Confessions of an Insulation Contractor


Energy Smart Insulation Truck

I’ve been an insulation contractor now for 5 years. Before that I sold insulation to, you guessed it, insulation contractors for 3 years. I worked inside sales at a distributor. I worked outside sales at a distributor, I worked outside sales at a manufacturer. Now I’m a business owner and specialize in fixing existing homes. I’ve installed insulation and done air sealing. I’ve sold the jobs, I’ve managed crews. So I’ve seen a little bit of everything.

And I’m really, really frustrated. Or at least I was until just recently.

No, this isn’t just a boo hoo, look at me kind of post – there’s a point. The point is there is a better way to do this where customers win and contractors win. It just takes a little longer. They say fast ain’t good and good ain’t fast, well it turns out that’s true.  Here’s the story.

Over the last several years I decided I wanted to build a company that could ‘scale’ – you know, the typical American dream, make a million dollars and ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.

The reality was 80 hour weeks for 9 months a year, decent, but not great pay, a strained marriage, and major frustrations with personnel and equipment. All of which added up to a fair amount of personal misery. Not quite the American dream I had in mind.

So what went wrong? The long and the short of it I was trying to do too good a job in too little time.

You see, what I do is solve problems. You have icicles? I can help. Boiling upstairs in summer? No problem. Iced toes in your addition? We fix that. Just need attic insulation? We do that too.

The trouble began as I walked further and further down the Home Performance path, and away from the ‘insulation’ path. The insulation guy is a product salesman.  “You need insulation? I got insulation, where would you like it? We’ll git ‘r done, ma’am.” The trouble is, I’ve found in our rush to sell product it doesn’t always solve the problem I was called in to solve. This struggle to understand and solve problems is what lead me to the Home Performance path.

Home Performance is a discipline probably best understood as being like calling a doctor for your house. Just like a doctor diagnoses problems you have with a system or systems within your body, a Home Performance Building Scientist:

  1. Keeps all of the various interactions and systems of your home in mind
  2. Tries to understand those problems
  3. Determines what might solve them
  4. Analyzes what solutions will change that also must be addressed – just like a doc has to consider side effects with giving a drug.

The problem is, now I’m a doctor trying to diagnose your entire body.  I’m trying to understand all the systems without testing, all for “free” in a 1-2 hour visit. And you know what? I basically say take two aspirin and call me in the morning. It’s called prescriptive solutions, as a matter of fact.

It didn’t happen very often (that I heard about), but sometimes my take two of these and call me in the morning solutions didn’t work as I thought they would. I began to wonder how often I didn’t hear back about something not working – the room is still too hot/cold or the icicles are still there.

And it bothered me. In fact, it REALLY bothered me.

I consider myself a professional. So when something doesn’t work, it makes me upset at myself.

It also started causing another problem. To even begin to accomplish a more thorough diagnosis and comprehensive design, my quotes increased from 1 hour to 2-3 hours.  If I moved quickly I could diagnose problems, explain the solutions, and quote them all in the same visit. When you factor in those 2-3 hours, at least 1 hour of drive time, often closer to 1.5, plus at least 1 hour typing up the quote, I usually had 5-6 hours in a quote all told.

Many of my customers are analytical souls – accountants, lawyers, engineers, and the like – so on top of the visit I often had 5-20 emails leading up to a job.  So now I can be in the 10-15 hour range to get a job. Which my guys can probably complete in 1 day. Sometimes the job took fewer man hours to complete than I had in bidding and getting the job!  To make matters worse I don’t get every quote, although I have done pretty well, typically I get 55-65% of the jobs I quote.

The end result is WAY too many hours. And then solutions that aren’t always solutions because there is significant pressure to pump out “free” proposals.

Plus, since my average job was about $2500, there isn’t enough money to actually go back and check on the job, I had to be running to find the next one.  I did appoint my foreman to be looking out for jobs to be done well, and it went pretty well if you judge by reviews, but this doesn’t provide what I’m coming to see as a critical feedback loop from customers on satisfaction and referrals.

Yet on the outside things were going swimmingly.

In 3.5 years on Angie’s List, we have racked up 66 reviews, second to only one local competitor. 29 of them are ‘Page of Happiness’ reviews, which means we got all ‘A’s’ and the customer gushed about us. That’s 44% POH reviews. At last check, only one competitor was over 25%, and most weren’t over 15%.

We did so many jobs with the Dominion East Ohio Gas rebate program that we were a ‘Century Club’ award winner with the Department of Energy’s Home Performance with Energy Star program. (There’s a mouthful!) We were one of only 97 companies in the whole US to get this, which means we did over 100 jobs with the program. And we did it with 3.5 employees.

On the inside, referrals dropped from nearly 30% to under 5% despite handwritten thank you cards, tackling all rebate paperwork, and referral coupons. Oh, and did I mention all the work was making me miserable and my crew who were working like dogs miserable too?

The beginning of the epiphany came last year when my business mentor, Alec McClennan of Good Nature Organic Lawn Care, asked me what I really wanted to do with my life.

I replied:

  1. I want to teach Home Performance to consumers and really figure out how to bring it to market.

  2. I want to do larger, more impactful jobs. Jobs that can allow a fulfilling relationship with customers, and time for follow up. 

  3. I want to feel more fulfilled. I had been so crazy, running around trying to keep the wheels on, that I hadn’t stopped to listen to my heart

  4. More leisure time. I also had a big change come into my life – last September my wife and I found out we were having a baby. Felicity is now 3 months old, and truly a delight to my soul. Here she is at 10 days old:

My daughter

At that time, I had exactly the opposite of all of those:  I was miserable, working too hard, not making enough to justify the hours, my wife was fed up, and I had a kid coming I didn’t have time to take care of.

Something had to change, and change big.

Keeping my guys busy enough to not quit was always a worry for me. So I decided that stress needed to go. I looked into subcontracting the work.

I was spending too much time quoting on too small of jobs to be able to a) solve the problem I was called for and b) develop a true relationship with my clients to find out if it really fixed it. I needed to do more thorough diagnoses.

With those 2 ideas in mind, Energy Smart Home Performance was, rather fitfully, born. Energy Smart Insulation was put out to pasture.

To be frank, throughout 2013 I’ve felt like a failure and a fraud. It’s been tough admitting what I was doing wasn’t working, and then radically changing it. But the painful metamorphosis is nearly complete.

Here are the big changes that will be the new Energy Smart.

1. Consultative approach.

Most salesmen want to sell you a product. Buy this! It’s shiny, or new, or goes faster, or will make you feel more sexy! (Hey, Obama said insulation was sexy…) The trouble is, like going to the doctor, the solution is not a product, it’s much more complicated than that. We need to understand what you want before we can deliver it. That takes time. By charging for this service, we aren’t trying to sell you something, we are coming alongside you to collaboratively arrive at a solution that works for you. That may sound like BS, but it isn’t. (Unless you mean Building Science, in which case it is definitely BS.)

2. Full scale energy audits.*

These assess where your house is now, what problems you have with it, what you would like fixed, and what your budget is.

3. An accurate energy model.

The energy audit and your past bills allow us to build a model of your home to see how much difference various changes will make to your energy bills. And not a crap, made up model, either, but one that truly aims to be accurate. With your permission, we will leverage these savings into a more comprehensive job. We will track this as time moves forward to see how we are doing.

4. Complete Home Performance package.

Not just insulation and air sealing, but also a properly sized furnace and air conditioner. If we turn your Hummer of a house into a Prius, we don’t want to leave the V8 in it. Also, the more pieces you do at the same time, the more synergy arrives. Imagine 7 layer dip with only 3 layers. Yep, it would suck. You really want all 7.

5. A relationship.

Customers will actually see me and talk to me again. I’ll check up on jobs. And hopefully you’ll tell your friends and family about the remarkable transformation in your home.

I have to say, selfishly, that this sounds a lot better to me – it’s a challenge. It also directly addresses the problem that you call me for. Does this work for everyone? Heck no. I’ll only be able to do a few jobs a month with this process, instead of 10-15. This is not yet a broad market solution, and I recognize that.

But I’ll truly understand and solve problems for the right people. And feel fulfilled. And be sure I can be a good father to my daughter.

So stay tuned. The saga continues. If this approach sounds intriguing, check out the video at the bottom to find out more.

Update 3/19/15

A year and a half down this path, I’m happy to say it’s working. Below is a review we received today, unedited. Results are showing up, customers are happy, and I have relationships with clients again.  This is much better. This review was written at the hospital while his wife was in labor with their second child (a boy) – that’s dedication!

A minor correction, the actual blower door air leakage numbers were 5800 test in, 3100 test out. You can read more about this project in the related articles below.

Nate did an excellent job of orchestrating this project.  Our home was a leaky wreck.  It could never keep a consistent temperature and our bills were sky-high.  Last winter our home dropped from 68 to 49 in 6 hours during an overnight outage.  We contacted Nate with Energy Smart Home Performance and he agreed to come out to perform an audit.  We were so impressed with him and his meticulousness (painstakingly photo documented every inch of his audit with photos and commentary which he emailed to us for our records) that we agreed to move forward with the project even though the price was initially higher than anticipated.  The results were a resounding success!

Our blower test went from about 5500 to 2300 before and after. Our gas bills from this most recent winter were halved when compared to the MCF usage and cost from last year. The house now keeps a constant temperature. He was always available to speak about the project, consistently polite and punctual. A real stand-up guy who ensured every detail of the project was performed to perfection. We are really satisfied with the results.

I’d say that’s winning. That’s not a fluff piece review! It has real numbers and actual results mentioned. By the way, we predicted $351 annual energy savings on his house using energy modeling, he’s on track to see that.

Update 1/24/17

Our new website contains 11 detailed case studies so you can see what this new process looks like. We’re writing a book about how your home really works too, so you can wrap your head around how to solve a problem, which makes it more likely to get solved. I really like working with clients when we have a real relationship, and it’s a two way street. (Check out our Google reviews.) Life continues to be good. 


Related Articles

What Does a Blower Door Air Leakage Number Mean? – The biggest thing we want to know about your house is how much it leaks. 

A Tale of Two Houses: 9% vs. 47% Savings – A cautionary tale comparing this client project versus a previous project chasing rebates. One saw results, the other didn’t. 

Why Low Hanging Fruit Has Poisoned Energy Efficiency–  A thought leadership piece in our industry, it stirred up some dust and was based on this house. The same article was republished on GreenTech Media.

Why On Earth Should You Hire Energy Smart?  – Our process is very unique, and can be confusing at first. Here is a 14 minute video with our process and a few common examples of mistakes made by going too fast (like we used to.)


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