Shifting Utility Programs

The winds of change are finally beginning to blow in the world of government and utility energy savings programs. After over 30 years of the same old, same old, it appears that very soon more of our installations will require verification of performance by a third party. In the halls of state energy leadership groups the phrase “enough is enough” is echoing. We’re in for a change and we’re not yet sure what is on the horizon or how it may impact our businesses.

We see evidence that state utility commissions and watchdog organizations are rejecting the same old tight duct, refrigerant charge, and high efficiency equipment programs right and left. Programs of the past are being turned down on the basis that there is little or no evidence that the claimed energy savings have ever been realized.

Since the 1980’s many utilities have collected fees from consumers for energy savings programs and have used the cash for little more than feel-good self promotion programs. State consumer groups have found a new war drum to beat and are making some serious noise and demanding proof that actual energy is being saved.

Tough Laws with Teeth

While many states are making political noise over the issue, Illinois has passed some of the toughest laws out there. It appears for decades utilities have created and managed their own programs to verify their own energy efficiency savings. Sounds like the fox watching the hen house, doesn’t it?

The Illinois law moves the verification program power away from the utilities and over to the state. Furthermore, should the state find the utility programs are not saving the amount of energy they claim, the funds that the utilities collect may be taken over by the state. Upon hearing this news, one utility program immediately closed down an extremely poplar refrigerant charge program claiming they had not found it to actually save the energy it promised consumers. Who’s next?

Same Old Programs
It sounds as though the days of duct sealing only programs may be coming to an end. Although nobody argues that tight ducts are essential to energy savings, it’s becoming evident that only slapping pookey on a duct system may reduce total system capacity in as much as 50% of systems. This is because increased static pressure reduces airflow heat transfer capacity of the equipment.

Utility commissions are looking far past duct sealing alone as a solution and more at the net delivered efficiency of the entire system. They want holistic programs that allow them to actually track reductions in energy usage. That sounds pretty logical to most HVAC contractors.

Verification Programs and HVAC Contractors

So, it sounds like we may be moving past tighter ducts and higher equipment efficiency as our principle method for saving energy in the HVAC industry. It makes us wonder what could be next.

The buzz is that some utility programs are searching desperately for tougher and more unrealistic energy efficiency programs based on the deemed savings approaches of the past. The primary fear that new verification programs may consist of more disjointed and unrealistic building science programs to test HVAC system performance. Most of these programs have never made sense to HVAC contractors anyway.

Why not use time proven testing that we understand and believe in? What if a program were proposed that actually followed the practices and traditions that we were used to and that spoke our language? Now that’s something we could support and comply with. Would the bottom feeders of our industry suffer? Sure. That’s how it’s supposed to be. The idea that every contractor is willing to provide quality work has never been sound.

Real standards threaten those that are unwilling or unable to comply. Give us something we can believe in and that’s reasonable. Give us a program that our customers are eager to spend money on and you’ve got a winner. Provide us the education we need to succeed and practices that make sense and the best of us will naturally adapt. We’ll adapt if a culture is created that rewards better HVAC system performance.

We’re an independent group and don’t take well to force based on some politicians program that we know will never work. Also, a higher level of quality and performance is not possible for every company, for some, it’s just not in them. So create a program for those companies willing to do superior work, don’t make extreme laws and try to enforce them on everyone. That’s never worked.

What will Work
What contractors want is real programs that speak our language and best practices that deliver outstanding measurable results to our customers. The best contactors will take our industry to HVAC system efficiency heaven. Train them and reward them for achieving superior performance and everyone will be happy.

Will the results equal the wish-a-watt programs we have today? Probably not. Deemed savings has to go, and the energy savings expectations have to get real. Incentives to utilities have to drop be paid based on real results.

Energy savings can be real, measurable, and verifiable. Will contractors accept a verification program that requires more of them? Sure they will, but it has to speak their language, be an opportunity for them and their customers, and honestly enable them to deliver what they promise to their customers.

Should it be another law enforced on the entire industry? No. It hasn’t worked yet. Just look at California. Over 95% of equipment replacements break the law and do not comply with existing regulations because everyone knows they don’t work. To be successful, new programs have to target willing contractors and consumers and reward both in a value equal to measured and verified energy savings.

Will all contractors and consumers participate? Heck no! They just don’t want to, and never will. But far more participants are willing to fully engage in real energy efficiency programs if the right program were proposed.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute a training company specializing in measuring, rating, improving and verifying HVAC system performance. You can contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at for free information, technical articles and downloads.

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