Guest post by Griffin Hagle, originally written in 2015, edited slightly for 2021.
Do you remember the first time you fired up a blower door after air sealing and nailed -- or exceeded -- your target number?
The exact moment may elude you, but the feeling is hard to forget. If you’re like me, you’ve pursued it ever since, and delight in the satisfaction of hard work captured in measured proof. The world faces some grave, complex problems. But it’s empowering to think that with such nifty tools and a healthy dose of elbow grease (or sealant) our efforts can be part of the solution.
That realization arrived for me in 2006. I had moved home to Oregon the year before, tail between my legs, from flight school in Oklahoma. Still reeling from 9/11’s impact on the aviation sector, the school closed, stranding me and scores of other students short of their sky-high dreams with loads of debt. I needed work.
I was so desperate that crawling under mobile homes sounded like a good place to start.
Over the next two years, as an entry-level technician, I helped weatherize about 250 homes for a nonprofit community agency. One of my favorite memories was replacing a broken bay window for a single mother of four toward the end of a multi-day project. Through tears, she said it felt like an episode of a home makeover show, and gave each member of our crew a big hug.
I eventually moved on from that job, bitten hard by the building performance bug and sure there was even more good I could do helping others chase the feeling.
Nine years after that, despite making modestly better wages for generally less messy work, the difference I wanted to make seemed harder to come by. As an ‘energy-efficiency mentor’ for a utility-funded rebate program in Southern California, I was on-call to resolve contractors’ issues within the program. Every now and then, I could see light bulbs come on as I took the uninitiated HVAC installer through duct-leakage testing procedures, or called an insulation crew’s attention to an overlooked air-sealing opportunity. Like the folks I worked alongside in my weatherization days, these were mostly earnest, hard-working people ready to do the right thing.
The problem was, the principles and priorities of the system we worked within didn’t allow them to think in broader terms than the minimal effort needed to grab a rebate. In fact, it put limits on my own ability to show them the bigger picture. For example, I was free to explain the value per square foot of adding new insulation, or reducing duct leakage below an arbitrary threshold. But if I pushed back on, say, the use of utility ratepayer funds to cheer the installation of oversized fossil-gas furnaces in a climate among the nation’s most ideal for heat pumps, I did so at the risk of embarrassing my paymasters and ostracizing contractors trying to make a living.
That’s partly why, in 2015, I walked out on a promotion and moved 3,000 miles away to Alaska.
I’m not alone
The year before I left, I connected with Nate Adams of Energy Smart Home Performance in Ohio. Nate, an early and ardent proponent of efficiency program reform, swung us an invite to the Forum on Dry Climate Home Performance in Northern California. It felt like a secret society (no, not in the Eyes Wide Shut way). Its independent-minded organizers threw themselves into hot rodding HVAC systems and building enclosures for pure learning and amusement, rejecting the world of sponsored products and dodgy energy savings claims. One of its founders, Rick Chitwood, co-authored one of the best field guides for performance contractors I’ve ever seen.
While there, I asked a contractor from the L.A. metro for his thoughts on rebate programs. He said business was so inconsistent he wouldn’t have been able to come had he not booked the trip months earlier. Common sense kept him out of the program. It just cost too much to keep up with it. Another contractor, from Orange County, put hard numbers to his cost of participation: on average, chasing rebates added $1,800 more per project.
Other encounters that week reinforced the overall picture. The factors propelling growth in clean energy and electric vehicles clearly hadn’t materialized in the same way for home performance. (SolarCity, later absorbed into Tesla, found this out the hard way when it shuttered its two-year old energy-efficiency division in 2013.) A lot of the difference can be attributed to the sheer technical complexity of fixing up existing buildings, but an increasing share today comes down to whose ox is gored by policies centering cleaner, safer, healthier housing in the fight to reduce global emissions and solve climate change. Need proof? Look no further than the silk-glove tactics of the fossil gas and homebuilding lobbies.
It’s not about the energy savings
This might seem like a heretical statement to people who, like me, have given too much of their precious time away hoping to guide others onto a “greener” path. I’ve literally climbed uninvited into friends’ attics and driven hours to run pro bono air-leakage tests. Almost all of it was in vain.
The truth is that we’ve been failed by the narrative that the rest of society can be led to care as much as we do about what’s under the hood of their homes. Personally, I blame an outdated reliance on an earnest but naive brand of conservation messaging that arose in the 1970s and still shows up as “energy saving tips” in the junk mail of today.
Renowned wonk Amory Lovins, no less vexed by the blithe tendencies that took our planet to crisis, has been saying for decades that the keys to managing our way out of it lie in grasping the everyday human impulses that drive energy production and use. People want “hot showers” and “cold beer,” not kilowatt-hours, air changes per hour, or avoided carbon emissions, no matter how politely they nod and smile when we drone on about them.
Case in point: my wife has become the best crusader for induction cooking I know. We’ve used a portable hob for two years in our poorly ventilated rental in Alaska and plan to install a slide-in unit in our upcoming home renovation. One of the bright spots of our pandemic year has been watching her gush to family and friends via FaceTime how fast it boils water, how precise and even temperature controls are, how it doesn't blacken our cookware, and how easy cleanup is afterward. I don’t need to mention that it curbs indoor pollution that commonly exceeds federal laws governing outdoor spaces or enables homeowners to break up with their gas utility.
So, if the good people leave, who stays?
The six years since I left the grind of carrot-and-stick home performance have given me a bit of a wider view on subjects ranging from human nature to policy design. Alaska is also the perfect perch from which to observe and reflect on dynamics in the “Lower 48” from a distance.
Basically, good people want to be recognized for their good work. It is within our nature to seek acknowledgement and praise for our efforts. In clinical use, this is extrinsic motivation.
The designers of the program I worked or relied on extrinsic motivation by prescribing a value for certain outputs to get contractors to play along in their schemes. Some of these make more sense than others: $50 for a smart thermostat or $200 to swap out a pool pump. It gets trickier when assigning dollar values to whole-home measures that require a strong foundation in building science and a global view of project dynamics to execute successfully.
Enter intrinsic motivation. Most true believers fall into this category. The self-satisfaction of a job done well and confidence in their contribution toward a better world drives them in a way that sets them apart from the crowd. When coupled with extrinsic reward, however, including praise and pay commensurate with their efforts, the possibilities are limitless and people truly shine.
It’s impossible to survive on intrinsic reward alone. At least not for very long. We all have bills to pay, and we do a disservice to our cause when we throw ourselves into work that’s not properly valued. It means little to honor good work, of course, without defining it. Nobody wants to stick it out in a hot, cramped attic doing their utmost for clients left in the dark by an energy-efficiency industry that won’t measure results that matter and hold practitioners accountable for them. (Nate’s had a lot to say on the topic of energy metrics to guide real estate out of the dark ages.)
Put differently, industries that don't track results don't draw excellence. In fact, they repel it. People who put in effort get discouraged and drop out, making space for mediocrity to flourish.
I saw this firsthand at the annual contractor awards banquets the utility sponsored. The only people genuinely upbeat at these things worked for the big HVAC shops with cheesy TV jingles raking in rebate cash for doing more or less the same work they always had. It was depressing.
After years of that nonsense, you might think I’ve had enough to put this kind of work behind me forever. I’m certainly done with Big Energy Efficiency. But just as bad relationships can teach you about your personal standards, I’ve drawn enriching lessons from that frustrating period of my professional life. There’s also been organic growth in the residential electrification movement and encouraging shifts in consumer awareness and sentiment as the coronavirus continues to lay bare the deep risks hidden in a business-as-usual economy.
There was an HVAC guy, Tony, I once met who enthusiastically signed each of his plenums in Sharpie, confident he had installed a zero-leakage system. He was an equal parts trade worker and artisan, the kind of person we need more of by the tens of thousands, nearly always hitting his mark. I often think about him and his style of work, hopeful current trends drive the kind of interest and innovation in the home performance industry that convoluted rebate programs never could.
If we’re doing it right, his should feel like the most rewarding job in the country.
Griff has been a long time supporter of our efforts, which have now turned into the HVAC 2.0 program. I hope this view from inside the belly of the beast is helpful in showing that traditional utility programs are highly unlikely to lead us to scale in either decarbonization or insulation.
Unless both homeowners and contractors see value in better work, we're in real trouble. Done right, like Griff said, electrification and home performance work should be some of the most rewarding work out there. He's felt it. I've felt it.
Griff mentioned the critical word several times: value. Homeowners need to have problems to solve that are worth enough to solve that they can buy high likelihood fixes for those problems. That requires building value. It also requires contractors to believe that they can deliver those fixes and to ask for enough money to execute them profitably.
Only then can anyone experience the satisfaction of an electrification or home performance job done well - it has to solve problems for homeowners and be profitable for the companies doing it.
Achieving those goals is exactly what the HVAC 2.0 program is built to do.
Want to learn more? Read the free chapters on this site of The Home Comfort Book, check out case studies at energysmartohio.com, or better yet take the free Electrify Everything Course that will walk you step by step through what you need to know about doing these projects, then give you access to the HVAC 2.0 network that can help you do it.
Nate Adams is fiercely determined to get feedback on every project to learn more about what works and what doesn't. This blog shows that learning process.