To make sure you get the features and energy savings you expect, it’s important to do some planning before you talk to potential contractors. The first step is to educate yourself so you can be in control of your project. Helpful, easy-to-understand energy efficiency information is available for virtually any area of your home and any renovation project. Just be sure to use reputable sources, such as energy.gov, energystar.gov or your local electric co-op.
You’ll need that knowledge so you can judge the solutions each contractor proposes. Some products or methods that are sold as effective energy efficiency solutions may not work as well as they claim, or they may be too expensive relative to the energy savings they provide.
It’s important to talk to your local building department to find out if your project requires a permit and inspections. Some contractors may suggest doing the work without a permit, but unpermitted work can cause problems if you need to file an insurance claim down the road or when you get ready to sell your home.
You can also use your newfound knowledge to ask the right questions of prospective contractors. Ask about the products to be installed, the energy savings they should yield and whether they’ll improve comfort. Because energy efficiency installations and construction are specialized, some measures inadvertently may be installed incorrectly – unless the installer has experience and hopefully the appropriate training and certification.
Finding a contractor can be a challenge, especially in rural areas. Use your online search engine to locate a contractor close to you. If you’re in a sparsely populated area, the right contractor may be located an hour or more away. Your electric co-op may be able to provide a list of approved contractors in your area. You can also check with a local energy auditor for contractor names.
You may end up choosing between a small specialty contractor and a larger general contractor. Either way, it’s crucial to hire someone with a contractor’s license, a local business license and three types of insurance: liability, personal injury and workers’ compensation. Check references from past customers to verify the contractor has a solid history of cost-control, timeliness, good communication and excellent results – including significant energy savings. Be careful: You may learn too late that your lowest bidder will push to increase the price after the job has begun.
As you evaluate contractors, quality should be an even more important consideration than price. Poor-quality energy efficiency work will not deliver maximum savings.
Once you’ve settled on a contractor, be sure to get a written contract. It should include “as built” details and specifications that include energy performance ratings you’ve researched ahead of time, such as:
- The name of the individual doing the installation.
- A specific R-value, if you’re insulating.
- The make, model, AFUE (annual fuel use efficiency) and COP (coefficient of performance) ratings if you’re replacing a furnace. Also ask that an efficiency test be conducted before and after the work.
- The make, model and EER (energy efficient ratio) rating if you’re replacing an air conditioner. Some contractors also can check for duct leakage in the supply and return ductwork – and offer an add-on estimate for sealing the ducts.
- Warranties on products being installed – and what company handles warranty claims.
- Whether the contractor must pay for the necessary building permits.
Finally, be cautious about pre-paying. Keep the upfront payment as low as possible, set benchmarks the contractor must meet to receive the next payment(s) and make sure a reasonable amount of the payment is not due until the project is finished, building inspections are completed and you’re fully satisfied. Also ask about the contractor’s callback policy, in case you discover problems later. If you don’t feel qualified to approve the project, you could require testing or inspection by an independent energy auditor.
This column was written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency.