchens and bathrooms.

Upgrade Opportunities

  1. Replace existing incandescent lightbulbs where possible with CFLs or LEDs.
  2. Install advanced power strips where applicable.
  3. Replace existing refrigerator with Energy Star-certified refrigerator

Usage Behaviors

  1. Make sure all lights are off when leaving the house and when going to bed at night.
  2. Program thermostat to coincide with residents’ daily schedule.
  3. Wash clothes in cold water and line dry when possible.

Rapidly developing smart-grid infrastructure has enhanced the potential for effective efficiency coaching by enabling efficient two-way communication between the utility and the customer via the electric grid. Coaches can be equipped with specific knowledge about each customer’s usage data, allowing them to customize recommendations for each household. The energy education can be delivered over the phone or in person and can be delivered once or several times, depending on the situation. After the first contact, the coach can reiterate material that is covered in subsequent meetings, track progress, and modify future recommendations based on the success or challenges that customers experience when they follow the initial recommendations. Even more valuable, the coach can help customers set goals and help them to track their progress toward achieving those goals. The goals can be something as specific as “use 15% less energy than last month” or “work with family to remember always to shut lights off when we leave the house.”

When Technology Provides a More Human Touch

The rapid development of the smart grid has ushered in a number of new tactics for saving homeowners’ money. Customized web portals, in-home displays, and community engagement competitions can all use advanced energy-tracking hardware and software to help homeowners better understand their energy use and know what actions they can take to reduce it (see “Vermontivate!”).

In-Home Energy Displays

In-home energy displays (IHDs) have become widely used since utility programs started providing them to customers. These displays allow customers to see, in real time, their energy use and what it’s costing them. Connected to the electric panel or directly to the electric meter through wireless technology, IHDs can also provide additional information, such as previous hour/day/month usage for comparison, weather data, or in some cases messages from the utility with price alerts. IHDs are usually placed in high-traffic areas where everybody in the household can see them. The IHD is a valuable tool for energy educators to use with their clients, because it allows the client to see immediately if a given action is saving energy (or the opposite). Too often customers rely on their end-of-month bill to know if actions they took had an impact on energy use, and usually it is not clear which actions actually saved energy, or conversely, which actions cost them more money. The IHD gives them instant feedback, reinforcing good choices and motivating them to work harder at following the educator’s recommendations.

Energy education can be delivered over the phone or in person and can be delivered once or several times, depending on the situation.

Web Portals

Web portals are another valuable tool for both customers and educators; they provide detailed energy usage information over long periods of time. The ability to compare usage from day to day and month to month lets customers set specific goals and track progress almost immediately. Several web portals offer energy-saving tips as well. Customers can provide details about their home, such as size, type, and number of appliances, and fuel type, and the web portal can return customized tips, as well as projected savings. This can help guide customers toward their goals by suggesting specific, actionable measures.


In 2011 a group of energy professionals, business people, and community champions came together to tackle one of the key barriers to energy-related behavioral change: It’s usually not much fun.

Figure. The game helped players to feel that they could make positive changes in their life and community.

Inspired by the idea that play can be productive and informed by the principles of good game design, this all-volunteer group spent a few months designing and building a real-world online community energy game. The game, christened Vermontivate!, would be open to any resident of a given community and would allow residents to earn points for themselves and for their town by taking on energy-related challenges. Instead of focusing on the conventional approach—that is, on saving money by saving energy—the weekly challenges were designed to delight and empower players and their communities. The game involves players and teams responding to weekly challenges based on a theme. Points are earned as individuals take an online home energy survey, change that last light bulb, or test-drive an electric car. Teams complete tasks such as setting a team energy goal, establishing a real- world meeting location, and planning an event.  Each week has a unifying theme that incorporates team building, sustainable food and energy, transportation, the role of capital in energy efficiency, and future action. The developers felt that if players enjoyed the game, they would want to do even more things to save energy next time—and more importantly, they might bring their friends.

The initial game was held over six weeks in the spring of 2012. The only extrinsic rewards were ice cream coupons for all the participants and a party for the winning town. More than 70 people from five towns competed in the first game. Participation has tripled in each of the two years since then. Participants have consistently reported that the game improved not just their understanding of, but also their engagement in, issues of climate change and sustainability. Participants also say the game helped them to feel that they could make positive changes in their life and their community (see Figure). These outcomes are a credit to the game’s unique approach, which fosters a sense of self-efficacy. That self-efficacy will encourage participants to persist in solving difficult problems.

These two technologies provide similar information, but they deliver it in two very different ways. The IHD is constantly updating (information is “pushed” to the device automatically), while the web portal is updated each time the customer logs in (information is “pulled” on demand). This gives customers the freedom to see their usage in the format that is most convenient for them. Most importantly, these technologies both serve to reinforce good behavior. They do so by showing customers the progress they are making on measures they chose to implement when they were working with their efficiency coach.

There Are Still Challenges

The energy efficiency industry has seen rapid growth in consumer energy education and engagement programs. But deploying those programs efficiently remains a challenge. Cost, above all, determines how these programs are delivered. The cost of consumer education varies, depending on factors such as frequency of interaction, customer’s location, and type of technology used. One promising deployment model has utilities targeting high-usage customers and offering them educational services so they can reduce their bills. This benefits the utility by allowing it to shift or reduce load, and it benefits the customers by lowering their energy bills. A utility can deploy technologies, such as an in-home display or a web portal, to all of its customers, and then provide high-usage or income-eligible customers with customized advice from an efficiency coach. Several pilot programs using this model have recently been completed through DOE’s Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program with promising results. See "Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program (WIPP)."

Widespread adoption and deployment of efficiency coaching and technology will take some time, and utilities and energy efficiency groups have their work cut out for them. What is clear is that simply replacing an appliance or retrofitting a building can’t achieve deeper energy savings—it requires meaningful behavior adjustments on the part of the occupants. Advances in technology and the approaches we take to working with customers are encouraging occupants to make these adjustments—a trend that will only improve over time.

Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program (WIPP)

In 2013, Efficiency Vermont and the DOE concluded a consumer-behavior study that provided 112 customers with a combination of on-site or telephone efficiency coaching, in-home displays, and a customized web portal. The study was conducted over 12 months; participants were customers of several different utilities across northern Vermont. In order to participate, customers had to meet income eligibility requirements (185% of federal poverty level or less), have regular access to the Internet, and be available for one to six field visits or phone calls from an efficiency coach.

Timing Matters—A LotPrint
Figure. Customers who had immediate interactions with the Efficiency Coach saved the most energy.

Complete results are still pending, but preliminary results suggest that customers were pleased with the services they were provided. Seventy percent of participants reported that their efficiency coach was able to motivate them to make behavior changes, and over 70% reported that they followed through and implemented the recommendations given to them.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the correlation between the date when the in-home display was installed and the first interaction with the participant. Because there were problems in scheduling and a limited number of efficiency coaches, not all participants received their first visit or phone call immediately after the in-home display was installed. Energy savings figures directly correlated with the number of days between installation of the in-home display and the first interaction with an efficiency coach (see Figure). Customers who did not receive a call or visit until well after the installation saved little or no energy during the study.

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