Home performance articles and stories from the field with internationally respected building forensics guru Corbett Lunsford at the Building Performance Workshop. Hear new episodes of the Building Performance Podcast, see new videos from the Home Performance YouTube channel, and learn all about how diagnostic testing (more than an 'Energy Audit') can make home improvement and new home construction a proven process!
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For my own company to be successful in the home performance industry, I strive to distill complex concepts and practices to their most essential and basic elements. This does two things:
- It enables a professional to keep a cool, clear head when faced with complicated challenges in the field
- It helps frame the way we talk to our clients about our work (clients, professional or otherwise, tend to tune out when we get technical)
In the interest of keeping it simple, therefore, let's take a tour through all of Home Performance Contracting in a 4-3-2-1 approach. Here it is:
THE 4 ELEMENTS
I describe Home Performance to my clients, and to myself, with four basic elements:
- Heat Flow (which everyone thinks they understand, though they generally don't)
- Air Flow & Pressure (two sides of the same coin, which very few building professionals think about deeply, even in HVAC)
- Moisture (damaging the home's durability more effectively than almost anything)
- Air Quality and Safety (including carbon monoxide, electricity, and structure)
This list is in increasing order of importance. You'll notice that the two elements which have to do with energy efficiency are at the least important end of the list. This is why your title is better defined as a Home Performance Expert than an Energy Efficiency Expert. People will continue to call it 'Energy Auditing' when you're testing, but if you can keep reminding them that you're doing so much more than saving energy, you make yourself more valuable.
THE 3 STEPS AND 3 RECOMMENDATIONS
Before you whip out your tools and get to work, always remember that your most valuable tool is your own experience and your senses, and taking time to think. There are three stages to any really valuable activity in this field (or any field, as far as I'm concerned):
- Recommendations for Improvement
What you see, hear, smell, and feel in the home (or taste, but please don't let your client see you) is often the most valuable testing you perform, and it can tell you a lot about what you expect to find in the diagnostic stage. Never use your testing tools until you know what you're looking for (for example, if the A/C isn't running well, discovering that the coils are filthy should NOT lead to superheat and subcooling testing- you should clean the coils first).
The diagnostic tests are what separates a pro from an opinion-giver, and the tragedy is that not only are diagnostics seldom performed in the HVAC field, most HVAC techs are not even supplied with the equipment or training necessary!
Recommendations should only be offered once performance diagnostics have been run, so you and your client can be sure that the solution offered will solve a pinpointed problem.
There are generally always three recommendations you'll make in any home:
- Air Sealing
- HVAC (including anything that heats, cools, or moves air)
Air leakage will defeat any insulation or HVAC improvement you make, so make sure to always start there. Not only that, but it's cheap, straightforward, never needs maintaining or replacing, and doesn't use energy over the long-term.
Insulation, likewise, is inexpensive and efficient, and must be consistent for the HVAC to function properly.
Lastly, the HVAC itself must be properly sized, selected, and installed, AND THEN VERIFIED WITH PERFORMANCE TESTING. Everyone thinks they do good work- most are woefully mistaken. The pros who know, know because they tested their work before they left. Those pros don't waste money on callbacks.
THE 2 SYSTEMS
As far as the home performance professional is concerned, there are two main systems in any home:
- The Envelope (air sealing and insulation)
- The HVAC (anything that moves heat or air within the home)
The important thing to remember is that the Envelope will always defeat the HVAC if they're working at cross purposes.
THE 1 GOAL OF HOME PERFORMANCE
Since we're not talking about energy efficiency, as already mentioned, and we're not talking about sustainability or 'green' stuff, what ARE we talking about? CONTROL.
Control is the goal. If you control all 4 ELEMENTS by using the 3 STEPS to make 3 RECOMMENDATIONS on the 2 SYSTEMS, then you've achieved a high performance home, regardless of what the occupant chooses to do with the space.
And the only way to demonstrate control is with PERFORMANCE TESTING. All building codes across the country will require performance testing (at least of ductwork) by 2017, due to a requirement of the ARRA funding of 2009.
Eventually, homeowners will understand that they can demand a guarantee on any contracting work they pay for, and there will be companies who can continue to profit in that business. There will also be companies who have never tested their work, and find out that it doesn't pass performance testing- under the immediate pressure of performance-based guarantees, many of those companies will not survive. Make sure your company does excellent work before your clients ask to see the proof!