Using car talk to sell home energy upgrades

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By Elisa Wood

September 29, 2010

Does the word ‘audit’ give you a warm and fuzzy feeling? Not likely. Yet it’s typically the first service an energy efficiency contractor offers to a prospect. Sometimes the audit is even free, much like the unwelcome kind we receive from the IRS.

Use of words like ‘audit’ ‘retrofit’ and ‘weatherize’ turn off customers. Unless the industry rethinks its jargon, it is unlikely to win the hearts, minds and wallets of the typical American consumer.

These are some of the findings from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which on September 29 launched a new effort: “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvement.”

With a lot of federal money flowing into the industry, it is more important than ever to figure out why homeowners resist energy upgrades. To that end, LBNL published a 132-page report that examines human behavior when it comes to energy choices. The report includes case studies of successful programs.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, information and education will not inspire the typical homeowner to insulate and replace a boiler, according to the report. In fact, people who support the idea of conservation conserve no more than those who do not.

Even the promise of saving money doesn’t always work. Consumers feel overwhelmed by too many choices, so are likely to just opt for the status quo and leave their home as it is, says the report.

But homeowners will take action if others in their community do so, and if they are gradually eased into the idea of making energy efficiency improvements, starting with what is easy and working up to bigger projects, said Merrian Fuller, LBNL research associate, in a web presentation.

Carl Nelson, program and policy manager for the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment, found that people respond favorably to energy efficiency when they are gathered together with neighbors for community meetings. Ninety-five percent of the 2,400 people who attended the meetings signed up for audits, or rather ‘home visits,’ before leaving. They even made the required $30 co-payment.

When neighbors are all gathered together in a room to discuss energy efficiency, they begin to view home upgrades as a “public commitment,” as well as “a social norm,” like cleaning out leaves from gutters, he said. “It is something normal people do.”

As for language, it is not enough just to replace the word ‘audit’ with ‘home visit,’ or retrofit with ‘home energy upgrade.’ Language must be vivid and fit with the consumer’s existing mental frame. Don’t just say a house is leaky, said Fuller. Tell the homeowner that all of the leaks combined are the size of a basketball. One contractor found success by using car talk. He sold efficiency in terms of miles per gallon for the home.

Finally, make ‘em laugh. Humor is such a good sales tool that the Minneapolis program hired a comedian to train its workshop presenters. The presenters won laughs and action when they told homeowners: “When your refrigerator is old enough to vote,  let it go.”

The report, “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements,” is available at

Elisa Wood is co-author of “Energy Efficiency Incentives for Businesses 2010: Eastern States,”

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Semantics count- After earning my energy auditing
    certification – I choose to use the title of energy
    loss analyst. People who use our services are
    grateful for the intel . Good analysis points
    out the illogical practice of the repurchase of gas or
    electric- that changes when a bldg owner becomes
    aware of the numerous gaps in shell and ductwork integrity and fixes the various problems. That auditing tag just turns people off – SSLPro

  2. I have tested that consumer hostile words just kills the interest. So you are really right on that one.
    words, that shows benefit to consumer, those work crazy-well.

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