Energy efficiency inspectors get mobile boost

California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Services has a new mobile rating system, which the non-profit hopes will save a lot of time and cut down on errors.

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With a stack of papers and a pocketful of pens, "raters" would go to a home for an extensive inspection to see if the property complies with California's stringent home energy-efficiency requirements.

It was a daunting task, taking hours for each home. In the past, the rater, an independent contractor working for the non-profit California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Services (CHEERS), would write data on several sheets of paper, fill out an additional form and leave it for the building inspector. Then, he would return to the office and manually enter the data into a Web database.

Tom Hamilton, executive director at CHEERS, said the manual approach was costly and time consuming, with a high likelihood for mistakes. The data collection would take about an hour, while entering it in the database took another two hours.

Conceivably, they never touch a piece of paper.
Tom Hamilton
Executive DirectorCHEERS

 But now, CHEERS has created its own mobile rating system, called Home Energy Rating Services (HERS) Mobile. The system uses Symbol Technologies Inc.'s MC50 Enterprise Digital Assistant and Mobile Intelligence software from Countermind LLC.

"Until now, HERS verification has been an entirely manual process," Hamilton said. "Raters go out in the field with a pencil and paper, collect pages and pages of data and manually enter it into HERS-compliance software. Not only is this inefficient, it also increases the likelihood of errors."

HERS Mobile essentially automates the inspection process required under California's building code, Energy Star, and other household utilities when new homes are built.

Raters are charged with visiting the homes to verify that builders meet energy efficiency requirements. They check everything from the builder's paperwork to the home's duct system and the types of home appliances installed. When the collected data is tallied, it determines whether a new home complies with building codes, can carry the Energy Star label or qualify for utility incentives.

In 2005, CHEERS raters inspected nearly 30,000 homes. Changes this year to California regulations will have raters also visiting existing homes, not just new ones, which is expected to boost the total number of annual inspections about 15%.

The HERS Mobile system, in use since the beginning of February, has created a "dramatic difference," Hamilton said. It has cut down the amount of time each inspection takes, freed up raters for more jobs and made the entire process simpler. Hamilton said some raters estimated HERS Mobile will save them each between three and four hours a week in data collection and entry.

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 Right now, Hamilton said, only a few dozen of California's 700 trained and certified raters are using HERS Mobile, but he expects that number to increase. One hindrance, he said, is that since raters are independent contractors, they must pay out-of-pocket for the devices and software, which comes to a couple of thousand dollars. However, Hamilton added, CHEERS estimates that raters will see a return on investment within three to four months because of a jump in productivity and the number of jobs they can take.

With HERS Mobile, the rater enters collected data directly into the device, which automatically puts it into the database.

"Conceivably, they never touch a piece of paper," he said.

In beta testing, the user response was positive. For the raters using HERS Mobile currently, the feedback has also been promising.

The system uses Symbol's MC50, a durable mobile computer designed for mobile workers with integrated VoIP, extended battery life, a QWERTY keyboard and Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. The devices run Countermind's Mobile Intelligence Software, which lets raters retrieve new inspection jobs via wired or wireless network connections, initiate new inspections and automatically upload field data to the CHEERS registry compliance database.

Hamilton said HERS Mobile is an intuitive application that requires minimal training and has an easy-to-use interface and optimized workflow.

"It gives that instant gratification, instant access," he said, adding that there has been some interest in taking the system national for other states to adopt it.

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