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Trade Allies; Care for a Nail, Sir

By September 28, 2015November 7th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

Would you like to hear about the founding of Michaels?  Great!  Jim Michaels, founder and namesake of the company, and Dave Waffenschmidt, current President, had started a flourishing energy efficiency business within a local architect and engineering firm amid the waning days of the Carter administration.  The two of them, and one other fellow, left that firm to start Michaels because they saw an opportunity and focused solely on energy efficiency and improving building performance.  They had a burning passion for these things.  Efficiency and performance were the thing, not a thing, to tinker with as time permitted in an architect and engineering firm.

The passion applies today, not just at Michaels or in our industry, but at every successful business in the country.

Trade Allies

In varying degrees, program implementers and utilities seek a robust network of trade allies to deploy widgets at all levels.  Many professionals in the industry have varying definitions of trade allies.  I found this good-enough definition from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:

A third party that promotes the sale of or installs home [or any building type] performance measures for the customer.  Trade allies can include participating contractors, equipment manufacturers and distributors, and engineering or architectural firms.

Trade allies work great for programs when they do what made them successful in the first place – their core business.  This is why I explained that passion is the foundation of business success.  It doesn’t guarantee success, but it is almost always necessary to have success.

Programs that are well suited to leverage trade allies are those that include relatively simple widget replacements.  This includes lighting, direct install measures (thermostats, aerators, and water-heater blankets), wall/attic/roof insulation, and some relatively simple commercial and industrial equipment.

Don’t expect the same level of success when the trade ally model is applied to what I call knowledge and skill based programs.  This applies up and down the customer spectrum from successful whole-home upgrades, replacement of major commercial/industrial equipment, and retro-commissioning.


Because the conventional trade ally (contractors, distributors) sells widgets or their core service offerings that are something other than energy efficiency (architects/engineering firms).  Certainly, there may be pearls among the shucked oyster pile, but in general their drive is to sell product or core services like planning and design.

Through the years, we have been approached by dozens of controls contractors, general contractors, and energy services companies (performance contracting), and I can confidently say this: if you belong to one of these types of firms, don’t bother contacting us because it isn’t going to work.  The reasons these types of businesses have sought “partnerships” with us in the past include:

  • They want access to our clients.
  • They want to sell a lot of stuff.

But this isn’t what we do.  I make no apologies for saying so, but we are consultants with a passion for energy efficiency and building performance and getting things right for the customer.  That may include a massive air handling system upgrade or it may include retro-commissioning where there are virtually no equipment sales.  The measure types do not matter to us.

One utility manager said the following, and I paraphrase to protect the guilty; I don’t like them[performance contractors] because they are trying to sell something.  Firms like Michaels are more interested in things that will help customers and they have no bias toward equipment purchase.”

To the typical[1] contractor or equipment salesperson, every problem is a nail and the hammer is to sell more stuff.  Need more steam capacity?  Add another boiler just like the other three.  Running low in air pressure downstream of the paint booth?  Add another compressor, and make sure it has a VFD because they are efficient.

When I do training for utility account managers or program managers, I always say this for commercial and industrial customers: there is normally so much blown opportunity when a major capital purchase occurs, it would make you cry.

The boiler case above may be best handled with one or two smaller units, or reducing some obscene waste occurring in the facility, to eliminate the need for a new one.  Look at the forest. Don’t mindlessly reach for the hammer.  The smaller units may allow the plant to operate much more efficiently for much of the year.

For the compressed air case, maybe all that is needed is a storage tank out by the troubled piece of equipment (load), not a new compressor that won’t solve anything.  What might happen after the new compressor is installed and it doesn’t solve the problem?  That’s right!  Turn up the air pressure!  Now the customer has not only spent gobs of money, saving nothing; they are using more energy!  If you think this is a tall tale, one-in-a-million occurrence, ho ho ho, that would be soooo wrong.

The same applies to residential programs.  I referenced an evaluation of an abysmal failure to train HVAC technicians for efficient equipment installation in The State of Evaluation Programs a few weeks back.  Efficient practice is not their core business.  Failure.  A couple weeks later in Home Runs in Residential HVAC, we saw 50% savings.  Success.  This comes from passionate energy pros, not widget dealers.

Deep savings require people/firms whose core business includes efficiency, performance, and problem solving – not hammers for selling stuff.

[1] Not all, but probably 97%.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • We’ve trained a few thousand HVAC field technicians in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. Couldn’t agree more with your take and Nexant’s take. If you want installed efficiency to improve, you must require it and you must also have a verification program with teeth (while still cost effective and scalable).

  • jeff ihnen says:

    Thanks John. There are so many things that come to mind when I write these things that I can’t fit it all in. One of those I temporarily forgot was motive. What is the motive of the HVAC technician for attending training? They have to? I was talking with Tom Downey with Proctor Engineering last week. He said some techs that attend training in CA don’t get paid – like burn vacation for it. That isn’t going to work. For others who actually get paid their salary/wage… they may look forward to a day away from the usual. Who can blame those in either of these cases? To be successful, a desire is helpful, a burning desire is very helpful!

  • Hi Jeff,

    The training is on performance testing technique, possible tasks to improve performance and efficiency, and data/report interpretation. This industry has traditionally assumed that design performance equates to real world performance, which it does not as Proctor and others have shown. That creates an incremental opportunity through a performance path. Not unlike home performance or commissioning, but specific to self-contained and remotely managed HVAC.

    The training is the lead into the field implementation and verification piece. That is where the impact is realized, through those performance improvement steps and the accountability served.

    Separately – I need to clarify that I am not clear on Nexant’s position on all this. I thought you blogged on some research they published but I cannot locate it right now.


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