My summer at Sealed [guest post – Crystal Yeh]

Time seems to pass by in a blink of the eye, and before I knew it, the 10 weeks of my summer internship with Sealed has passed. I’ve learned so much about customer behavior, energy auditing, the relative frustrations of energy auditing software, as well as what makes a successful homeowner interaction during a neighborhood canvass or fair. 

Based on my experience, I think that people in the energy efficiency field need to ask more questions based on behavioral economics and marketing, not building science. In particular, we need to ask what motivates people to invest in energy efficiency improvements? There are many benefits to energy efficiency improvements: saving money, reducing emissions/being environmentally friendly, increasing comfort, increasing home value, and reducing noise pollution. (Most people don’t think of noise pollution as an efficiency benefit, but  when you think about it soundproof rooms are characterized by heavy insulation). 

Interestingly, I’ve found (via homeowner interviews, train interviews, canvassing interviews and fair interviews) that homeowners will rarely spontaneously speak about any of the non-monetary benefits except when asked about them specifically. Only when prompted about specific comfort issues, for example, will they reply “Yes, that too.” Everything besides savings is secondary in the mind’s of a homeowner. Money is king.

In a similar vein, how questions are phrased in interviews can make all the difference. Giving an answer prompt will yield different responses than having people respond to an open question. In order to have an unadulterated insight into the motivations of a homeowner, you have to listen to what the homeowner says without a prompt. When you bait a question (known in psychology as “priming”) people will be more likely to agree to ideas they would never have thought of on their own accord. Think about how much easier it was for you back in school to answer multiple-choice questions over free response questions. 

Priming, although not conducive to scientific surveys, is a great tool to use when marketing a product or service. To give an example, when I shadowed an audit yesterday, I noticed that the homeowner was presented with three different options for a new boiler, an 85% efficiency oil boiler, an 85% efficiency natural gas boiler, and a 95% efficiency natural gas boiler. With three different options, the homeowners has already mentally modeled having each of those options in their home and is committed to choosing at least one. 

The audit that I shadowed was one of the most education experiences I’ve ever had this summer. I watched the technician Hip perform the Carbon Monoxide test, the boiler efficiency test (this home was so old that the boiler was 60 years old), the width of wall insulation and the infrared gun test. The last test was performed with the homeowners watching and listening to the explanation, which I thought was great for improving the confidence and trust between contractor and customer. 

The audit helped crystallize one thing I learned this summer, which is that the traditional rational-choice economic model doesn’t necessarily hold up in practice. For example, the homeowners insisted that a proposed 35 gallon indirect water heater might not be sufficient for their family’s needs (“I don’t ever want to run out of hot water!” exclaimed the woman) even though it would be more than enough for them as it’s just a 3 person home. Based on this experience, I think more academics or policy makers should spend some time in the real world in order to better understand how real people think about energy and efficiency. 

These past few months have been so educational and interesting for me as a person. I really feel so empowered at the potential of energy efficiency, the low hanging fruit if you will, to lower Long Island, New York State, and eventually the nation’s emissions significantly. I also realized that I’m really going to miss the coworkers, partners and people I’ve met through this internship, especially my awesome boss extraordinaire, Andy Frank.

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