BPA Position on "Virtual Audits"
Background on COVID 19 Response
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused widespread disruptions in the energy efficiency industry. As state governments, utilities and program administrators across the country have limited all contact between home performance contractors and customers, energy efficiency program work has essentially come to a stop in all 50 states.
In response to COVID-19 disruptions, the Building Performance Association has advocated that state regulators, utilities and program administrators should take steps immediately to support home performance contractors and small businesses. In several states, BPA has recommended a three-step approach for maintaining a skilled home performance workforce:
- perform a comprehensive analysis of negative economic impacts, coupled with communications with contractors on information and resources available at the state and federal level to address all COVID-19 related impacts;
- provide immediate support for retention of critical staff who support customers and furloughed staff while supporting all staff to prepare for a return to work via direct grants or via subsidized employee on-line training; and
- increase incentives for measures to accompany virtual marketing to create a pipeline of work for when contractors are allowed to enter residential buildings once again.
State Responses, Proposed Audits and Need for Comments
Some states have begun the process of authorizing approval and payment for online training programs, an encouraging trend that we will continue to monitor. Due to the limitations regarding on-premise work in the residential sector, states and program administrators are exploring the use of remote or virtual assessments to develop a pipeline of future projects. For example, the New York State Research and Development Authority, recently issued a communication stating, “Comfort Home assessments can be completed remotely.” And the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recently sought comments regarding the following.
- Remote audit programs offered by other program administrators that would utilize Home Energy Solutions (HES) contractors as part of the remote audit.
- Program designs that incorporate remote audits that would assist in building demand for future HES projects.
- Residential energy efficiency program designs that reduce the financial barriers to the installation of deeper measures not currently provided in an initial HES visit.
- Residential whole house energy efficiency program designs that have shown success in other areas.
Building Performance Association Statement on "Virtual Audits"
Virtual audits can serve a valuable purpose, particularly in the context of gathering remote energy data as well as baseline features from a potential customer’s home during the COVID-19 shut down. While virtual audits cannot stand alone or serve as a “do it yourself” substitute for an actual in home audit, they can help identify major energy consumption issues that can serve customers once the COVID-19 ban on home visits are waived. Virtual audits can help identify appliances in advance (such as furnaces and refrigerators) that would be worthwhile to replace. This could save valuable time and potentially allow contractors to complete full audits in more homes.
One main concern is that virtual audits cannot serve as a full replacement for a home energy audit. For example, an in-person blower door test or a combustion safety test cannot be replaced by a virtual audit. Specific features such as structural or system barriers and health related barriers are not easily identified without an in person, on-site expert. A second concern is that the appropriate level of compensation be provided to the professional who performs the virtual audit as well as the reasonable cost of follow up visits after the lock down is lifted.
Virtual audits can provide a valuable short-term service to customers and provide additional work during the COVID-19 crisis for energy efficiency professionals. Indeed, virtual audits may best provide initial assessments as to which customers are in greatest need of work and to prioritize in-home visits in the post-COVID-19 future. We encourage utilities and program administrators to experiment with multiple types of virtual audits by in-home service providers to help identify and assess the best results and opportunities in the future. We support the use of virtual audits during the COVID-19 crisis so long as they do not detract from or substitute for future in-home services. BPA suggests that the name “virtual audit” or “virtual home assessment” may confuse customers about the exact services to be provided. A more accurate way to say this might be “remote assessment” or “virtual data and needs evaluation.”