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Editorial: From Energy Audits to Home Performance

30 Years with Home Energy Magazine

August 29, 2014
September/October 2014
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Home Energy magazine (HEM) has been publishing articles about residential energy efficiency for 30 years. Our articles, editorials, letters, and advertisements provide a kind of window into the evolution of energy conservation technologies, policies, and organizations. Initially, the focus was on audits and simple retrofits, such as weather-stripping and insulation. In those days, instrumentation was sparse—sometimes limited to a ruler to measure the depth of attic insulation—and a blower door was exotic. CFLs were heavy, awkward bulbs that might, or might not, fit in a fixture. Saving air-conditioning energy was not a priority. Solar energy was only for the most adventurous.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

Thirty years on, the technologies have moved beyond just insulating attics—there are few left to insulate—to the larger challenge of home performance. This shift reflects the success of our readers in reducing space-heating energy, and the need to create a profitable industry by providing more services. Articles trace how groups have responded to the fact that government and utilities have gradually become smaller players. The residential energy business is becoming much more sophisticated, offering both efficiency and solar. The challenge is to continue to provide this information in a transformed industry and a revolutionized media landscape.

The Origins of Energy Auditor & Retrofitter, Incorporated

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, energy prices were rising and people expected them to continue rising. Research at DOE labs took place on everything from novel insulation material to duct sealing to the performance of woodstoves. Meanwhile, governments at all levels, utilities, private firms, and individuals were ramping up weatherization and energy conservation programs in response to the skyrocketing energy bills. New concepts and skills—such as the energy audit—were appearing, too. HEM emerged as a nonprofit, separate from the DOE labs, whose mission was to connect the information and technology developed at labs into the minds and skill sets of the people building, weatherizing, and retrofitting homes.

A problem emerged almost immediately with the magazine’s title, Energy Auditor & Retrofitter. Few people knew what an energy auditor or retrofitter was. So before people could be introduced to the magazine, somebody needed to explain the meaning of these terms. We changed the name to the self-explanatory Home Energy.

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The Business Model

Our original business model was built on three pillars: subscription revenues, advertising revenues, and grants for projects. Advertising would create a revenue stream to add to subscription and project revenue, but we also believed that advertising served to educate readers about new technologies. Projects mostly involved repackaging articles into special compilations geared toward specific audiences or covering narrow topics. HEM also repackaged the magazine material in the form of a book aimed at consumers and do-it-yourselfers, No Regrets Remodeling. Each of the three pillars contributed roughly one-third of the organization’s revenue. The magazine has been published bimonthly from its inception. This decision—made with little careful thought—has limited the magazine’s ability to deliver breaking news to its readers. In 1992 HEM went online with a web-based magazine. This has given us the technological capability to supply the news between issues.

HEM has always had difficulty identifying with a specific audience. Initially the audience was to be energy auditors and retrofitters, and the practitioners of energy efficiency. But this was a new industry, and many of these people were inside larger organizations, such as utilities and weatherization agencies, and were hard to find. We also discovered that many “practitioners” were only intermittently involved in HEM’s key areas. For example, a contractor might be proud of his energy efficiency skills, but—frankly—pretty kitchens generated sales. Similarly, a solar architect would want to know the latest about energy efficiency, but the practical matters of building a house took up most of his time. A building codes inspector needs to track code-related energy-saving measures. This could be sufficient justification for a subscription, yet it must compete with the need to follow developments in electrical and fire safety, plumbing, and seismic resistance. So a person might be intensely interested in energy efficiency for brief periods, but not consistently enough to justify—or renew—a subscription.

Over time, however, the home performance industry has emerged. These contractors, manufacturers, and trade groups address a much broader range of topics than just energy efficiency. Nevertheless, they need to keep current on new energy-saving technologies and can more easily justify subscribing to HEM.

How Will Energy Efficiency Information Be Delivered in the Future?

The landscape of residential energy efficiency is changing rapidly, so it is not surprising that the strategy for training and updating this labor force must also change. DOE and other official sources are providing much more information about the results and findings from their programs and research. The information is free, so government sites are often the first place a web searcher looks. On the other hand, these agencies are still hamstrung by the same rules that initially forced HEM to become independent. It is difficult for government agencies to name brands and express opinions. Nevertheless, the fact that so much information is available free on the Internet reduces the value we can add by translating research findings into plain English.

Many professional and trade associations are also now promoting home performance and building science. At the same time, they provide training and literature. This increases professionals’ exposure to these topics, but it also creates alternative pathways to deliver the information. Nevertheless, most professional organizations remain narrowly focused on their respective trades. This gives HEM (and other entities, such as the newly created Home Performance Coalition, BPI, RESNET, and Efficiency First) the opportunity to focus on issues that cross boundaries.

The home energy efficiency industry may be transforming itself, but the media industry is undergoing a total revolution. The original HEM business model, based on a paper magazine, is no longer sustainable. More than half of HEM’s subscriptions are already electronic, and we hope and believe that this is just the first step on the path of creative destruction and rebirth. The concept of a “subscription” will give way to other means of acquiring information more precisely tailored to the individual customer. Newspapers have, for example, allowed readers access to a fixed number of free or paid-for articles each month. But even the concept of an “article” is likely to be demolished in favor of a new “quantum of information.” Even if HEM succeeds in delivering the right kind of information, where is the revenue? These problems are being faced by every print-based source.

The Internet has enabled consumers to find articles on HEM’s website that answer their questions. This greatly increases the impact of the information that HEM provides, yet it is not directly related to our primary mission, nor does it bring in income. Should we keep enabling consumers to find articles on our website?

Our future business model—like that of many other media organizations in this situation—is not clear. However, our primary mission remains unchanged. It is to disseminate reliable information on energy efficiency to the practitioner. The challenge in the next 30 years will be to find new sources of, and to create new outlets for, that information.

Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

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© Home Energy Magazine 2014, all rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please send an e-mail to contact@homeenergy.org.
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