By Patrick Keegan
I want to make my home more energy efficient, but some of the work needed is more than I can do by myself. When I’m hiring contractors to do these projects, how can I be sure that the work is of good quality?
There are many contractors performing high-quality energy efficiency work. You’re smart to first figure out what you can do to ensure your contractors deliver the kind of quality you’re paying for.
The best quality assurance solution for most homeowners is to start with a home energy audit by a qualified and experienced energy auditor. Ask the auditor to specify the products and the quality standards for each recommended efficiency measure. The auditor can also help you by agreeing to inspect the finished work.
Using an auditor throughout your home energy upgrade may cost several hundred dollars, but it can pay off in a number of ways: you will know what work is truly needed, and you can prevent poor quality or incomplete work. Your electric co-op may offer a free or discounted audit by one of its energy advisors, or it may have a list of trusted energy auditors in the area. In some areas, there are home performance contractors experienced in whole home energy efficiency upgrades who can perform the energy audit themselves and then complete the work.
Once you have a clear idea and a description of the work that needs to be done, you’ll need to identify contractors. Some co-ops offer financial incentives and know of contractors who have experience or training with energy efficiency.
The energy auditor can help you with questions to ask potential contractors.
• Is the contractor licensed and insured in your state? Does the person have additional training? For example, the Building Performance Institute (BPI) certifies contractors who have training in whole home energy efficiency improvements.
• For heating and cooling projects, how will the contractor decide what size equipment is needed in your home? Will the person inspect duct work and insulation throughout the home?
• For insulation and weatherization upgrades, what is your insulation level now? What should it be? Will the contractor find and seal any air leaks before installing the insulation?
• For all projects, who will actually be at your home doing the work—the person you are talking to? An installer employed by the same company? Or a sub-contractor?
Make sure to do plenty of research before fully engaging a contractor:
• Don’t take the first offer: Try to get at least two bids. The lowest quote might not necessarily be the best: Sometimes it’s hard to compare bids unless they are itemized correctly. If one quote is significantly lower than others, inquire closely about the reasons for the difference.
• Check the contractor’s work: Ask for and check references, read online reviews and ask your local experts about any experience they have with the contractor.
Once you have chosen a contractor, make sure you and the contractor agree on the written description of the work to be performed, the expected timeframe for completion and the price. If the contractor insists on providing an estimate rather than a firm bid, you should discuss what might cause the final bill to be higher than quoted. Some common areas of tension between contractors and their customers are also worth discussing:
• How often and when will the contractor communicate with you about the status of the project?
• How clean does the work area need to be at the end of each day?
• What is the daily work schedule?
It’s best not to pay the contractor until work is completed and inspected. You and the energy auditor should both inspect the work. Your co-op’s energy advisor may also be able to inspect or give you advice for what to look for. For example, is the window flashing installed correctly? Are the ducts sealed properly?
Finally, if you have a good experience with a contractor, pass the information along to friends and neighbors, or write a helpful review — a good home contractor can be hard to find.
Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives based in Arlington, Virginia.