Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor’s Home Energy Upgrade

When surveyed, homeowners respond that they want to do home energy upgrades. So why haven’t home energy upgrades spread like wildfire? Residential solar installations, meanwhile, spread like crazy in neighborhoods where even a few solar panels appear, in a process called “solar contagion.”

A webinar on December 1 will reveal how to make home energy upgrades as contagious as solar installations. The webinar will discuss the findings of a new report Peer Diffusion: A Promising Way for Service Providers to Unlock Investments in Home Energy Upgrades, co-authored by RMI’s Residential Energy+ initiative and the Building Performance Institute (BPI).

RMI’s Residential Energy+ initiative is unlocking U.S. homeowner investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy to create better homes for our families, our pocketbooks, and the environment—preventing 23 million metric tons of CO2 emissions and improving quality of life. One way we’re doing this is by supporting the development of market interventions that help create a “new normal” for the U.S. residential market where improved home energy performance becomes the expected and aspired-to standard in U.S. homes. Peer diffusion is an important part of creating that new normal.


“The whole challenge here is to make the invisible visible,” said Larry Zarker, CEO of BPI and co-author of the Peer Diffusion report. “The problem for contractors doing home performance work is that it’s not as readily seen as solar,” he said. That’s what the webinar, and the report, are about. “The purpose of this [report] is to help contractors understand how diffusion really works,” said Zarker.

The report details online and in-person strategies that make people aware of energy performance upgrades in their areas and the benefits that their neighbors are reaping, both financially and in terms of comfort, health, and safety. For example, BPI has distributed door hangers to contractors that they could leave on houses in the neighborhood to explain ongoing upgrade work. “We all have the opportunity to communicate to the neighbors at the time that it really matters,” Zarker said. Contractors can “leave those and say ‘you should find out what we’re doing to make the Smith’s house more comfortable.’”

Another in-person tactic that can increase home upgrade uptake can be done after the work is finished. “Imagine doing home-performance Tupperware parties,” said Zarker, “We did this in our house. Invite people over and say ‘this is what we did.’ Having that social environment around what happened gives it some tangible value.”


The problems that home energy upgrades solve go far beyond energy efficiency, and it’s often those other problems that are more important to homeowners. Some rooms in a house may be uncomfortable in winter or summer. Or the house may have stuffy air, a wet basement, insects, or mold. Some members of the household may suffer from asthma, which is exacerbated by those contaminants.

“Customers respond mostly to comfort, health, and safety, and not so much to energy efficiency,” said Zarker. But when a contractor solves comfort, health, and safety issues by, for example, sealing ductwork to keep moisture and mold out, or by stopping drafts and improving airtightness, “the end result is that you’re also making the house more energy efficient,” he said.

“Look at something like the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, which is focusing strictly on low-income families with asthma and doing upgrades,” said Zarker. “They get the energy efficiency savings too, but they’re taking care of all the things that are compromising health in the home,” especially for children.

This dynamic is especially important now, with low fuel costs for heating. “People might not be willing to put money into an energy-efficiency upgrade when natural gas prices are so low,” said Zarker, “but if they can get Jenny back out on the soccer field without her inhaler, they’ll pay any amount of money to find the problem and correct it.”


BPI is the professional standards setting and credentialing organization for the home performance contracting industry. BPI has certified about 16,000 professionals in all 50 states, and has about 550 companies participating in its GoldStar Contractor program.

“BPI Certified Pros and BPI GoldStar Contractors have figured out that they have to treat the house as a whole; they don’t just sell windows or HVAC systems. They understand that they’re not selling products, they’re finding problems and delivering solutions,” Zarker explained, while “others aren’t comfortable changing their business model to focus on whole-house.” Part of increasing the spread of home performance upgrades is educating contractors to recognize opportunities to solve the complete suite of comfort, health, safety, and energy efficiency problems.

For a contractor specializing in HVAC systems, for example, “They wait for the phone to ring then they go find that that product has failed and they change it out.” Zarker said. “Now, this is a huge opportunity to say, ‘Let’s look at the whole house. Let’s look at your distribution system. Are there leaks in the ducts? Are there leaks in the house? Are there other things going on in the house?’” BPI developed a new certification this year, the Healthy Home Evaluator, that “builds on our other certifications and gives them skillsets to look beyond just energy efficiency parameters,” Zarker said.


BPI also influenced the U.S. Department of Energy to include a larger focus on health and safety in its new best practices guidelines for residential property assessed clean energy (PACE). Now, said Zarker, “In PACE programs, you’ll be able to focus on health and safety as qualified measures in addition to energy efficiency.”

But still, explains Zarker, “A lot of the work that is sponsored by states and utilities provides incentives for the work—so that’s a good thing—but they also require a return on investment, and that is generally focused strictly on energy usage and not comfort, health, safety, and other things that homeowners care a lot about.” RMI and BPI are advocating for the effects of energy upgrades beyond energy savings to be taken into account in many different forums.


For homeowners to want to get home energy upgrades, and for contractors to help them understand what upgrades can do for them, the key is to peer beneath the walls and see the whole house. “The focus of this report is how to peel things out in layers so you can see it better,” said Zarker.

In 2009, president Obama attended a contractor roundtable where someone lamented that “insulation isn’t sexy.” Afterward, with the cameras rolling, Obama said, “I disagree. Insulation is sexy stuff. Here’s what’s sexy about it: saving money.” Zarker said that, “It was addressing this issue that everything is behind the walls and we can’t see what’s going on. But it is sexy to have comfort, and to have a healthier environment. You know, you’re home is your castle, so you want it to be as good as it possibly can be.”