If you’ve seen someone from Shelton Group speak or you've read some of our research, you know our overarching point of view when it comes to energy efficiency and greener homes:--Americans care about efficiency (but they’re motivated by comfort, health and resale value).
--They want better homes – and a better home is a more comfortable and beautiful home with monthly energy costs they feel in control of.
--They have unrealistic expectations about how much money they should save for making energy-efficient improvements – and since most don’t see the savings they expect, most don’t get past doing a few upgrades.
These sentiments have been consistent over the last decade that we’ve been regularly polling Americans. I can cite you data point after data point, and I can show you lessons learned from our real-world marketing work with clients that support these overarching points as well.

But this story comes at all of that from a different angle. This is the story of what happens when I put myself in the shoes of an average consumer and sign up for the standard energy-efficient retrofit process.

The set-up

In December of 2013, I purchased a home built in 1930. I settled in and waited on my local utility to re-tool its energy efficiency program and signed up in January of this year as soon as it became available. The first step: an in-home, walk-through energy audit.

Unlike most Americans, I was excited to get the audit. (Only about 3% of Americans are highly likely to get one done.) Having lived in the house for 12 months, I knew I had a comfort problem in my finished basement – it’s about 6 degrees colder down there in the winter than the rest of the house. I wanted a road map for solving that problem.

After the audit, I felt great. Some of my suspicions about what needed to be done had been confirmed, and I felt like I could “see” what needed to be done.

They recommended reworking my existing duct system so it essentially works as two systems, and adding a thermostat to the basement so it demands more warm air from the system. This will cost me $2,500. They told me my utility bill will go up because my HVAC system will run more often. And I'm actually considering doing it.

Then I did what every consumer does: I started making up numbers. My house scored a 7 out of 10 on my utility’s scale. I made up in my mind that if I made the improvements recommended, I might get to a 9 … and then I made up that a 9 would probably be a 10% savings on my utility bill. At $3,600/year for electricity and natural gas, that would be a $360/year savings. I further reasoned that if I planned to live in the house 10 years, I shouldn’t really spend more than $3,600 for this to be a reasonable investment (and even at that, a 10-year payback is a long time).

Why did I start making up numbers? Because the audit report I received – like most audit reports – didn’t actually tell me what to expect. The report didn’t lay out if it was possible to go from a 7 to a 9 or 10, it didn’t say what score is typical for homes like mine, nor did it say what savings I could expect by doing the recommendations or what comfort gain I’d get. The human brain doesn’t like incompletes, so we’re literally wired to fill in blanks.

So I made up numbers, and I made up that I should expect to spend about $3,000–4,000, and that I could expect to be more comfortable in my basement and pay myself back in 10 years.

And then I got the first quote from the first contractor. $7,000. And they recommended that I do things slightly differently than my Official Audit Report said to do them. Then I got the second quote. $9,000. And still more, different recommendations.

That left me looking at three different sets of recommendations and more than twice what I was imagining spending. That then got me questioning, “What am I really buying?” What am I really getting if I make this investment? And it got me questioning whether or not some insulation, air sealing, and duct sealing was really going to solve my comfort problem. What if I invest all this money and time and it’s still cold in my basement?

Then I called an HVAC contractor. They said they wouldn’t actually do the duct sealing recommended in the audit, “because the utility’s going to inspect it, tell us we missed something and make us come back over and over. It’s just too hard to seal ducts in place the way the utility wants … if you want to go through their program, we’ll need to tear out all your ductwork and create new ductwork sealed the way they want.”

I didn’t ask how much that was … but it sounded expensive. And the duct sealing rebate’s only $100.

I said, “Never mind the utility program … what can you guys do to make my basement more comfortable?” They recommended reworking my existing duct system so it essentially works as two systems, and adding a thermostat to the basement so it demands more warm air from the system. This will cost me $2,500. They told me my utility bill will go up because my HVAC system will run more often. And I'm actually considering doing it. Simply because it makes sense to me that if we blast more hot air in the basement, it will be more comfortable. Doing some air sealing and insulation … is that really going to make it more comfortable?

Bottom line, I’m totally locked up. Eight months have passed, and I’ve done nothing. It’ll be cold again this winter, and I won’t use my basement (which is where the guest bedroom and family room are), and I’ll feel cranky that I couldn’t figure out the right things to do. And this is what we do to people when we tell them “Be energy efficient! Save money!” It’s no wonder they don’t see the savings they expect and they jump off the energy efficiency train after a few measures.

The takeaway? If we want to change the dynamic, and create a housing stock that’s highly efficient, we have to fill in the blanks (so the money all makes sense), get across what we’re really selling (the emotional benefit of being able to use that basement in the winter months), and make the process super easy. And don’t leave people living between their own ears.