May 8, 2023
The Last Mile: Why the Final Day of a Retrofit Project is the Most Important
In many ways, the last day of a job is the most important, especially for home performance work. The little details add up, and getting them wrong has long-term consequences.
By: Charley Cormany
Managing a construction company is both an art and a science. One of the biggest challenges is balancing the sales and production sides of the company. There is an art to being able to sell as many jobs as you can produce and, conversely, being able to complete the projects you sell. Timing is everything. Trying to account for unexpected variables is part of the game.
Sometimes, an upfront delay causes problems down the line. It’s not uncommon for residential remodel projects to take months to complete. The logistics of coordinating materials and labor are always a challenge. Shortages due to Covid-based supply chain issues are still a factor today.
Project schedules overlap and customers get antsy. In these cases, it’s very tempting to rush at the end just to finish things up and move onto the next job. But rushing the end of a project is almost always a mistake.
The Last Day is the Most Important
In many ways, the last day of a job is the most important, especially for home performance work. Why is the final day so important? In the commercial world, it is called commissioning. Most residential contractors refer to it as the punch list. A punch list is all the small leftover little things you need to do to complete the job.
Attention to small details matters. The performance of HVAC systems, water heaters, and insulation projects can be seriously compromised by not addressing the final details. HVAC equipment often requires setting parameters to work as intended. Sometimes this is achieved by configuring a series of switches or, with older equipment, selecting the proper color of wire to set the speed.
Thermostats must be configured to match the type of equipment installed. Most standard thermostats are set up for furnaces out of the box. This can create a problem if you don’t tell the thermostat that you have installed a heat pump. Even if the equipment works, it’s doubtful you will achieve complete functionality or design efficiency.
Charging A/C systems is another task that takes skill. Undercharging and overcharging both have consequences. Refrigerant charge accuracy has a significant impact on performance. Modern heat pump water heaters need to be configured too. Is it set correctly? Which mode is it in, and is there a mixing valve? Most importantly, did someone check the capped gas line to ensure there are no leaks? Heat pump water heaters are more efficient when operating in the heat pump only mode, yet most come in hybrid mode from the factory. A heat pump water heater in electric-only mode is effectively a standard electric water heater.
Insulation works best if the details are considered during installation. Are all six sides of the batt insulation in contact with the surface? Is there exposed craft paper (a fire hazard) showing? Are the ducts deep-buried? Is the attic hatch insulated?
The little details add up, and getting them wrong has long-term consequences. These upgrades will be in place for many, many years. Imagine how much energy and money might be lost from missing one detail, such as an improperly charged A/C system.
We deal with energy efficiency. Attention to detail is essential to get the most effective outcome.
Shorter Duration Jobs Are Harder
I have frequently said that smaller projects are harder to produce.
If you are on an extensive remodel project and something gets held up, you can switch to another part of the project and keep things moving forward. Losing a few hours of productivity does not need to significantly impact the final delivery date. Say you are in the middle of a major kitchen remodel, and you find out there will be a delay in the delivery of the countertops. To keep the project moving forward, you can focus on other tasks, such as final electrical work or flooring repairs. A delay of half a day here or there can usually be absorbed later in the project, keeping you on time.
On the other hand, losing four hours on a three-day job represents one-sixth of the time allocated for the project. To run a successful company doing short-duration projects, you need to be much more efficient, or you will blow right past your projected end date.
Most energy retrofit work is short-term. Replacing a furnace with a heat pump and new ducts takes days, not months. Installing a water heater and adding insulation is relatively quick. This means you don’t have a lot of leeway to absorb delays.
One of the hardest things to do when planning short-term projects is to be realistic about how long they will take to complete. If you underestimate the effort, the project will go past the expected end date. Play it too safe, and a crew will be standing by with nothing to do until the next project starts. (I know contractors who use “extra crew hours” to work on their own homes. It’s not a bad idea as it keeps your guys busy, and your payroll contributes to completing another project.)
Most managers and planners tend to underestimate the time the project will require. Some of this is human nature, and some relates to the business’s nature. Regardless, the trickledown result is that the last day gets compromised when projects get behind.
Avoid the Temptation to Cut Corners
I mention this because we perform EM&V (Evaluation, Measurement, and Verification) on projects installed for a utility rebate program (we are the program implementor). Time and time again, our field verifiers find simple things that the crew forgot or ran out of time to do. Some of these things are trivial. Others would impact the project’s long-term performance if they weren’t caught. We send contractors back to correct these problems as part of our process. We call them called corrective actions.
Nobody likes going back to a job after they are finished. Going back to fix things is expensive. The best way to kill the profit on a job is to have to return after completing the project. “Go-backs” can be the death of a company. This is yet another reason the last day is the most important day of the project.
Delivering high-quality projects that save energy for many years is challenging. Making sure things are correctly configured and working as intended is critical. Third-party verification has a role in consumer protection and ensuring the powers that be get the projected savings. The California Energy Commission (CEC) recognizes the value of confirming post-installation performance and created a third-party verification system to ensure expected energy savings are realized.
California, the CEC, and HERS
In California, residential HVAC systems are subject to inspection by a third-party rater called a HERS rater (Home Energy Rating System). The California Energy Commission (CEC) adopted HERS verification in 1992. The CEC realized the problems with installation and configuration could keep HVAC systems from delivering the expected energy savings. Today, all HVAC systems require third-party verification by a certified HERS rater. This post-installation diagnostic testing, referred to as HERS compliance testing, is triggered when the contractor or homeowner applies for a building permit.
The HERS system has been a good attempt to regulate quality. That said, it has faced its fair share of challenges. One problem is that it is “triggered” when you apply for a building permit. Dodging HERS compliance testing is common.
Want to avoid third-party verification? Convince your customer the permit is optional (it’s not) or tell them they can save some money by not having to pay for the permit or the HERS inspection. Or scare them by telling them that pulling a permit will trigger an assessment of the property value and increase their property taxes. None of this is accurate. Permits and HERS testing are consumer protections against poor-quality work. Contractors who avoid permits and third-party testing do so for a reason. Quality contractors play by the rules and pull permits.
Another problem with HERS enforcement is lack of resources. Imagine the labor pool it would take to inspect every HVAC installation to make sure it was HERS tested. Another issue is humans. Not all raters are honest, and some “fudge” the numbers. We routinely test projects after they pass HERS compliance testing. Often, we find discrepancies in the numbers. Sometimes it is an honest mistake. Sometimes it’s not.
HERS Compliance is Changing
I spoke to some colleagues at the CEC who assured me that third-party verification and HERS are not going away. They did say that the CEC is making some changes to the process and provided me with detailed information I’m sharing here. I applaud the CEC for taking on some of the current issues with HERS compliance testing. If you would like to see the specific considerations, the CEC has created a table with the changes and information on how you can participate. Regulatory changes are not easy, and there are always unintended consequences.
Regardless of how the changes to HERS testing unfold, the fact remains that HERS testing is required, and for a good reason. Too often contractors cut corners or rush and miss a detail that will impact the performance of a building for years to come.
It’s hard to do, but scheduling time to allow crews to commission their projects and making sure they pass HERS testing is a great idea. I guarantee you that if contractors were responsible for the utility bills, they would have a different perspective.
I know a home performance contractor that guaranteed the maximum energy the house would consume. That’s standing behind your work. I wish others in the industry were as confident or concerned about the long-term impact of their projects.
This article originally appeared on the Efficiency First CA blog and is republished with permission.