Does the word ‘audit’ give you a warm and fuzzy feeling? Not likely. Yet it’s typically the first service an energy efficiency contractor offers to a prospect. Sometimes the audit is even free, much like the unwelcome kind we receive from the IRS.
Use of words like ‘audit’ ‘retrofit’ and ‘weatherize’ turn off customers. Unless the industry rethinks its jargon, it is unlikely to win the hearts, minds and wallets of the typical American consumer.
These are some of the findings from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which on September 29 launched a new effort: “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvement.”
With a lot of federal money flowing into the industry, it is more important than ever to figure out why homeowners resist energy upgrades. To that end, LBNL published a 132-page report that examines human behavior when it comes to energy choices. The report includes case studies of successful programs.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, information and education will not inspire the typical homeowner to insulate and replace a boiler, according to the report. In fact, people who support the idea of conservation conserve no more than those who do not.
Even the promise of saving money doesn’t always work. Consumers feel overwhelmed by too many choices, so are likely to just opt for the status quo and leave their home as it is, says the report.
But homeowners will take action if others in their community do so, and if they are gradually eased into the idea of making energy efficiency improvements, starting with what is easy and working up to bigger projects, said Merrian Fuller, LBNL research associate, in a web presentation.
Carl Nelson, program and policy manager for the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment, found that people respond favorably to energy efficiency when they are gathered together with neighbors for community meetings. Ninety-five percent of the 2,400 people who attended the meetings signed up for audits, or rather ‘home visits,’ before leaving. They even made the required $30 co-payment.
When neighbors are all gathered together in a room to discuss energy efficiency, they begin to view home upgrades as a “public commitment,” as well as “a social norm,” like cleaning out leaves from gutters, he said. “It is something normal people do.”
As for language, it is not enough just to replace the word ‘audit’ with ‘home visit,’ or retrofit with ‘home energy upgrade.’ Language must be vivid and fit with the consumer’s existing mental frame. Don’t just say a house is leaky, said Fuller. Tell the homeowner that all of the leaks combined are the size of a basketball. One contractor found success by using car talk. He sold efficiency in terms of miles per gallon for the home.
Finally, make ‘em laugh. Humor is such a good sales tool that the Minneapolis program hired a comedian to train its workshop presenters. The presenters won laughs and action when they told homeowners: “When your refrigerator is old enough to vote, let it go.”
The report, “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements,” is available here.
Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.