What Happens When Home Performance is Made Visible?

“I don’t know” or “probably not” are the most common responses I hear to the question, “is your home efficient?” As Chris Mooney recently wrote in the Washington Post, “few of us have a clue how much electricity we’re using in our homes.” Most of us don’t know if our energy use is high or low, and as a result, we have little motivation to invest in efficiency or to take actions that reduce energy consumption. I believe one way we can encourage action is to help people understand how their energy use compares to other homes through operational assessments like our OPEN (operational energy) rating system.

I’m interested in understanding how increased awareness of home efficiency affects behavior. I had a theory—based on research from MIT—that sharing an operational energy rating during a home energy assessment would influence a homeowner’s decision to invest in energy efficiency improvements. In order to test this theory, I conducted an online randomized control trial based on self-reported intention.

You can read the details of our research process and findings here. In summary, our experiment consisted of walking 385 participants (from 47 states) through a virtual home energy assessment where randomly selected respondents (48% of the total sample population) received an operational score of 64 out of 100 (where 100 is most efficient), as seen in the graphic below. The other participants (52% of population) did not receive a score and were not aware that other participants had received one. All 385 respondents were then asked the same set of questions about their willingness to invest in air sealing and insulation work, followed by questions about energy concern and demographics.

OPEN rating comparison graphic shared with participants

What did we find?

  • Within the overall population, homeowners were 4.2% more likely to say they would invest in efficiency upgrades when they received the OPEN score of 64. This result was not statistically significant, due at least in part to the inverse relationship described below.
  • Among homeowners who indicated they pay close attention to their utility bills each month (65% of our total sample population), those who received the operational score for their home were 11.8% more likely to say they would invest in air sealing or insulation work than those who did not receive a score.
  • Surprisingly, among the minority of participants who indicated they do not pay much attention to their utility bills, those who received a score were 10.9% less likely to say they would invest in efficiency than those who did not. However, this relationship was not statistically significant.

Although we could only measure intention and not action, these findings support the idea that sharing an operational rating with a homeowner—especially if they pay attention to their energy consumption to begin with­—may encourage investment in energy efficiency. They also suggest that efficiency scores may not have the same meaning for all people. An above-average 64 may be seen as a positive by some, and a negative by others.

Additional findings of interest:

  • 72% of respondents wanted to know how their energy use compared to other homes. This suggests that people are interested in knowing, and do not currently know, how their energy use compares to others.
  • 82% of respondents indicated they were completely comfortable (57%) or somewhat comfortable (25%) sharing utility information with an energy auditor.
  • 90% of respondents that received a score indicated they would take action to improve their rating if they received a score of 25 or less. Lower scores likely provide a stronger incentive for homeowners to reduce consumption and invest in energy efficiency.

Our initial research results were promising, and we plan to continue our study by providing a randomized set of homeowners their actual operational score, based on their own energy use, during home energy assessments. We expect to find that homeowners receiving an unsatisfactory energy rating will be more likely to spend real money on efficiency improvements to their home, and that the determination of unsatisfactory is subjective.   

You can read full details of the experiment here. Comments and questions welcome!

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Comment by Keith Burrows on October 3, 2016 at 1:28pm

Those Energy Star homes sound fantastic Steven, and certainly all new homes should be built for efficiency. I think your comment about showing "the utility billing difference” is right on the money. If we can help people understand how their energy use compares to other homes, we have a real chance of changing behavior (influencing buying decisions in your example and in my experiment) and adequately valuing home efficiency.

Comment by Steven Lefler on October 3, 2016 at 12:34pm

We built a "Green" community of factory built energy star, solar powered houses in Ojai, CA. We participated in 3 years of "Green Home Tour" program by the City. We found downsizing Baby Boomers over 62+ years old sold their Mc Mansions to move into our community from 2010 to 2014 when the project completed. We had seniors from the East Coast and Bay Area buy our homes mostly for the location and unique targeted marketing of houses



If you can show the utility billing difference, they walk in and feel the difference then the concept sells itself. As suggested, existing housing stock are poorly built, with minimum insulation, windows and air quality is poor and its takes a lot of money to retro fit and the saving may not pencil for most to try the change.

Comment by Keith Burrows on October 3, 2016 at 12:29pm

I agree Beverly. And beyond making sure auditors are adequately trained in building science, we should make sure every homeowner/renter receives some type of energy score (operational or asset) as part of the audit.

Comment by Beverly Lerch on October 3, 2016 at 10:46am

I think everyone should have an energy audit.  Newer homes may be built to be energy efficient, but older homes, like I own, are shockingly inefficient.  The difference in the feel of my house, since we did all of the recommended energy fixes, is wonderful and has saved us lots of money in the loss of heat and air conditioning.

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