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Video Check-ups for Home Improvement and Resilience

Kristin Dupre’s energy programs at Energy New England had ground to a halt. They had a full season scheduled ahead, but due to the coronavirus, all that work went on hold. However, they found a way to adapt and the results look very promising. Other companies are rolling out variations and a new frontier of experimentation has appeared.

Many energy service providers have furloughed most of their staff. The pandemic quarantine has brought home improvement to a halt. But necessity is the mother of invention and an emerging innovation is creating solutions that will benefit people long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed: video assessments.

In the health industry, telemedicine had already taken hold years ago and has been a huge, growing part of the industry because it meets customer needs better, and often does so at lower costs. Now we need to bring telemedicine to home improvement.

With most people spending all their time at home, people are paying attention to their homes in a new way. It’s important to understand how well our homes provide a true shelter as we “shelter in place.” Launching video check-ups now can help people’s homes function better during the Covid-19 crisis and keep jobs intact.

Now is the time for contractors to experiment, innovate, and bring this new service to the market. And that experimentation is already underway with new virtual services emerging quickly and organically in the past few weeks.

 

How Video Assessments Work

Many people have become skilled with video conferencing in the past month, but the technical capacity for a video check-up for homes has been with us ever since smart phones and tablets became commonplace.

People in the industry are referring to the practice as video assessments, virtual assessments, and remote assessments. This is an emerging space and universal terms have not yet emerged. Remote and virtual assessments can include things like using smart meters or smart thermostats for assessment data, or even to online tools for homeowners. All these terms are also applied to quality assurance assessments of in-person energy audits. This article is focused on the idea of using a live video-call interface to conduct a check-up on a house, whether for energy, air quality, or other resilience measures. For short-hand, I’ll refer to this as a vid-check.

The basic process could look like this:

  • Homeowner (or renter) schedules a visit: A vid-check can be scheduled by phone or online. The scheduling can be done for a time that is convenient for the homeowner, with some providers offering evening or weekend times to maximize flexibility. Visits can likely be scheduled faster due to increased flexibility. In telemedicine, consultations can often be scheduled within 30 minutes. That level of convenience would be a significant innovation for home performance.
  • The home consultant calls by video: This allows for a more personal connection than phone calls, even if it seems less personal than in-person meetings. But other customer engagement benefits are possible (see below).
  • Gather information: The consultant gathers information about the home and the resident’s concerns for a basic understanding of the issues and concerns. This could include information gathered through the sign-up process or data gathered from other sources before the call.
  • Conduct assessment with the resident: The consultant guides the resident through a walk-through assessment of their home. The resident can be directed to find the faceplate of the heating system, look into attics and crawlspaces, etc. The consultant can effectively see what they need to see and feed the information into their software (such as Home Energy Score, or other assessment software). While this basic assessment doesn’t include the advantages of diagnostic tools (especially thermal imaging, CAZ testing, or blower-doors), it could still cover a lot of detail, get a reasonable perspective on the homes’ needs, and make suggestions for immediate solutions.
  • Deliver report: A final deliverable should still be sent to the resident. It can also include a recording of the walk-through for a further refresher.
  • Additional Options: Lots of other variations are possible to customize how this service is delivered:
    • Broader assessments: Broadening the service to measure indoor air quality, thermal resilience (“hours of safety”), power resilience, and other measures.
    • Diagnostic tools: Companies could experiment with sending some basic tools as a premium service, mailed ahead of time or as a follow-up. For example, $200 Phone-connected thermal cameras could be offered as a purchase or rental.
    • Flexible location: Staff hiring and customer scheduling have more options if contractor location is flexible.
    • Software: Custom software solutions can expand these services beyond the in-person model. Some providers are already working on this. (See below).
    • Social media sharing: Screen captures and recorded visits could provide excellent marketing tools for customers to share with friends and family.

 

Benefits to Residents

Vid-checks provide the immediate benefit to residents of being available even during stay at home orders. However, other benefits may potentially apply even outside of the pandemic:

  • Convenience: Vid-checks can often be provided faster and at different times than an in-person visit. And during the pandemic, they provide the convenience of being available at all.
  • Less expensive: Presumably the service is less expensive (see service provider benefits) and that lowers the threshold for people to act and get the vid-check. This could be an important accessibility issue and could broaden the market for who will use the service.
  • Agency and education: This approach can help the resident retain a sense of control of their home, and it makes sure that they are active participants and learners in the process. It’s already considered a best practice to involve residents in a home energy assessment by having them hold diagnostic tools, feel drafts, etc. Vid-checks ensure their involvement, as passively waiting for the consultant to be done simply isn’t an option. Contractors already experimenting with this expressed pleasant surprise at how much this happened – often more so than with in-person visits.
  • Privacy: Many people have hesitations about letting strangers in their house. Vid-checks largely eliminates that concern and may attract new people to the service.

 

Benefits to service providers

The benefits for residents are automatically a benefit to service providers since happy customers make for better business. Nonetheless, these additional benefits are also worth noting:

  • Expand customers: Each of the benefits listed above for residents is also a barrier. By eliminating those barriers, service providers should be able to reach many more customers. This service is also a way to differentiate from other service providers (at least for now).
  • Lower costs: Vid-checks eliminate travel time and costs. They also lower the losses associated with cancellations or no-shows. Where this approach allows scheduling to happen faster, then that should also lower the number of cancellations or no-shows. All of this could significantly lower costs to deliver the service.
  • Safety: Reducing travel miles and unknown home conditions can lower risks for employees.
  • Survive the pandemic: Vid-checks may be key to keeping some business moving and therefore making money and retaining good staff during the pandemic. This can also build a pipeline of additional work once work restrictions are lifted.

The pandemic may make vid-checks a necessity for the industry, but the benefits mean this new service is likely to be around long after this crisis has passed.

 

News from the Field: The edge of innovation

Energy New England quickly pivoted to provide this service for the municipal utilities they serve. They are setting up their auditors with guidance on conducting video and rescheduling homeowners who had previously scheduled an energy assessment. They launched the service within weeks of shutting down the regular program.

Their early reviews look great, and they were very pleased with the increased engagement by the homeowners who were now more actively involved in the assessment. “We can be more flexible with our schedule. So, when timing was a barrier in a past, people can now take advantage of the program,” says Kristin Dupre, Director of Demand Side Management. She adds that even when normal services can resume, “This is a service we will continue to offer.”

Abode Energy was already developing a tool when the pandemic hit, so they were ready to launch quickly. They had already worked out many of the processes to ensure smooth implementation. They were also working on data solutions to give them a better picture of a home and its likely needs in advance of a consultation. This allows them to spend more time engaging with the resident, building that relationship, deepening their understanding of the resident’s needs, and discussing next steps. Travis Estes, chief operations officer, pointed out that their work to build out this concept in 2019 was well-timed. As a result, they’ve now been able to expand and work with more utility programs to offer this new service.

CLEAResult is running pilots with many of their clients on a virtual assessment that goes beyond connecting over a video conferencing platform to bring high-tech features to their virtual assessment. They’re using virtual measurement tools, remote laser pointers, optical character recognition, object recognition, and more, all with a process that continually puts the control in the hands of the customer. Dan Ridings, Vice President, Residential Market Portfolio pointed out the long-term potential of this service while stressing the importance of working through the details to get this right.

Beyond these examples, other related services can offer a lot of lessons learned. Several energy service providers have been doing quality assurance checks, such as Fort Collins Utilities, and using those to not just improve the service but also improve their record keeping.

The telemedicine industry is huge and has been growing quickly in recent years. The American Medical Association offers a playbook which could help large energy service providers plan their roll-out.

 

Limitations of This Service

The early pilots also help us understand some of the limits to this approach. Some customers prefer in-person visits. People will mobility disabilities can’t go all the places a contractor could go and may not be able to get up in attics or get down near the floor to inspect things. For providers that use the energy assessment as the first step of selling services, being remote may be less conducive to closing the sale. Bandwidth and connection problems can also hamper these efforts, as anyone who’s had several video calls knows. Low batteries and poor sound quality can quickly thwart a visit.

And of course, what work can be done following recommendations is limited during lock-down. Still, opportunities for improvements in behavior, do-it-yourself improvements, and emergency repairs is possible. It’s also important to build a pipeline of projects for after restrictions are removed.

 

What’s next?

This new field is seeing rapid prototyping and quickly emerging experimentation faster than anything I’ve seen in 20 years in this industry. The reality that drives it is sobering. Nonetheless, it’s offering hope in a dark time: hope for contractors to keep their businesses running, hope for a society struggling to understand how we can be better prepared for crises, and hope for exciting new possibilities in the fields of energy, home performance, and resilience.

Now is the time for service providers to innovate and to share information to help the industry innovate faster and launch these services with the highest quality.