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Residential Energy Efficiency Direct Install Programs — Case Study


Pono Home Founder Scott Cooney (right) with a happy customer after switching to LEDs.

Energy and water conservation programs at the municipal, utility, and state levels come in many shapes and sizes. Some are effective, others less so, and predicting a program’s success seems an elusive mixture of art and science.

Dr. Doug McKenzie Mohr, a behavioral scientist studying conservation programs for the last few decades, chronicled case studies of underperforming conservation programs, from residential workshops to leaflets to surveys to subsidized energy audits. Mohr believes that community-based social marketing (basically, peer pressure) is the most effective type of program. Getting community members to become champions of a particular behavior can be a powerful motivating force for others in that community. Language is key.

Mohr described a program in which a conservation program was aimed at trying to get people to turn their car off while waiting for their kids outside school. Idling is not only unnecessary in that it does not damage a car to turn it off and on, it also wastes gas, and importantly in this case, pollutes the ground-level air where a lot of kids are hanging out. Mohr found that creating language for the educational signage that indicated that everyone else was not idling was far more effective than asking people not to idle.

Direct Install Programs

The challenge is that education and behavior can be elastic. Sometimes behaviors become habits. Other times, people regress once they stop seeing visual cues or hearing messages affirming their behaviors. For this reason, hardware improvements are often deemed to be long lasting and very effective.

As part of its push to become the first state running on 100% renewable energy, Hawaii has a number of very progressive energy policies in place, including a barrel tax on every barrel of oil that comes into the state. This money is used to invest in clean technologies across the state, to help keep more of Hawaii’s money in Hawaii’s economy.

Hawaii Energy, the ratepayer-funded energy conservation program for Honolulu, Maui, and Hawaii Counties (all of the state of Hawaii except Kauai island), recently contracted our company to perform a direct install program for high-efficiency residential products across 579 homes in Hawaii, targeting “hard to reach” households (elderly, low income, and the like). The primary objective of the program was to replace inefficient products (e.g., incandescents) with efficient and otherwise equivalent counterparts (e.g., LEDs). Another goal of the program was educating residents about the benefits of LED lighting, high-efficiency shower and faucet fixtures, and advanced power strips so that they would become champions of the technology and help convince others in their community to follow suit. Language again turned out to be important for this second goal.

Results of the program were positive, and in this article, I try to summarize some of the key benefits of a direct install program, as well as some key lessons learned so that other utilities, municipalities, cities, and states can follow suit. In terms of bang for the buck, the total program cost should be more than paid for in first-year electricity savings alone. The program is expected to produce annual electricity savings in excess of $165,000 per year, or about $300 per participating home. Water savings were not calculated, due to multiple confounding variables, but can logically be expected to add substantially to the savings. Overall, 12,252 efficiency products were installed, including over 10,000 LED bulbs, 1,695 water efficiency products, and 382 advanced power strips.

Education, Lessons Learned, & Key Takeaways on How to Sell Efficiency

Our company, Pono Home, does 3 main things — installations, maintenance, and education. The installs, like the program above, aim to retrofit hardware in a home or small business. Our maintenance includes cleaning condenser coils on refrigerators, snaking dryer lint vents, weatherizing windows, and fixing toilet leaks. On the education front, we show people how much energy a particular device is using, teach them how to use a solar water heater timer, and help them program their thermostats. In this program, our education mainly revolved around energy saving tips, habits, and tricks, as well as overcoming objections to efficiency products. While LEDs are an absolute no-brainer for energy savings and reduction of heat, people still associate energy-efficient lighting with CFLs, the squiggly bulbs that in the early days often took a while to turn on, emitted an unpalatable light, and could flicker like longer fluorescent tubes. People still associate water-saving devices to the “low flow” products of the early 1980s. Overcoming these objections can yield substantial positive impacts: financial savings for residents, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and revenues for companies like ours.

Over the first 2.5 years in business, we’ve learned several lessons in overcoming these obstacles. First: language. “Low flow” devices will sell to about 5% of the market. “High efficiency” devices will sell to substantially more. The old low flow devices used old hardware — shower head designs made to run on 2.5 gallons per minute. Sometimes a restrictor device was placed inside the pipe to reduce the flow of water to the shower head. In these cases, water pressure could only be described as wimpy, and only the hardest-core environmentalists could be expected to live with the sacrifice.

The second lesson we’ve learned over the years is that people will love efficiency products — so long as they get to see them in action first and have the power to make their own decision on them. People like technology and new products, especially when there are multiple benefits in it for them. So in the case of hardware installed inside the home, give people a “test drive.” We offered to install LEDs, high-efficiency showerheads, and other devices and turn them on to show the resident, with the caveat that if they didn’t like them, we would replace them with the old device, no questions asked. This tactic was exceptionally successful.

The third lesson dovetails nicely with McKenzie–Mohr’s findings. Referrals turned out to be the only reliably effective way to market this program. Despite the significant savings potential and the fact that the program was 100% subsidized, getting our foot in the door was exceptionally difficult. One of the challenges, as we found out along the way, is that there have been scams of companies offering free audits of a home, only to “case the joint,” as several of our potential customers referred to it. Once someone had upgraded their home and had a chance to see LEDs in action, it was common to see that person sending us to friends and family.

Follow-up Survey Research Results

After the program was over, we sent out a survey to all participants. About 20–25% of people responded to the survey. Key findings were that:

  • people learned a lot about energy and water efficiency by having a trained technician work in their home.




  • People LOVE LEDs. Anyone who has LEDs will not be surprised by that finding. But we also found that people LOVE high-efficiency shower heads. screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-6-15-50-pm
  • People tend not to be aware that saving water means saving energy (this was the #1 most mentioned thing people learned in this program). screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-6-16-10-pm
  • While more expensive, direct install programs help make sure that change is done, and done right.

An example of an advanced power strip that was given out at a community event and despite the best intentions, set up improperly so as to be ineffective

  • There are a lot more incandescent bulbs out there than one would believe. Even in Hawaii, where energy rates are roughly 3x the national average (and where LEDs will pay for themselves with a fantastic payback period), we found an average of over 20 incandescents per home visited. [Editor’s note: Holy cow!]


There were multiple other lessons learned, including taking action in multi-family buildings vs. single-family homes, how to communicate external benefits (fire hazard reduction) to help sell efficiency, how to deal with broken fixtures, and much more. The direct install program is not without its challenges, but the efficacy is clear, and in the face of inaction on a federal level, we encourage cities, states, municipalities, and utilities to take the lead on the climate change front by helping hard to persuade communities to reduce their utility bills and carbon emissions.

If you’re interested in learning more, please download the full report for this program here (in the right sidebar at that link). Anyone interested in connecting with us about implementing a program like this in your community, please don’t hesitate to contact Pono Home through our website.

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Written By

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is a serial eco-entrepreneur focused on making the world a better place for all its residents. Scott is the founder of CleanTechnica and was just smart enough to hire someone smarter than him to run it. He then started Pono Home, a service that greens homes, which has performed efficiency retrofits on more than 16,000 homes and small businesses, reducing carbon pollution by more than 27 million pounds a year and saving customers more than $6.3 million a year on their utilities. In a previous life, Scott was an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill) , and Green Living Ideas.


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