electrical contractor green retrofitsA fast growing segment of the green construction market is building retrofits, or energy efficient renovations. Here we present five green retrofits electricians should pitch to drive business: energy management systems and monitoring devices, relamping,  solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and wind turbines, daylight harvesting, and HVAC retrofits.

by Houston Neal is the Director of Marketing for Software Advice

Last week, we reported on the “coming renaissance of electrical contracting,” an upward trend of electricians transitioning into energy contractors to keep up with demand for green construction. A fast growing segment of this green construction market is building retrofits, or energy efficient renovations. Numerous reports forecast retrofitting to become a multi-billion dollar market over the next three to four years:

  • McGraw Hill estimates it will become a $10 to $15 billion market by 2014;
  • Pike Research puts it at $6.6 billion annually; and,
  • SBI Energy predicts green renovations will make up 13% of the total renovation market by 2015.

To help electricians segue into their new role and win a piece of the burgeoning market, we decided to write this follow-up article. Here we present five green retrofits electricians should pitch to drive business. While our guide is intended for electricians, it can be used by any homeowner or building owner looking to adopt sustainable building practices.

1) Relamping
Out of all the green retrofit projects, lighting retrofits present the biggest opportunity for electricians. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), lighting accounts for more than 40 perent of the commercial sector’s electricity consumption. Not to mention, it makes up nearly 20 percent of all electricity used in the United States (including residential and industrial spaces). This chart from the ACEEE illustrates how much lighting energy is used by different types of buildings.
Lighting Energy Use by Building Type
These numbers can be significantly reduced by replacing antiquated lighting systems with an energy efficient substitute. Take for example, light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs are much more efficient than incandescent lamps – LEDs use 2 to 10 watts of electricity while incandescent lamps use 60 watts – and they are close to becoming a replacement for fluorescent tubes (see: Are LED Tubes Ready for Prime Time?).

In addition to reduced energy consumption and operating costs, there are other carrots and sticks motivating building owners to retrofit their lighting systems. Utility companies and other organizations offer incentives (here’s a handy look-up tool for California residents), while new legislation requires buildings to use energy-efficient lighting.

Finally, factor in the 2.2 million buildings that are candidates for lighting-system upgrades, and you’ve got a lot of low hanging fruit in the market.

2) Daylight Harvesting
Daylight harvesting is the practice of reducing artificial light in a room when sunlight is available. According to a study performed by the NRC Institute for Research in Construction, it can reduce lighting energy costs by 20 to 60%. Call it “upselling” if you will, but electricians should pitch this retrofit to customers that are already relamping their homes and buildings.

A daylight harvesting system uses photosensors to detect light levels in a room. As sunlight becomes available, the artificial lighting will be reduced. When it’s cloudy or becomes dark outside, the level of artificial lighting will increase.

Three other lighting controls worth mentioning here are dimmers, motion sensors and timers. These energy savers have been around for years, but they are just as relevant today as when they first came out. Homeowners looking for simple ways to reduce energy can install any of the above. For more information, check out the US Department of Energy’s lighting guide.

3) Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Retrofits
Mechanical contractors are typically more qualified to take on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) retrofits. However, as electricians move into the role of energy contractors, they will need to provide a complete energy solution. Consider this quote from Lara Schwicht Richards, manager of marketing projects for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

“Energy solutions are a growing market for electrical contractors at a time when traditional construction work is declining,” she says. “Customers can look to electrical contractors to provide a total energy solution—integrating multiple technologies, when appropriate—for their building project rather than simply installing a single product.”

Some HVAC retrofits will always require the know-how of mechanical contractors. But others can be performed by an electrician because of their overlapping skills and knowledge. For example, electricians can install electrical consumption economizers – devices that reduce energy use of AC units – or programmable thermostats that optimize efficiency of HVAC equipment.

Energy Retrofitters, a licensed electrical contractor from Fort Worth Texas, lists other HVAC retrofits among their services like installing oil, acid, and moisture (OAM) purgers for chillers and adding special additives (e.g. thermo-conductive heat transferring compounds) to HVAC equipment. Both reduce electricity use in HVAC equipment.

4) Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Systems and Wind Turbines
Any article about green retrofits would be incomplete without a discussion of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and wind turbines. Solar photovoltaic systems – a.k.a. solar panels – are gaining traction in both residential and commercial applications. Lower production costs, government rebates and tax incentives are the primary drivers of increased adoption.

Electricians will likely have the most success pitching “grid-tie” solar systems, especially in areas where sunlight is not abundant. Using this type of system, the building remains connected to the utility power grid but disconnects as soon as enough solar power is available. Because these systems actually generate electricity, building owners may be able to receive payment or energy credits from their utility company.

Wind turbines are another viable option for building owners looking to recoup electricity costs. While less common than solar photovoltaic systems, wind turbines can reduce electricity bills by 50 to 90%, according to the American Wind Energy Association. However, wind turbines aren’t for everyone. They are too big for urban or small-lot suburban homes, and of course they’re not effective in places with low wind speeds.

Other forms of renewable energy include biomass and geothermal systems. These alternative power generation methods are getting attention and they present job opportunities for electricians. As Rob Colgan, executive director of marketing for NECA, points out:

“Consumers are becoming more educated about alternatives to conventional power generation, such as solar, wind and biomass. Effectively using these alternative methods of power generation, however, takes specific skills and experience with a wide array of new products.”

5) Energy Management Systems and Monitoring Devices
Energy management systems have garnered a lot of press over the last year because of Microsoft Hohm and Google PowerMeter. With the aim of helping consumers monitor and manage energy consumption, these programs have the potential to drastically reduce our country’s carbon emissions. Studies show that giving consumers access to detailed home energy information results in 5 to 15% savings on monthly electricity. If half our country adopted these systems, Google says this would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road!

Signing up for Hohm and PowerMeter is free and easy. However, accurately measuring energy use is more challenging. It requires the use of an energy monitoring device (e.g. TED). Installing these devices requires the knowledge of an electrician (or the bravery of a tech-savvy do-it-yourself’er). Multi-family, commercial and industrial buildings require a more sophisticated, “smart meter” system, and therefore necessitate the experience of electricians.

Wrapping up, these five retrofits make up a small portion of possible green renovations. There are hundreds more building products and technologies that will improve energy efficiency, while reducing energy costs. And with buildings producing up to 70% of some cities’ carbon emissions (as reported by the Energy Circle blog), there has never been a more relevant time to implement these technologies. So what other retrofits do you think we should include in our list? Leave us a comment if you know of a product, new technology or type of retrofit that can have a big impact on improving energy efficiency of a building.

Noted Comments

Regarding number 5 above: “Energy Management Systems and Monitoring Devices”…
We know that consumers are becoming more interested and engaged in their electricity consumption. It’s a big budget line item and for a long time we have just accepted and paid it each and every month. We really see consumers getting much more interested in becoming more active in managing electricity consumption and taking steps to drive it down. $’s and cents are the primary motivator but there is also a great deal of satisfaction taken for doing the right thing and making a difference.

What we know definitively is access to better information – real time information can make a huge difference in reducing electricity consumption. There are many academic, utility sponsored and manufacturer sponsored research studies and the general conclusion is just better information alone can reduce consumption by 5-15%. For a family spending $100 – $250 per month on electricity that’s a big deal. The aggregated potential impact from millions of homes reducing their consumption by 5-15% is huge for the economy and the environment.

There are proven energy monitoring options on the market today. For as little as $100 families can gain access to this real time information today and begin to take control of this important issue and important monthly budget item.

We have been in the business of real time electricity information since 2003 and it’s gratifying to see this momentum. For more information go to http://www.bluelineinnovations.com.

Comment by Mitch

Great ideas. The market for energy improvements is growing and there will be lots of opportunity for electricians. Having lived through the “gold rush” of two energy crises, I remember the many snake oil salesmen that cashed in on naive consumers. These rats set back the whole energy conservation and solar energy movements by decades. I know it’s tempting to sell what you got, but sometimes what you got is not the best solution for a customer’s problem. For example, a photovoltaic system is never the first step. (See my recent blog on energy improvement priorities: http://blog.oikos.com/2010/05/energy-conservation-first-then-solar-the-sequence-for-success/) Residential and commercial buildings will always benefit more from cost-effective energy conservation. Here too, there are many opportunities for electricians in lighting upgrades, variable speed motor drives, power factor improvements and equipment upgrades.

We all need to help customers make good choices. Sometimes the best choice is to point the customer in another direction. I strongly suggest that all contractors develop a network of top-notch affiliates in other trades. Then you can refer appropriate jobs to them and receive their referrals in return. That way the right jobs get done in the right order. Customers are well served and the entire market improves. Everybody wins.

Comment by Bruce Sullivan

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Author: houston-neal (2 Articles)

Houston Neal is the Director of Marketing for Software Advice, a free online resource that reviews software for electricians. He enjoys researching and reporting trends in software and technology, and has a particular interest in developments in "green" technology.