Air sealing, added insulation, and better ductwork can improve the many comforts of home.
Six years ago, when the state of New Jersey introduced a home performance program, Brian Bovio took notice. The president of Bovio Advanced Comfort Energy Solutions, Bovio saw the program—which offers rebates up to $5,000 to homeowners who make energy efficiency improvements—as an opportunity to drive business for the third-generation company in Sicklerville, NJ.
“Going in, our plan was to just do the energy audits and HVAC projects ourselves and subcontract out the other home performance services,” Bovio recalls. “When we had trouble getting subcontractors to deliver on time, because they were backed up, we started doing insulation ourselves. Now we have a division that just does insulation work.” The company also established a plumbing division, so it could install high-efficiency water heaters.
As successful as this diversification has proved—the EPA has acknowledged Bovio as one of the nation’s top home performance contractors—it required extra effort both internally and externally.
“Home performance is more difficult than just going into a home to replace one box with another box. Our salespeople, for example, must have a lot of technical training so they can determine whether a home is even a good candidate for home performance,” says Bovio, whose company also does air sealing and weatherization. He adds, “Trying to explain building science concepts in a print ad or a 30-second radio spot is tough, because the average homeowner doesn’t know what home performance really is.”
In fact, 90 percent of Bovio’s home performance projects start as conventional leads, such as calls about simply replacing an air conditioner. That means most homeowners must be educated on other options that could vastly improve their home’s energy efficiency and air quality.
A Natural Fit
“Home performance is a natural fit for a heating and air conditioning contractor, because you’re already in the home dealing with some concern about comfort,” notes Gary Ward, president of Gary’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., Amarillo, TX.
“Our technicians and installers explain to homeowners how under-sized and under-insulated ductwork can account for as much as a 25 percent loss of conditioned air,” continues Ward, whose company began offering home performance solutions last year. “Another problem, especially with older homes, is infiltration, which causes a dirty environment and wastes energy. Also, many houses don’t have adequate ceiling insulation.” For homeowners interested in learning more, the next step is a home performance evaluation, which for Gary’s consists of a blower door test, a duct leakage test, and a heat gain/heat loss calculation. The company also uses a thermal-imaging camera to identify poorly insulated walls or ceilings.
It’s when the results of such tests are presented, along with recommended improvements and estimated costs, that a professional salesperson can really shine, says Russell Philpott, owner of Precise Building Performance, LLC, in Walters, OK. Because he does quality assurance testing for a utility’s energy efficiency program, he often sits in on contractors’ sales presentations.
Philpott notes, “You have to look at the house as a whole, offer solutions to everything that is wrong, discuss any incentives, and let the homeowners decide what is important. People aren’t necessarily asking for home performance, but they’re willing to spend the money on it if you really explain the benefits.”
Primarily, Philpott adds, homeowners are interested in improved comfort—putting an end to hot, cold, or damp rooms—followed by reducing dust and allergens.
Typically, increased energy efficiency ranks lower on the list of homeowners’ desired benefits—although they certainly appreciate the idea of lower utility costs, which can be illustrated with a software modeling program.
Also, says Ward, “A lot of my clients are concerned about their carbon footprint, so we always mention that improved home performance will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere.”
In addition to presenting the options, it’s important to prioritize them from a building science perspective. For example, says Philpott, you wouldn’t want a homeowner to add insulation if it would go on top of bad ductwork. In his view, a salesperson must always be prepared to say, “Here’s what I recommend doing first,” and explain why.
All Set to Sell
Expanding into home performance isn’t for the faint of heart, Ward cautions. A duct test machine, for example, runs about $2,000, a good thermal imaging camera about $6,000, and the machines to vacuum out old insulation and blow in new may set you back $10,000. In response to homeowner requests, Ward plans to o¬ver spray foam insulation for roofs—and the heavy machinery and truck it requires can total nearly $100,000.
Given the sizeable investment, proceed only when you have someone to continually champion the cause of home performance within your firm. “The owner has to buy in, and then you have to share the concept with everyone else so you have buy-in across the board,” emphasizes Bovio.
When introducing home performance to his 20 employees, Ward did a formal presentation on how homeowners, the environment, and the company would all benefit; now he o en discusses home performance during weekly trainings. “You need to sell it to all your people,” he believes, “or they will sabotage it simply through non-effort.”
Once you’ve sold the concept internally, use these tips to keep bringing in the business:
Don’t skimp on training. Earning certification is a must for conducting home energy audits and ensures homeowners you stand behind your work. For salespeople and technicians, entry-level training on home performance concepts helps them speak to homeowners confidently and knowledgably.
“In addition to field training for anyone getting ready for a certification test,” says Bovio, “I have taken every technician and office sta¬ff person on audits so they can see and understand the process.”
Determine the right price. Ensure you don’t sell home performance on the cheap. “You can make the money you should and still have it be a good deal for the end user,” says Ward, who charges $195 for comprehensive home performance testing (rebated, on a sliding scale, when recommended work is done). In addition to recouping your equipment investment, he notes, “You need to give your staff monetary rewards for setting up the leads and selling and doing the work. If they’re paid well, they’ll stay excited about home performance.” For home performance, Gary’s uses the same incentive, bonus, and commission structure it had in place for the HVAC side.
At Bovio, commission-based salespeople have a built-in incentive to promote home performance services, which typically carry a higher price tag. The firm also o¬ffers flat-fee incentives on occasion, says Bovio, “just to stoke the fire and remind staff¬ to present home performance.”
Offer financing. Homeowners inclined to write a check or use a credit card to purchase a $2,000 air conditioner will undoubtedly hesitate when presented a $5,000 or $10,000 estimate for duct replacement or new insulation. “A large percentage of home performance jobs are financed,” says Russell Philpott, “and by o¬ffering financing up front, a professional salesperson immediately removes a barrier.”
Bovio, for instance, o¬ffers numerous financing programs, including one from the state at 0% interest.
Use testimonials. When Philpott returns to re-test a home after the contractor has finished, he o en encounters a grateful homeowner. “Many people say they didn’t realize how uncomfortable they were in their own house until the work was done—they’d been living with the problem for years and had just gotten used to it,” he notes. When shared on websites and in promotional materials, such personal stories speak directly and powerfully to other homeowners.
“Home performance will become a huge market as homeowners see what kind of savings their neighbors are getting, along with greater comfort and cleaner houses,” predicts Ward. “I’m convinced home performance will not be a temporary niche in the marketplace, but something that will run at a high clip for at least two decades.”