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The Learning Curve of Living Green

September 04, 2011
September/October 2011
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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It's a simple concept—one-stop shopping for the consumer. A truck pulls up to the house with everything inside to help the homeowners achieve greater energy efficiency.

The experts do a quick assessment. They check the efficiency of the furnace, the A/C unit, and the water heater. They check the doors and windows for leaks. They make recommendations, and the homeowners choose which energy efficiency items to implement. They swap out incandescent bulbs with CFLs, installs a programmable thermostat, add a few faucet aerators, and install door weather stripping to keep the cool air in during summer and warm air in during winter.

It' s called the Home Energy Squad, and Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy launched it last fall, along with CenterPoint Energy (see "Home Energy Squad at a Glance"). Xcel Energy provides electric service to customers of the program, and Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy provide gas depending on service territory. The program is designed to help homeowners make snap, yet sound, decisions when it comes to saving energy.

Home Energy Squad at a Glance

The energy expert arrives with a van stocked with

  • CFLs;
  • weather strip for doors;
  • programmable thermostats;
  • high-efficiency showerheads;
  • faucet aerators;
  • appliance thermometers; and
  • smart power strips.

The homeowner chooses which efficiency measures to implement and pays for the materials. Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy pick up the tab for installation labor -- a $200 value. If customers want to add something that is not in the Basic or Premium package, they simply pay for the materials available through the Home Energy Squad program, and the expert installs them.

The Home Energy Squad program has caught on quickly in Minnesota. More than 8,000 people have used it since it was introduced in January 2010. The goal for the whole program in 2011 is to save 3 million kWh of electricity and 28,000 dekatherms (Dth) of gas. That' s roughly enough savings to supply more than 1,000 homes with their energy needs for a year. For the results to date, see Table 1.

In just two hours, the experts have made the changes, leaving the homeowners feeling good about reducing their energy bills and their impact on the environment -- and about the fact that they got a great deal, since they pay only for the materials, not for the labor.

But maybe the best part is the education they receive during the visit.

Now You Get It

"We have to educate people with meaningful and relevant information," says Kelly Frankenfeld of Energy Resources, a marketing firm that promotes this program and others like it. "Energy experts are the perfect people to connect with the consumer to explain in simple terms what the changes are and why they matter. That not only makes them feel better about the work they've contracted, but it makes them advocates, and that translates to more business for the expert."

Table 1. Home Energy Squad Average Savings (Minnesota)
Table 1. Home Energy Squad Average Savings (Minnesota)
Table 2. Blaeser' s Energy Bills
Table 2. Blaeser' s Energy Bills

The other necessary component is motivation. No one wants to spend money without knowing what the return on investment will be. The Home Energy Squad provides motivation in three ways. First, the experts do all the work in a single visit, so it' s easy for the homeowner. Second, it costs less to get several efficiency measures done at once than it would cost to have them done separately. Finally, lower energy bills translate to cost savings each month.

"A program like this makes it easy for the consumer to make informed choices and to gain confidence, because the expert is right there giving advice specific to their home," says Frankenfeld. She adds that the homeowners want to have control over the decisions, and this approach allows for that.

One Homeowner' s Story

Rene Blaeser suspected that her house was losing energy. And a lot of it.

"I had leaky windows, and there were areas in my basement that were always cold," says Blaeser. "I knew I needed to do something, but I wasn't sure where to start."

Her mom offered to buy her a visit from the Home Energy Squad to help her figure it out.

"They did a lot of stuff," says Blaeser. "They changed all of my bulbs to CFLs, checked the water heater and the temperature in the fridge, and installed some doorjambs to stop leaks." Blaeser appreciated the work and the education that came with these improvements. "They taught me how to program the thermostat and showed me things I could be doing myself that I wasn't aware of," she says. "And they really went the extra mile by doing things like cleaning my entryway light when they were up there changing the bulbs."

learn more

For more information about the Home Energy Squad, visit www.homeenergysquad.net.

One-on-One Approach

"People like the collaborative effort with the energy experts as to what items pay off best to install, and the Home Energy Squad visit removes any confusion about which items to purchase at various retailers," says program manager Jean Hammer. "Plus, you can usually save enough money during the first year after a squad visit to more than pay for the initial cost of the items. This service proves that through the installation of smaller measures, the energy savings are significant." (See Table 2 for Rene Blaeser's savings.)

Frankenfeld adds that a key component of the program is the one-on-one approach for more productive conversations.

"I'm really happy I did it," says Blaeser. "I'm already seeing a difference on my bills, my home is more comfortable, and now I'm looking into what else I can do to save more."

Erin Mathe is a media relations representative for Xcel Energy in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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