Residential energy audits are supposed to give homeowners a clear idea of how they can reduce energy use and save money, but a lack of guidelines and standards for auditors means their reports may instead be unpersuasive or difficult for homeowners to understand.
That, at least, is the theory behind a new research effort led by Dr. Reuven Sussman, a psychologist at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and it’s the reason Sussman is gathering energy audit reports from anyone who would care to send him one.
Sussman and his colleague Maxine Chikumbo made the pitch in a recent announcement titled, “How good is your residential energy audit or assessment report?”
Sussman last year worked on a project that looked at the impact of “message framing” on home energy efficiency. In the process, he gathered a dozen or so reports written by different energy auditors. One thing stood out: there didn’t seem to be any common thread in how the information was being presented to homeowners, and that made Sussman wonder about how homeowners were acting on the information.
“Every one of them was very different,” Sussman said in a call. “They varied in length, whether they used pictures or not, the kind of metrics they included. In that previous paper there were some interesting findings but I feel it only scratched the surface and I wanted to go a little deeper.”
With that in mind, the ACEEE is asking home energy assessors as well as homeowners to send reports to Chikumbo for study. (Reports may be sent via email to email@example.com.) In October, the Washington-based nonprofit will detail what the research has uncovered at the annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference in Washington. Ultimately, the research may produce one or more templates for auditors to use in the field.
Presentation is everything
In last year’s study, Sussman found that the way efficiency recommendations were presented affected how willing homeowners were to act on them. Even moving recommendations from one list to another in an audit report seemed to influence how homeowners viewed their importance and potential for payback.
Yet there seems to be no industry-wide reporting standards that auditors agree on. “As far as I can tell, it seems as though it’s kind of a free-for-all,” Sussman said.
With reports in hand, Sussman and Chikumbo will enlist the help of contractors, home energy auditors, behavioral scientists, and graphic designers to boil the entries down to between three and five reports that seem to communicate most effectively. The research will even involve “eye-trackers,” experts who can determine what people reading a report look at first and what they look at the longest.
In the end, Sussman hopes they can produce a list of best practices and possibly report templates that will be useful to auditors in the field. The goal isn’t necessarily to cajole homeowners into spending money on upgrades, but to present information in a way that’s “clear and unambiguous” so they can make appropriate decisions.
“An effective audit report allows people to use the information perfectly,” Sussman said. “Sometimes an audit report can be confusing, sometimes it can downplay certain aspects that could be important. We want people to make the optimal decision. If that’s upgrading, that’s great, because ultimately we’d like to save energy and reduce the overall energy used. But if it’s not cost-effective for somebody, we don’t want them to make the wrong decision, either. We don’t want to try to convince them to do what’s not in their own interest.”