I’m Calling Bull**** on Greenies

I’m Calling Bull**** on Greenies

This morning I got yet more confirmation that people who say they want to reduce their carbon footprint are full of crap. It was the 5th time that a “green” client has told me they care about the environment, but when push comes to shove, they weasel out of it.

It reminds me of one of my favorite sermons where my pastor talked about how sometimes “we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.”

He said this a few years back, and it stuck with me.

As humans, we often want to feel superior to others, and this fact leads to a lot of hypocrisy in the church world. Frankly, the green movement often feels like a religion. As James said, “faith without works is dead.” Asking others to spend their money to solve a problem that you’re not willing to spend money yourself on, all while acting superior and pretending to be engaged, is not cool.

Please stop doing it. It’s a disappointing sign of weak character. It’s the same thing that has driven people away from the church – being judgmental and hypocritical.

Obviously I’m pretty ticked off by this. I’m also ticked at myself because I failed my clients. I took them too easily at their word, and didn’t do the work of having them more fully clarify and commit to their stated intentions, or hold their feet to the fire when they flaked on following through.

I’m also frustrated by an underlying problem for the Home Performance market: no one knows who to trust. Why should a client listen to me over an insulation contractor that told them a better story? The contractor likely told them he can save them a lot “for the same work” by skipping critical parts of the carefully designed work scope I built for the client. Like most things, it’s the last few things that make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

The fact other contractors have never tracked their outcomes is lost on them. After all, the contractor has been in business for years. There is no way to tell the good from the bad, so clients have to default to deciding on price.

By the way, we’ve found that it isn’t that hard to get a home completely off of fossil fuels, often $100-200/month will do it, I’ll expand on that at the end. Four clients have already done it.

Here are the five stories:

The Energy Audit Party

A few years back I wrote a blog post about an energy audit party I did as an experiment for the Sierra Club while I was a contractor. I gave a presentation along with an energy auditor from the utility rebate program. A Sierra Club member had a house party, and we showed the group where the big problems were with the house, and what typical typical problems they could look for in their own homes.

I gave what I thought was a very reasonable project bid of $8000. It included air sealing and insulating the basement, walls, and attic of this home. That’s a truly comprehensive job. (Today, my projects start at about double that. It also becomes clear in retrospect why I got out of contracting. That was a slim margin job at that price.)

I got an email a few weeks later saying that they were very sorry, but they found another local contractor who seemed to really know what he was doing. His bid was about half my price, and they were going to go with him.

Of all the people in town, this guy was the last I would recommend. I used to work with him when I was in the distribution business and he had stiffed almost every supplier within 150 miles of Cleveland. (I was stunned when a Pittsburgh drywall yard told me this character stiffed them for $20,000 – almost 2 hours from Cleveland!) He used to come in to buy product.  I would dutifully go through 5-10 credit cards waiting for one that had enough space on the limit for a $300-500 purchase. Later, we made him come in with a cashier’s check so we didn’t spend a half hour trying to find a card that would work. I’d hear horror stories about his work as well. Not a good guy.

But of course since they had no metrics to tell us apart, and they went with him. Just another example of how, when there are no numbers to hold people accountable on performance the best liar wins, and ultimately quality becomes competitive disadvantage.

A few months later, I get a phone call. The utility rebate program QC discovered the fellow had left with the job not yet half done, but with half the money. The program wondered what I would charge to come finish “the job.”

I quoted them the same thing I had quoted the low bid homeowners, which was frankly a favor because undoing work and then doing it right is more work than doing it right in the first place.

I never heard back from anyone.

I know that house is still sitting, half finished with no results. A greenie wasn’t willing to spend enough money to do the job right, even after I spent hours educating them.

Someday Solar

The second is much less troublesome, but also indicative.

Another potential client who has gotten a great deal of free consulting from me about root causes to some issues in his home – a cold family room over his garage, peeling paint, a very dangerous ventless fireplace in his basement, Indoor Air Quality problems, a failing furnace, and a few other issues. To his credit, he has made his house reasonably tight by insulating the attic. According to conventional wisdom, he’s done, except for that laundry list of problems he still has. He’s also been talking about solar for years, but it hasn’t happened yet. He spends a lot of time advocating for others to spend money on similar solutions. This is a minor frustration point for me compared to the others.  I do keep thinking where’s the beef, pull the trigger on the solar project.

Carbon Credit Guy

Another client actually helped build out the system for carbon credits in California, similar to SRECs, or solar renewable energy credits. He came to me and said he really wanted to knock down the carbon footprint of the home he just bought. He planned to wait through a winter without making any changes to the house so he could get a good baseline, since it’s difficult to get prior usage from the utilities here when you buy a house.

In a major error on my part, I dragged my feet finishing up his energy audit and coming back to show him the plans until I returned from vacation. In a second error, I didn’t specifically tell him not to do anything until I came back. It seemed implicit because he wanted to get a baseline on the house.

In the meantime he hired an insulation contractor to blow insulation into some of the attics, but neglected to do most of the air sealing work that needed to be done. One of his main objectives after reducing carbon footprint was to warm up the very cold kitchen and his daughter’s playroom right above it. When I returned to deliver recommendations, it was about a 45 degree day and his daughter’s playroom was quite cold. I looked at several very obvious air leakage points, none had been sealed. He spent thousands of dollars to add insulation, and it utterly failed to solve the problem. Now he will have to spend at least as much to vacuum the insulation back out so we can do it right, then reinstall it. That is a very frustrating thing to do as a homeowner. Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t responded to several follow up emails.

This is someone who purported to know Building Science enough to know that air leakage is king. He felt let down by the utility energy audit he’d had and reached out to me for a better one. He’s an expert on modeling and carbon credits, you’d think he would have waited to see what our energy model said. He had paid me to run the numbers. Instead, it appears that thousands were wasted and little or no further work will be done.

The Famous Author

My partner noted a famous author who needed a new furnace. He writes eloquently about getting off of fossil fuels. We contacted him and attempted to graft him into our process to help him practice what he preached and move off of fossil fuels. He could do this by getting a heat pump instead of a furnace. His climate is very, very mild with 98% of the year spent between 25 and 80 degrees, an ideal climate for a heat pump.

After spending many hours over a few days trying to adjust the work scope of the insulation work, attempting to get a load calculation so we could confidently make an HVAC equipment recommendation, and coach him on what pricing to expect, we hit a wall and found a bunch of perversities in his market.

The furnace was only $4500. The market there prices heat pumps starting at $11,000 for the brand his contractor worked with. It’s a tremendous difference. Air conditioners can often be installed for $3000-5000, so typically we find switching to a heat pump is a lateral move price-wise from a new furnace and AC, often for a model with better features. We suggested looking for a smaller shop with less overhead and using a less expensive brand. Because of our knowledge of wholesale pricing, we figured there’s good odds that he could get a heat pump installed for between $7000 and $9000. Still a push, but not a massive one to practice what he preached. It would take a few days of work to find that contractor, but we were providing him with a specification to get apples to apples bids and suggestions to find a less expensive HVAC contractor.

In the end, he is having a gas line run to his house and a furnace put in. That is a 15-20 year decision to stay on fossil fuels. While on one hand I sympathize about cost, on the other he has lost most of my respect because when push came to shove, in my view he sold out. His integrity was worth about $5000 and a few days work. Sadly, I won’t enjoy his writings the same way anymore.

A Leaky Boiler and Uncomfortable Third Floor

The last one happened today and is what led me to writing this article. A client found me through my writings, as most do, and when I met with them their primary objectives were equal in importance: make the house more efficient so they finally keep the house comfortable in winter without dreading the gas bill, and substantially reduce their carbon footprint. I warned them that when people tell me they want to reduce their carbon footprint, they often aren’t prepared for the cost.

When the energy model was complete, it turned out we could very likely decommission their boiler and change their high velocity air conditioner (a fairly common upgrade in 1920s homes in this area of Cleveland) to a heat pump and use it to heat their home. The upgrades could be paid for by renting out their third floor which currently is so uncomfortable they were losing tenants over it. It led to a modeled 78% reduction in energy use, a truly remarkable number.

I’ve noticed with this client that every time she talked to someone else, her opinion swung wildly. No one else backed up their opinion with numbers. She met a “nice, knowledgeable, local insulation contractor” who assured her that he could do the job. A big part of my value is making sure air sealing is done well, I say that there are 5 priorities to solving most problems in homes: air sealing, air sealing, air sealing, insulation, and well designed and installed HVAC. I haven’t met a contractor who is genuinely good at air sealing. Decent, yes, but decent often isn’t enough, it can land you in the Gulf of Disappointment, as I wrote about at GreenTech Media. If you miss the tipping point, it doesn’t work. Just ask Carbon Credit Guy.

She is also planning to simply replace the boiler and worse, reinstall a natural draft water heater which is likely to backdraft after any air sealing, potentially pouring carbon monoxide into the house. Both are long term commitments to fossil fuels, the very thing she told me she wanted to reduce dependence on. The good news is, by cutting me out of the process I no longer have responsibility for the outcome. The bad news is, I care about my job too much to let it go. Hence this ranting post.

How the Heck Do We Fix This

So that’s five greenies who said they wanted to do the right thing, but didn’t follow through when shown the path. What’s happening here?

As my economist partner is fond of pointing out, it’s all about incentive. Here are some problems with current structure:

  • No Residual Value: If my clients make these upgrades, the odds are high they will get little to no money back if they sold the house. It would be like buying a $20,000 car and a year later it was worth $0.
  • High Risk of Failure: Consumers are used to being disappointed. All of the risk of failure from a project rests on the shoulders of the homeowner. This makes them risk averse.
  • Telling the Good from the Bad: There is no way to tell who is good at delivering results and who isn’t. There are no measurements for who can deliver promised air leakage reductions or energy use reductions which are good proxies for success. There are no case studies. So as usual, consumers default to price and the best liar wins.
  • Sales Process: I’m going to start boxing people in better by asking a bunch of questions and taking notes to make them truly commit if they want to make carbon reduction an objective. They are lying to themselves and me. Put a price on what it’s worth.

If we started ranking and publishing energy use on homes, it would begin to drive awareness of what is normal, like putting an MPG sticker on homes. If we then ranked contractors on how good they are at delivering results, all of these clients would have trusted me (and paid me) to deliver results.

My last post is the outline of a plan to create a real market for Home Performance in the next 5-10 years. This is doable, and we can stop this frustrating behavior by possibly making residential energy efficiency cost effective. It is nowhere close today.

As it is, I have to struggle to get consumers to do what they told me they wanted to do. Our sales process has delivered very high closing ratios and job sizes, so if this is how one of the better firms in the country is doing, how can we expect to create an industry?

If you are a greenie ( I have a big streak in me, BTW, my house is extremely difficult to get off fossil fuels) and want to reduce your carbon footprint, work on putting a number on it. How much per month is it worth to reduce your footprint 50%? 100%? We find that in the $100-$200/mo range we can take your home completely off fossil fuels.

If you are looking to replace your furnace, pay for a load calculation that will help you get down to 36,000 BTUs, a 3 ton heat pump. It will require substantial air sealing in most cases. One client with a wildly leaky 1842 home can get there. Almost any home under 2500 square feet can get there. If you can switch to a heat pump after air sealing, in many markets you can buy renewably produced electricity. You’re done. You just reduced your footprint by 100%.

It’s ok if it’s only worth $50/month. What problems do you want to solve that get you to $100? Are the rooms in your house that are much hotter or cooler during temperature extremes? That could be enough.

If it’s less than $50/mo, please simmer down a bit. Or I’ll call BS and hold your feet to the fire. And I don’t mean Building Science.

PS To my amazing clients who let me get them off fossil fuels by removing their gas meters, thank you. The three of you (soon to be four) are true pioneers to have the guts to switch you home over to a heat pump in Cleveland, a climate not thought to be a good fit for heat pumps. You all know who you are. My hat is off to you. Jon, to you in particular I was just as terrified as you were, I’m sure glad it worked out!
PPS So far, utility costs for these all electric homes, all of which are pre-1920, look to be very close in cost, one is 5% higher, the other two are lower than comparable client homes using incredibly cheap natural gas. Getting off fossil fuels is very, very possible today with existing technologies and contractors.

Image Credit: Roadside Pictures, used with Creative Commons license

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