Straight Talk Articles
Hiring the Right Contractor
Dear Pat, We need to have some renovations done on our house, and we want to improve its energy efficiency at the same time. How do we make sure we hire a contractor who will do a good job and stay within budget? - Bridget and Neil
Dear Bridget and Neil,
Great question! Renovation can be the perfect time to improve your home’s energy savings. To make sure you get those savings, it’s important to do some planning right from the beginning.
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 on virtually any area of your home and any renovation project. Just be sure you go to a reputable and impartial source, like energy.gov, energystar.gov, your local electric co-op, or our past Straight Talk articles, which are found at the website link at the bottom of this article.
You’ll need that knowledge so that you can judge the solutions that each potential contractor proposes. Some products or methods that are sold as effective energy efficiency solutions may not work as well as they claim, or 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 the project you have in mind requires a permit and inspections. Some contractors may suggest doing the work without a permit, but unpermitted work may cause problems if you need to file an insurance claim down the road or when you sell your home.
You can also use your newfound knowledge to ask the right questions of potential contractors. Ask about the product to be installed, the energy savings it should yield and whether it will improve comfort. Because energy efficiency installation and construction are specialized, most measures are unlikely to be installed correctly unless the installer has experience and hopefully some appropriate training or certification.
Finding a contractor can be a challenge, especially in rural areas. There are a number of different internet sites that can help. To find them, use your search engine to “find a contractor in your area.” If you’re in a sparsely-populated area the right contractor might be an hour or two away. Your co-op could have a list of approved contractors. Energy auditors are also a source of contractor names.
You may decide you’d like to hire a small specialty contractor or a larger general contractor. Either way, it’s crucial they have a contractor’s license, a local business license and three types of insurance: liability, personal injury and workers’ compensation. Check references to verify the contractor has a solid history of cost-control, timeliness, good communication, and excellent final results, including significant energy savings. You might learn that your low bidder has a tendency to increase the price after the job has begun.
As you choose between contractors, quality should be an even more important consideration than price. Poor quality energy efficiency work just doesn’t deliver as much savings.
Once you have 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 have researched ahead of time, such as:
The name of the individual doing the installation;
The specific R value1 if you’re insulating;
The make, model, the AFUE and COP2 ratings if you’re replacing a furnace; and ask that an efficiency test be conducted before and after the work;
The make, model and EER rating3 if you are replacing the air conditioner.Some contractors are able to check for duct leakage in the supply and return ductwork with a duct blaster if you’re doing any furnace or AC work; and,
Whether the contractor must pay for the necessary building permits.
Finally, be careful about pre-paying. Keep the upfront payment as low as possible, set benchmarks the contractor must meet to receive the next payment, and make sure a reasonable amount of the payment is not due until the project is completed, passes building inspections, and you are fully satisfied. If you don’t feel qualified to approve the project, you could even require testing or inspection by an independent energy auditor.
Then, enjoy your new energy-efficient space!
This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency.
For more information on finding the right contractor, please visit the March 2018 more information page.