In this screenshot from a recorded virtual home energy visit, Bruce Courtot explains weatherization opportunities to a homeowner. Credit: Button Up Vermont

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The state’s energy efficiency utility is promoting virtual home visits, which can accomplish much of what a traditional in-person visit can.

An annual campaign to get weatherization consultants into hundreds of Vermont homes each winter is going virtual during the pandemic.

Efficiency Vermont offers free visits year-round, but it promotes them each year through the statewide Button Up Vermont campaign, which includes events in the fall to help residents learn how to weatherize their homes for the winter.

Among other things, customers can schedule home energy visits that take place in the first months of the new year. Last season’s campaign resulted in 500 home visits.

The visits would usually involve an Efficiency Vermont consultant coming to the customer’s home and looking for signs of poor insulation or air sealing, or outdated appliances that could drive up heating costs and make for a colder winter.

This year, visits will be conducted over video chat, something organizations in other states have also offered. The utility rolled out the virtual program in May to ensure services could continue for customers in its targeted communities — places with high energy burdens that the organization focuses certain initiatives on each year.

The video calls so far haven’t caught on like the traditional in-person visits, but officials hope they can get more customers on board this winter. As of this week, 48 had been scheduled for this year’s campaign.

The pandemic “has had a big impact on our ability to engage 1:1 with residential customers,” Jeff Buell, Efficiency Vermont’s public relations manager, said in an email. “We are hopeful that going into 2021, these numbers will begin to climb as people grow more comfortable with virtual formats, and potentially as the pandemic begins to abate with the wide distribution of a vaccine.” 

Even though the format has changed, the customer experience doesn’t seem to be much different, Robyn King, the Efficiency Vermont program manager in charge of the virtual visits, said in an interview.

“Certainly it’s a new approach and people are still getting used to it, but we have found that the customers who have received these home energy visits are really happy with what they’ve learned from the energy consultants and are able to kind of create a pathway and still interact with us,” King said.

One of the organization’s primary goals, she said, is to make sure people who aren’t used to these tools can still access them. Beyond ensuring they have instructions to download the video chat app (in this case, Microsoft Teams), they try to meet customers’ specific needs. That could mean using an alternative video service, or just using the phone, which is sometimes necessary since internet connection can be spotty in rural areas.

Once a customer completes a home visit, they might hire professional contractors to follow up on the recommendations from the consultant, or they might do the work themselves. King said it’s too early to tell whether and how much people follow up under the virtual format compared to in-person visits.

She added that virtual visits will likely continue to be an option even when in-person visits resume. It could be an initial step for customers to take before deciding whether they need a full in-person visit. And even when in-person visits are an option again, customers may still be hesitant to allow people into their homes.

“We want to make sure that our services that we offer our customers are as flexible as possible, so I see the virtual approach actually adding a lot of benefit for customers,” King said.

“I think people have become accustomed to it, and so now it’s a pretty acceptable route to go,” said Bruce Courtot, an energy consultant with Efficiency Vermont. He led shortened virtual visits in a recent webinar for Button Up Vermont, so potential customers could see how they’re done.

“It can be a little wonky” without being able to get the full view of the house, he said. He sees the places the customer directs the camera — a view which, like any video chat, sometimes includes the customer’s face.

There’s also a new safety risk: When Courtot visits a home in person, he’s the one who has to watch out for any clutter when going down the basement stairs or climbing into the attic. Now he’s watching the customer, who’s focused on guiding the camera while going up and down stairs, or who may have never been in the attic before.

“Very seldom are they as thorough as they could be if I was there,” he acknowledged. But rather than encourage homeowners to risk their safety, he prefers to emphasize the value of having someone assess hard-to-reach places like the attic, which could be important for efficiency improvement. Customers can get full energy audits from contractors, who are doing in-person visits right now.

It’s also more difficult to establish a rapport with a customer without an in-person visit, Courtot said, which makes it harder to encourage people to spread the word to others.

He said he has a bottleneck of visits in the first two months of the year for Button Up Vermont, but that will still be far from the 260 he did last year in person. He qualified for a company car since he drove more than 15,000 miles for work.

One positive outcome of turning to virtual visits is that it cuts down a lot of travel. “It’s hard for me to believe an efficiency organization like ours would not recognize the benefit of that,” he said.

Heidi White, a Barre City resident who had a virtual visit as part of this year’s targeted communities effort, was surprised by how well her visit went.

“I honestly thought it was going to be a total fail,” White said. Her consultant was able to see plenty despite the limited camera view, she said — even things she hadn’t been thinking about, like moisture buildup from burst pipes. Other than that problem, which she’d already been taking care of, she didn’t have many issues besides a backdoor that needs replacing, something she’ll also follow up on. “I definitely did not feel as though him not physically being here was much of an issue at all,” she said.

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.