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In Minnesota, an innovative virtual approach to home energy inspections

Smart Phone
The Home Energy Squad is using surveys, photos and live video to help homeowners identify efficiency improvements. 

Armed with her cellphone, Ellen Biales spent an hour last month transmitting video of her St. Paul home to an energy expert who asked questions and dispensed advice.

Biales was among the first Minnesotans to receive a virtual Home Energy Squad visit from the Center for Energy and Environment. The service usually reached more than 700 customers a month before COVID-19 temporarily closed business.

Homeowners sign up online and fill out a pre-visit questionnaire for a free visit from two Home Energy Squad staffers. It takes about an hour, enough for Biales to learn a few things that could make her home more comfortable. 

“It would have been nice to have a hands-on experience, but some aspects of the virtual visit were probably just as helpful,” she said.

The Home Energy Squad, which is sponsored by Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, stopped providing live visits on March 18. A significant part of the Center for Energy and Environment’s nonprofit business, the Home Energy Squad employs around 45 people who conduct as many as 750 visits a month.

The improvements and upgrades Home Energy Squad staff make during visits to thousands of customers resulted in about 6.3-gigawatt hours and 29,390 decatherms of savings in 2019, Olson said. The program’s success also helps both utility sponsors meet efficiency goals created by Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program.

That the program can still move forward came as welcome news to its sponsors. Xcel Energy said virtual visits “are a free, safe way to help customers discover no and low-cost energy-saving opportunities, and help identify bigger future projects, so that they can get started on those when the time is right.” CenterPoint Energy applauded the nonprofit’s creativity, adding that “the new offering is an example of how we are innovating and adapting to respond to the current situation.”

The Center for Energy and Environment had entertained the concept of virtual visits before the pandemic, but had never got around to creating a process for them, said Rebecca Olson, director of residential programs. With time on their hands, staff members working at home collaborated to develop a virtual home inspection approach that they believed could work and benefit customers while keeping doors open for future in-person visits.

Collecting data remains a big part of Home Energy Squad’s work because it informs advice given to clients and validates the energy efficiency goals of its utility sponsors. The team concluded that some data would be hard to capture, such as insulation depth in attics and other metrics.

Olson said she had to encourage a shift in thinking from “perfect data and customer savings to enhanced customer interaction and engagement.” In just two and a half weeks, her team of 45 employees arrived at a method for conducting remote inspections that “mirrors” real visits with a few notable exceptions, she said.

 “There’s more of a conversation with the customer when we do it this way,” said Olson. “In other [in-house] visits, we work quickly to do our data collection, tests and product installations and communicate with customers at the end. This virtual service is more consultative, with the customer pointing us to problems they’re having, such as places that are cold or wet.”

The process starts with clients filling out a survey that asks about their interest in energy efficiency and information about their homes. They upload photos of their furnaces, allowing the Home Energy Squad to figure out from the images the equipment’s approximate age and efficiency. Pictures of basements and other areas of homes arm staff with visual information that can lead them to offer clients knowledge and guidance focused on potential efficiency improvements, she said.

Clients can use smartphones or other devices to transmit video for the virtual visit, although audio-only checkups have worked fine, she said. Two staff members conduct inspections with clients and communicate through Google Hangouts or other platforms.

Staff instruct customers to shoot live video of problem areas such as where concrete basement walls meet floor joists and ventilation systems, she said. They may be asked to video places where weatherstripping could be added or showerheads replaced, Olson said.

Olson said the Center for Energy and Environment asked three dozen communities and organizations that promote the program to help advertise the remote inspections. By the end of April, Home Energy Squad conducted around 50 remote visits, several of them with customers who volunteered time to give staff practice.

Energy auditor Eric Larsen said clients in his first two visits found the experience “informative and a good use of their time.” The nonprofit’s reports offer a prioritized list of improvements, estimated costs and potential rebates, he said.

With the pandemic slowing things down, the new process offers customers time to research contractors and products before making any decisions. The visits provide a less diagnostic and more consultative inspection, he said, but it cannot yet replace a real-time visit.

“A lot of what we do requires detailed observation,” Larsen said. “Even if we have a good picture of an attic, it’s hard to focus on different things that might be going on. If there’s an exhaust fan, we like to see how it is vented. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the type of visit we do completely.”

Despite the lack of a physical checkup, Biales heard advice she could act on to increase the comfort of her 1970 East Side St. Paul home and suggestions that may lead her to save for potentially large energy-related purchases. She learned her house could have venting issues and require a new water heater.

“I think it was very informational, and it gave me things to look out for and pay attention to,” she said. “They were knowledgeable about how houses work and how air flows through the rooms of my home. It was a great initial step for how to make my home more energy efficient.”

This article was originally posted by Energy News Network and was republished with permission.