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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Do Homeowners Need to Understand Home Performance?

Houses are complicated, and ignorant homeowners are vulnerable prey for ill-informed contractors

Licensing requirements for building contractors vary widely from state to state. While contractors need to be licensed in North Carolina, there is no such requirement in Vermont. Moreover, even in states that license contractors, the requirements for contractors to obtain a license are often fairly lax. In North Carolina, builders are required to correctly answer at least 70% of the questions on an open-book 90-question test.

My father was a college professor who was respected for his scholarship. Yet Dad doesn’t pay much attention to the physical world. If he were asked to define the stack effect, he’d probably guess that it was a type of exhaustion caused by walking past miles of library bookshelves. According to a family legend, the engine of our family’s Volkswagen van had to be rebuilt in 1963 because my father drove thousands of miles without checking the dipstick or changing the engine oil.

In order to own and drive a car, you don’t need to know how to replace a clutch. But most drivers would agree that it’s important to know how to check your engine oil and tire pressure.

While my father’s lack of mechanical knowledge may have been extreme, many Americans can be grouped with him at the ignorant side of the mechanical knowledge spectrum. A similar spectrum exists for home performance knowledge. While some homeowners are perfectly capable of installing a new HVAC system, others wouldn’t be able to identify the purpose of their furnace if they were staring right at it.

Is it reasonable to expect homeowners to understand how their homes function? Or is it only natural for a large percentage of homeowners to be ignorant about home performance?

Here’s another way to pose this question: Should our government protect homeowners from unskilled and ignorant contractors? Or does this responsibility lie solely on the shoulders of homeowners?

Houses are increasingly complicated

The average suburban home in the U.S. is filled with systems that are completely unknown in rural Africa or Asia. Over the past century, our houses have become more sophisticated and complicated than ever before.

Instead of a wood stove in the parlor, most American homes…

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  1. davidmeiland | | #1

    Licensing is not a magic bullet
    I'm undecided on whether licensing solves much at all.

    For a long time I lived in California, which is a licensing state. At the time I became licensed, it was necessary to take a knowledge test and submit affidavits verifying 4 years of journey-level experience. I was able to put together the affidavits easily after 6 years in the industry, and took a prep class to get ready for the test, which had a wide range of material on it, much of it not closely related to the type of work I do. When I finished the process, I was legally allowed to build or remodel houses, or skyscrapers. There was a requirement to be bonded, but no requirement to be insured. I know that California has changed some of these requirements.

    Here in Washington state we have what is called "registration". You pay a small fee to the state, submit proof of insurance, buy a bond, and you are registered. There is no skills test. As a practical matter, the company that first wrote my insurance here did some background checking to make sure I had been in the industry, and also required a financial statement.

    There is some value to each of these systems. In CA, getting the affidavits was/is the biggest hurdle, but of course people can game the system easily. In WA, the requirement to get insurance puts you under the microscope, at least briefly. The reality is, homeowners never seem to know anything about licensing. If a guy seems like a contractor... he's a contractor, especially if he's been working at the neighbor's house. There are many "contractors" operating where I live, with no registration, no insurance, no nothing, but they've been here doing it a while and are accepted as legitimate by homeowners. I've never been asked about contractor registration by a potential client, ever.

    And, even with the proper credentials in place, it's easy to get in over your head. I have seen lots of skilled guys build themselves problems, due to not sticking with what they know and not learning anything new. I've seen lots of them follow architect plans right down the path to problems. I've seen lots of them get into financial problems on jobs due to their own mistakes and also due to our "race to the bottom" mentality of price-shopping by homeowners. Licensed, registered, or not doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. I think it's better than nothing, but in many cases the homeowner is their own worst enemy and is the primary cause of problems.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to David Meiland
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    The point of this blog is to stimulate discussion. My blog does not propose a single solution to this group of problems, but simply opens up the topic for discussion. I agree that requirements to license contractors cannot be the sole solution to the problems I raised.

    My blog referred repeatedly to homeowner ignorance and contractor ignorance. But we shouldn't forget a few professions that I didn't mention. These problems are also caused by architect ignorance and building inspector ignorance.

  3. user-757117 | | #3

    Good topic.
    I think your list of "required" knowledge for homeowners is fair.
    Basic knowledge for safety's sake and that prevents occupants from causing harm through ignorance...
    It's hard to see how anyone could argue against that.

    David's observations and concerns notwithstanding, it is also hard for me to see how licensing (if properly supported by law) would not lead to a more consistent level of performance.
    Not only does licensing allows the licensing authority to mandate performance criteria, but also mandate "refresher training" so that to maintain a license the license holder must keep abreast of developments in their field.
    Furthering your analogy of the medical professional, imagine going to see a doctor who suggested "bloodletting" to alleviate your "bad humours" because in their opinion it was still the best treatment...
    The trick of course is to establish a licensing body that has the legal teeth for enforcement of licensing standards and to revoke licenses where the criteria to hold them aren't be maintained.

  4. davidmeiland | | #4

    Requiring CEUs would be a good idea. Here in WA, electricians and plumbers are required to get CEUs to keep their license current, general contractors are not. Anyone have info on what is done in other states?

  5. wjrobinson | | #5

    The missing link is buildable assemblies.
    For example, tomorrow try to build a well functioning home from information here at GBA.

    I don't think anyone of you or anyone from the public could do so.

    Show me the link to the set of details to build a home here in zone 6a.

    just saying, I think that is the one and only problem. There should be four basic building styles plan sets for all areas of our country with a link here and at JLC and Building Science and at Fine Homebuilding and at every town and cities building permit site. That information should all be the same. And all of you who are improving this information should be annually updating this information and it should be done as an "open source" type publishing. Like Ubuntu and Open Office etc.

    As is mentioned above licensing helps but can and is gone around by price shopping customers. My point is that most of us in the trades want and will build good homes with working assemblies, but finding known working COMPLETE home plans with working assemblies is not to be. We all at this point sort of gather tidbits... try this try that... weight all this against increased expense... loss of profit... the list is endless as to why... all is like it is.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to A.J. Builder
    A good builder has a wide range of experience and vast knowledge. A good builder knows how to make accurate cuts with a circular saw, how to steady a plumb bob in the wind, how to frame a hipped roof, how to flash a brick chimney, how to install a window so it doesn't leak, and how to install wall cabinets without a helper.

    Of course you are right that you can't build a house using just the information on GBA. That's what work experience and apprenticeships are for.

    The fact that the information at GBA is insufficient to build a house is not surprising; nor is it evidence of problems with our site. GBA provides information to builders and answers questions. It's a resource -- one of many that a builder might want to use.

    You wrote, "Show me the link to the set of details to build a home." Here is the link: GBA's Strategies and Details page.

    Later in your comments, you asked for more than details; you asked for "plan sets." GBA doesn't provide plans, but many vendors do.

    Frankly, I don't think that a set of house plans would be adequate to address the issues raised in my blog.

  7. wjrobinson | | #7

    Response to Martin, PGH detailed plan sets, the key.
    "A good builder" is my starting point, a given. To build a 2012 energy code home today is daunting I postulate just from seeing how much is done wrong so far during the last 3 decades of energy code changes. I am not talking about myself as I do read and read and read and then weight all that I read against my own time in engineering university and in the field.

    Builders need complete plans with complete details that all work together with each other not against each other. If someone cherry picked through GBAs details and all the discussions here they could build total rotting crap easily. The way to stop the cherry picking is to publish complete assemblies including all the detail sheets connected together that will work together for a given building zone for a given type of assembly and material.

    What I have seen here from people posting and from my years of remodeling is that a mish mash of ideas get used... and sometimes the mish mash is just plain wrong. This is happening all the time, all the time.

    To use this site well to build from it an entire home.. one really has to know far more than how to use a circle saw or flash a chimney Martin. You know that. I know that.

    Great example of lacking proper information is the thread here at GBA about a window manufacturer needing to update there instructions on proper installation of there window. Even provided information currently available to those of us that install building materials is not correct or current or relevant to every particular assembly or plan set or environment.

    Open Source plan sets I say would be a god send to the industry. Maybe a Residential detailed plan sets per building zone wiki... yes I know you dislike wiki's.

    The best plans I ever used were from a log home company. Pages of details. We need some PGH nationwide home companies so that we get the benefit of hundreds of detailed plan sets coming to be via the sale of thousands of PGH homes for builders and DIYers to build and take advantage of for self education of what works and with what.

    Long blerb..... sorry for you all that I have not an editor! ;)

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to AJ Builder
    I have no problem with open-source plan sets in theory -- but if Wikipedia provides any lesson, it's that any 20-year-old Internet visitor with a strong opinion will probably change the open-source plans in unpredictable ways. I'm not sure that I would use crowd-sourcing to design my house. But that's just me.

    Of course I agree with you that window manufacturers that provide bad installation instructions are part of the problem. But no plans (open-source or not) can anticipate the wide variety of materials available. Details for an Andersen window may not work for an Intus window. But perhaps a crowd of 20-somethings can crowd-source a solution to all of these problems.

  9. user-757117 | | #9

    Response to AJ
    You seem to be focused on what information is available to builders and whether or not such information can be made reliable enough that it leads to consistently good results...
    But good information in the wrong hands is useless.

    One thing that strict licensing regulations are pretty good at is weeding out those that think they know what they are doing from those that, in fact, do know what they are doing.
    In essence, a person that maintains a license in good standing can be considered an "expert" because they have a "track record" - the fact they continue to hold a license is proof that they are able "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk".

    The trick, as I mentioned before, is to have a licensing body that has sufficient legal authority to mandate the requirements and standards of such a license and to revoke licenses if required.

    I'm not suggesting that this is what should happen for building trades (surely some people now suspect me of being a shill for "big government" - which I'm not).
    I'm only indicating that there are many professions that are required to adhere to these types of licensing standards, and that such licensing standards do "raise the bar" in terms of performance in the field.

  10. kevin_in_denver | | #10

    The Consulting Engineering Profession
    Here's a solution that could be a good fit for lots of folks.

    Let's say you are an ignorant homeowner but have a leaky flat roof. You heard somewhere that flat roofs are tricky and there are many shady roofing contractors out there (true and true).

    To get some reliable advice on the project, you hire a licensed professional engineer. He should be able to specify the repairs or reroof, vet the installing contractor, and perform the appropriate inspections. This help shouldn't add more than 10% to the cost of the job, but you are literally guaranteed to have a successful outcome. Even if the job fails prematurely, if it's the PE's fault, his insurance will cover the cost if you get it in his contract.

    Most people would be afraid of the cost of this advice, but you can see that it usually would be well worth it.

  11. Aaron Birkland | | #11

    Be careful what you ask for - you just might get it built
    Let's say you are an ignorant homeowner, and you have a 30 year old leaky asphalt shingle roof that you want fixed. You are connected with a great roofing company who does a tear-off, replaces the rotted decking with OSB, and diligently applies best practices in flashing, nailing, the whole nine yards. Shortly thereafter, you read GBA and realize that a good portion of the roof assembly over the cathedral ceilings of your 1980s vintage house is of questionable and risky construction, consisting mainly of fiberglass batt insulation and pockmarked with an array of recessed can lights. Do you regret having missed an opportunity to make the assembly better with a layer of exterior rigid foam, finally eliminating the risk of condensation or frequent ice dams and risk once and for all?

    Let's say that you are an enthusiastic homeowner with a small, well-insulated and well air-sealed house in Virginia. You want to ditch fossil fuels, and your neighbor tells you of this great technology called geothermal. You find a competent installer (with an engineer on staff) who works according to manual J, S, D, and T, puts in a properly sized 2-ton unit, and even fixes a few problems with your old ductwork. You were set back $20k, but the payback is pretty good. Then you read GBA, and find out that your house might have been a perfect fit for a couple of mini-splits. Do you regret the fact that you could have saved over $10k, and had yearly bills just a tiny bit what you're paying now had you known about the technology?

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Aaron Birkland
    I'm not sure that I understand your point. Are you describing situations that occur commonly right now? Or are you describing hypothetical situations that will happen in the future after I wave my magic wand and impose more rigid licensing requirements for contractors?

    It's certainly true that the two unfortunate scenarios that you propose are common occurrences right now. At GBA, we get questions all the time from readers who have just replaced their roofing without considering whether a layer of rigid foam makes sense, and we also get questions from readers who spent $20,000 on a ground-source heat pump they didn't need.

    My blog suggests that homeowners would benefit from greater building science knowledge. If such knowledge were more common, the type of unfortunate scenarios you describe would become more rare.

    I can imagine that homeowners who were considering a $20,000 project might want to hire an architect or an engineer to hold their hand. Ideally, this person would be an advocate for the homeowner's interests, and would advise the homeowner about the need for rigid foam above the roof sheathing, or about the fact that ground-source heat pumps are usually a waste of money.

    Whether or not we can ever improve the nation's universities to the point where new architects or engineers are truly knowledgeable about these issues is another matter. But I can dream, can't I?

  13. Aaron Birkland | | #13

    Response to Martin
    Hi Martin,

    I'm saying (through these hypotherical, put perhaps common scenarios) that even if the competency and qualifications of a given expert is top-notch, the results can be less than optimal if the big picture isn't considered. If somebody asks for a fixed roof, the right solution may not simply be a new roof, even if it's executed well.

    Like Kevin Dickson mentioned, an engineer can be a defense against a a suboptimal solution, but I'm kind of implying that the ideal engineer to a homeowner would also need to see through what he or she is being asked in order to propose what is actually needed.

    In my own limited experience, the ideal engineer or architect who *as a matter of course* looks at the big picture, takes into consideration the current state-of-the-art of building science research, and questions the questions is rare. A practical solution to this is for the homeowner to educate his or her self to at least be aware of the 'advanced' issues in order to ask the right questions and convey the relevant concerns to the experts, then weigh the answers.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Aaron Birkland
    I agree completely. If you go to an auto repair facility and say, "I want to buy four new tires," then it's likely that the shop will sell you four new tires -- even if you don't really need them.

    If a homeowner decides to learn more about building science and home performance, there is no downside to that decision.

  15. user-757117 | | #15

    Continuing education as a component of licensing standards...
    Some licenses require the holder to complete a certain amount of "recurrent training" every year to maintain the license's validity.
    Recurrent training is often provided in courses offered by the licensing body or by other certified means and is used to review best practices and familiarise license holders with changes that have occurred within their fields.
    Other licensing bodies assume that the holder will keep themselves abreast of developments within their field - also assuming that the "honour system" is in those professional's best interest and that those who don't keep up will eventually be exposed as "quacks" and risk having their license revoked.

    The process is not as onerous as it may sound and it does work.

    At least building trades wouldn't need to have a medical fitness component to maintaining a license like some others...

  16. wjrobinson | | #16

    Bad info in bad hands is a nightmare Lucas
    The starting point to building is a good COMPLETE (WITH COMPLETE DETAILS) set of plans. Where are they not here at GBA, just pieces and confusion. Too much information is not better than too little. Your details here need to all be linked to a group of details that one plan set can rise from and be drawn from and be assembled from. If I worked at GBA it would be a priority.

    Then Lucas you add classes to teach and certification, voluntary organizations are best.

    Add the government if you must with licensing and the horrible continuing education crap that is only about profit for the companies offering the crappy boring courses. Lucas, have you ever been involved in this end of all? I have... Total boring waste of time crap and waste of $200-600 and a days time or more... travel possibly... hotels... food... I do such but only volluntary programs if possble like the JLC show in Providence RI. And after all this oversite... every carpenter turned contractor that wants to cheat this... will... takes cash... etc...the customers aid in this...

    Anyway... Martin... you don't trust 20 year olds or wiki... I don't trust old farts keeping us fighting wars and wish we put an upper age limit on serving to be in the government. If John McCain had been our president this last 6 years we would have been in war now in Libya and Syria and telling China and Russia that they are now members of the Bush Axis of Evil club. I say get out at 55 and let a younger mind take over that can handle change.

    And Martin... think about it... GBA is a wiki... and you don't like wiki's. Tell me this which site crashes? Yours.

    This site most likely does not have the funds to produce complete detailed plans for a variety of up to date PGH homes... And also missing is someone like Robert Riversong (without the flame wars problem) to run a really good green tab to do with natural building which to me is THE ONLY green build if one is to build.

    To be green... which is never mentioned enough one should build small and build as close to natural as possible and with no added pollution that would damage the planet irrevocably.

    aj on a tangent ... this posting... may have to wipe it... clean it up... toss it... or leave it..

    Show me a source of one PGH plan set for zone 6a for a complete natural green net zero 1500 sqft home. I'll buy the next round of IPAs.

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Response to A.J. Builder
    Thanks for your feedback. If GBA provides just "pieces and confusion," as you explain, there is, of course, no need for you to visit this site.

    I agree with you completely that this site crashes far too frequently. It is a major source of frustration for me, and one that I (unfortunately) have no power to change. I'm a Taunton employee, and I'm responsible for content, not for I.T. or for maintaining the stability of the web site. I hope our problems are solved soon.

    Good luck with your idea to launch a Wiki site for open-source plans. You may well be right that such a site will prove in the long run to be more valuable to builders (and more stable) than GBA.

  18. Albany_Chris | | #18

    The problem with licensing...
    The problem with licensing, is that while it is always sold as a way to make sure the group being licensed is qualified, capable, ethical, and registered the reality is most licences are actually created to protect the people already in that trade from additional competition. Those with lots of existing experience are grandfathered in and often require little, if any, continuing education. In addition, who writes the rules, who writes the tests? How qualified are they?
    Licensing, as practiced in the U.S., is almost always a scheme that provides false confidence for customers, higher revenue for those licensed, and some revenue for the state, with little benefit to consumers. It certainly could be something else, but I have no confidence it would be.

  19. wjrobinson | | #19

    GBA can do it
    Martin, your site has all the pieces. The next step is to connect the details into groups that work well together per climate zone. Why dig in your heals? It's a positive idea.

    Why do I read here? To learn Martin. But I am no sheep. Your site I'd great. It helps me discern and parse through all the flavors of green.

    Good luck with getting a handle on the site's downtime. Me start a wiki? GBA is one already. Step up to the challenge and build your first plan set. You have all the detail sheets already.

    And the mini split blogs of late are so needed and useful. More more more.

  20. wjrobinson | | #20

    albany landlord
    Albany landlord my time on both sides of licensing totally agrees with your sentiments. The best to me is the non government types... Scuba diving, hang gliding, Certainteed master roofer programs, are one's that I have participated in and thought well of. The personal danger aspect may be the driver in appreciating these three. Now real estate... Sorry nothing good to say... Honesty is rare sales is everything and anything. Making money making the sale certifying because it's mandatory the courses are as bad as a frontal lobotomy.

  21. user-757117 | | #21

    Response to AJ
    I am required to hold a license to practice my trade which is air traffic control.
    The conditions and standards for the aquisition and maintenance of an ATC license are defined by federal regulation.

    I am required to do once annual "reccurent training", twice annual "over-the-shoulder" checks (my supervisor watches me work to make sure I haven't developed any bad habits) and a biennial medical fitness checkup (including eyesight, hearing, blood and heart checks) - and my medical checkup requirement will become an annual event after 40 years of age.
    It is also possible for my license to be revoked if I am found to be out of compliance with these conditions or if I demonstrate that I am no longer able to do my job correctly - this is as it should be.

    So yes, I am familiar with the ins and outs of maintaining a license to a strict standard.
    Yes, "recurrent training" can sometimes be boring.
    No, it is not about making profit.
    And no, it isn't difficult to do all these things.

  22. wjrobinson | | #22

    Lucas, if you reread my post
    Lucas, if you reread my post you will see we agree. I too have FAA licenses to fly and to instruct. The point of the license is safety and it is easy to participate as most of us truly desire safety for ourselves and the public. I also am involved in construction and real estate. Totally different. Making a buck and not minding any "harm" done to others happens all day long as the consequences are not deadly most of the time at least not obviously.

    As to developing good complete PGH plan sets, your Lucas build should be one of many. Let's get your home completely detailed the building details gathered and linked into a good starting point for someone to draw up their own Lucas PGH home. Do you still have a site up about your home build?

  23. Albany_Chris | | #23

    Back to homeowner responsibilities...
    A lot of comments on the licensing thing, but not much on what we can reasonable expect a homeowner to know. This is such an interesting and important topic... We might not know much about cars, washing machines, TVs, etc but we can read reviews and ratings and keep ourselves from making bad decisions with a little bit of effort. Of course most of the public can't be bothered with even that.
    But Homes are so much more complex, AND there is not general agreement by experts on what is best in so many areas, plus it is changing constantly, AND the people howeowners ask (contractors, HVAC) often have limited and even wrong information, AND poor decisions can have really significant consequences in terms of costs and even health and safety. It is a conundrum and I don't have any ideas on how to move the ball even a little bit. Basically I think most people are screwed. I jump in and offer advice, but even that is thwarted by contractors. My best friends recently installed a condensing furnace with a 2 stage fan thanks to my advice. Although the contractor installed a new thermostat, it doesn't control the furnace fan, it just auto ramps up to stage 2 after 5 minutes. Great. That helps.
    The "maybe they should rent" comment was interesting as I am a landlord. I do know enough to make good decisions in terms of avoiding moisture damage to my houses, and I do know a lot about insulating and air sealing and I am able to apply that. But the problem with the andlord / tenant model when it comes to energy conservation, is that it kills the financial incentive to improve energy efficiency. Tenants don't care and don't ask, and I am not spending twice as much on a boiler just so I can feel good that I am saving my tenants money and saving the environment.

  24. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #24

    Response to Albany Landlord
    Thanks for your comments. You are correct that a transition from owning to renting will not solve all problems.

    There is one advantage when a landlord is responsible for maintaining a building: the landlord is operating a business, and should have the time and incentive to become educated on issues related to building maintenance and (perhaps) energy efficiency.

    The disadvantage, as you point out, is that the landlord has no incentive to install energy-efficient appliances or to improve a building's thermal envelope, as long as the tenants are paying the energy bills. One possible solution to this problem (now being tried in some European countries) is to require landlords to make disclosures to any tenant interested in renting about the energy performance of the property (for example, by disclosing the electricity and heating fuel bills of the previous tenant). In theory, this requirement would create a competitive market in which tenants would prefer to rent apartments with low energy bills, forcing owners of uninsulated buildings to make improvements.

    There are problems with this approach, of course -- for one thing, occupant behavior affects energy bills, so high bills don't always indicate that the building has defects -- but it might be an improvement over the current system.

  25. Albany_Chris | | #25

    Utility disclosure
    Utility Bills disclosure for rental properties makes a ton of sense and i wish it were in place. The utility company (National Grid for me) won't give it out due to privacy concerns. This actually seems like an achievable goal. I am going to do some follow up on it myself to see if it is the law or the Utility company policy that is the issue.

    I have collected data from previous years which I provide to my prospective tenants as an average. The fact that I talk about it and have a number hopefully gives me an advantage over my competition, But tenants still don't care enough for me to install high efficiency appliances. At least I outfit everything with CFLs.

  26. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #26

    Response to Albany Landlord
    You're doing the right thing. Many programs have shared your frustration at the difficulty of getting local utilities to release utility bills. If we ever decided to pass legislation that mandates the disclosure of past utility bills to prospective tenants, the legislation would have to change the current laws that limit the release of this data.

  27. kimr0107 | | #27

    CT Legislation
    I introduced a bill to the General Law Committee at the CT State Legislature that requires contractors to test in order to be licensed. The committee has requested the Dept. of Consumer to conduct a study and report back by July 1, 2014. I expect legislation for the following session. Thank you for bringing forth this problem. State Rep. Kim Rose 118th, CT

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