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Maryland Home Performance with Energy Star: Lessons to Share on Marketing and Rebates

November 02, 2011
November/December 2011
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 130,000 American households are more energy efficient, comfortable, and healthy thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)/EPA Home Performance with Energy Star program (HPwES). Maryland joined HPwES as a sponsor in late 2007. For four years the program has faced the challenge that every home performance contractor and utility program manager encounters: trying to understand what will motivate homeowners to do energy improvements. Those of us charged to create and implement Maryland's program want to share some of our successes with readers of Home Energy.

In the past two years, the Maryland HPwES program has evolved to the point where we now have five sponsors — a lot of cooks in the kitchen. While this presents its own set of challenges, it has also given the state an opportunity to experiment with various program models and learn what works. Thus far, we've learned that three things are essential to our success: a user-friendly contractor directory, a group of committed contractors, and a supportive state energy office.

Home Performance in Maryland

In 2007, the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) contracted with SENTECH, now a part of SRA International, to manage the Maryland HPwES program. At that time, the Maryland HPwES team used an EPA template to create a web site to connect homeowners with participating contractors. We added information about residential energy efficiency, considered Google key words that we could use to draw Marylanders to the site, and made the messages on the Home page relevant to homeowners. We also created a password-protected section on the site so that contractors could download documents and training information. Despite our efforts, the web site was not user-friendly; it was so full of information that it was hard to navigate.

On consumer outreach, we worked all the angles to promote the contractors, holding dozens of trainings and co-marketing with local agencies and nonprofits. For this work, we won an Energy Star award for program promotion for our extensive community engagement and grassroots marketing. Our participating contractors reported over 200 jobs through the program — not a bad start for a new program with no homeowner incentives.

In late 2008, as a result of EmPOWER Maryland legislation, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) ordered the state's utilities to take over home energy upgrade programs for their customers. In 2009, the four largest utilities — Baltimore Gas and Electric, Delmarva Power, Pepco, and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative — took over the HPwES program. Instead of one sponsor, the program now has five. The four utilities cover 97% of the state's utility customers. MEA continues to serve the remaining 3% and coordinates the statewide list of participating contractors through the web site, www.mdhomeperformance.org.

Connecting with Customers

Because of the potential confusion caused by having five program sponsors, MEA decided to launch a centralized and improved mdhomeperformance.org web site. The goal was to create an easy-to-use, informative site that would motivate Maryland homeowners to get energy audits and energy improvements, using a participating home performance contractor. In Maryland, participating contractors must be BPI Building Analyst certified and are vetted by both the utility and the Maryland HPwES team.

With MEA's oversight, SENTECH's Sustainable Buildings team members Hannah Wood and Kolleen Kawa and graphic designer Ashley Smith established the vision for the web site in June 2010. We reviewed the web site guidelines put out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on improving usability for customers. We also considered input from Maryland's utility sponsors. Homeowners now have the option to sort contractors based on their affiliation with a utility. We looked at the best features of successful for-profit web sites outside the home performance industry and surveyed homeowners to find out what was beneficial about those sites. We also picked the best features from home performance — related web sites from across the country.

Putting all these pieces together, including pretesting and tweaking, took several months. During the development stage, we found that homeowners generally were looking at two pages: the Home page and the Find a Contractor page, so we focused our efforts on making these pages more user-friendly and easily accessible. We decided to eliminate about 30% of the text from the previous web site that had been cluttering up the site. Lesson learned: less is more when you're trying to get homeowners to take one specific action — to find, and contact, a participating contractor.

The Maryland HPwES team was able to create a user-friendly, streamlined site that now lists both the contractors participating in the MEA HPwES program (the 3% of the state not covered by the utilities), and those working with the utility sponsors. The site includes links to the utilities' web pages regarding any available rebates and incentives. The web site also hosts a glossary of energy efficiency terms to familiarize homeowners with our jargon, and includes links to the Maryland Clean Energy Center's web site and other relevant sites. The site incorporates social media, Twitter, and LinkedIn to communicate with both contractors and homeowners.

The new site launched in November 2010 and we waited six months before making any major changes. This allowed the contractors and homeowners to become accustomed to the new site and gave us time to make minor adjustments. In April 2011, we added a feature that allows homeowners to rate the contractors who worked on their homes, and also to rate the overall Maryland HPwES program. This allows mdhomeperformance.org to compete with other contractor search engines where homeowners rate their contractors. Currently, the web site team reviews the homeowners' comments, and the contractor gets the first opportunity to resolve any issues with his or her customers. As of September 2011, over 250 homeowners have reviewed a participating contractor. Contractors can also respond to the homeowner online — to give their side of the story — if the rating is negative. So far, so good!

The comments regarding the new web site have been overwhelmingly positive from homeowners and contractors alike. Peter Van Buren, president of TerraLogos Energy Group and chair of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Efficiency First, credited the new web site with providing TerraLogos with solid leads. He has found that the web site easily directs interested homeowners to qualified companies, saying "Many of our leads come directly from the MEA's web site. And since these leads are already well informed about home performance and the available rebates, they usually convert to both audits and contracting work."

To drive consumers to the new web site, MEA sponsored a six-week, $10,000 Google campaign. We found that the top five search terms (or keywords) corresponded to the goal of the program: finding a contractor to perform work. MEA simultaneously ran a radio campaign on a local public radio station. These campaigns effectively coincided with MEA's launch of a new rebate program for whole-house air sealing and insulation.

2011: A Landmark Year for Maryland Energy Upgrades

2010, the first full year of utility involvement in the HPwES program, saw slower progress than expected. Statewide, the five utilities provided about 100 rebates for Maryland households. In 2011, to help jump-start the market for energy improvements in Maryland, MEA used federal stimulus funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to fund a rebate program. Existing utility rebates provided about 15% of the cost of energy improvements. MEA provided an additional 35% rebate for insulation, air sealing, and duct sealing. By combining the utility and MEA rebates, homeowners could receive up to 50% off the cost of qualified energy improvements.

Since February 2011, over 1,300 Maryland families have reserved $2.1 million (out of $2.55 million available) in rebates for eligible home energy improvements. This year Maryland will report the highest number of home performance jobs in the program's four-year history.

Due to the success of the MEA rebate program, the utilities have proposed increasing their home performance rebates to 40% of the cost of the installed measures, up to $2,000. If this increase is approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission, this change will take effect in early 2012 and will be in place until at least 2014. Maryland's chapter of Efficiency First represented the interests of the Maryland Home Performance contractor community at PSC hearings and with utilities in encouraging them to increase rebate levels for improvements. The Mid-Atlantic Efficiency First chapter was, and continues to be, influential in helping the utilities to develop and improve their home performance programs.

The Maryland Home Performance program has come a long way in four years. The EmPOWER Maryland legislation ensured that home performance programs could have a sustainable funding stream statewide, but it also meant that the utilities would need to build their programs from the ground up. MEA provided assistance and guidance to the utilities wherever possible, but the utilities still experienced the inevitable growing pains that come with creating a program aimed at transforming the existing home retrofit market. Thanks to constant stakeholder feedback and a willingness to experiment and adjust to market conditions, the HPwES programs in Maryland are poised for even more success in years to come.

The success of Maryland Home Performance with Energy Star has extended beyond giving out rebates and developing a professional web site. We received a 2011 Communicator Award in the Government category through the International Academy of the Visual Arts. The Communicator Awards program was founded by communication professionals over a decade ago and is the leading international awards program honoring creative excellence for communications professionals. In 2011, there were over 9,000 entries from companies and agencies of all sizes, making the Communicator Award one of the largest awards of its kind in the world.

learn more

Explore the Maryland HPwES web site at www.mdhomeperformance.org.

More important than awards, however, are the results of the web site for our participating Maryland HPwES contractors. So far, the feedback has been great. Longtime Maryland home performance contractor Tony Crane, with Efficient Home, says that the new web site reassured his customers that they were getting trusted contractors. "The MEA web site gives homeowners a feeling of security in knowing that [Maryland] has already screened the contractors," he says.

The Maryland Home Performance program has come a long way in four years. The EmPOWER Maryland legislation ensured that home performance programs could have a sustainable funding stream statewide, but it also meant that the utilities would need to build their programs from the ground up. MEA provided assistance and guidance to the utilities wherever possible, but the utilities still experienced the inevitable growing pains that come with creating a program aimed at transforming the existing home retrofit market. Thanks to constant stakeholder feedback and a willingness to experiment and adjust to market conditions, the HPwES programs in Maryland are poised for even more success in years to come.

Hannah C. Wood is a project manager with SRA International/SENTECH, Incorporated, and supports Maryland HPwES, the DOE's National HPwES, and Home Energy Score programs. Lauren Swiston Urbanek is an energy efficiency program manager with the Maryland Energy Administration and supports Maryland's residential programs and training.

This article is part of a series sponsored by Home Performance with Energy Star, jointly managed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. The opinions, views, and ideas expressed within this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.

 

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