By John MacKenna
The National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) is launching a new version of its Fuel Savings Analysis Calculator, which can help customers see beyond Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) numbers and appreciate the real cost savings that a new oil-fired boiler can deliver.
NORA Research Director Thomas A. Butcher and fellow scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed accurate performance and efficiency data on several types of combination heat-and-hot-water boilers and programmed it into the Version 2 of the FSA Calculator. The system makes it easy for salespeople and contractors to profile a customer’s current heat and hot water equipment and show any customer reliable, specific information on the potential fuel savings in their home.
The first version of the calculator, launched in 2008, used similar data but required contractors to gather information on in-place heating equipment, which could be a cumbersome process. NORA is optimistic that Version 2.0 will be a faster, more flexible tool that will make it easy for customers to appreciate the savings potential of equipment upgrades. NORA hopes to publish FSA 2.0 next month.
Evidence of NORA’s Value
While providing valuable support for Oilheat equipment sales, the new FSA calculator will also assist NORA in assessing the energy savings of its programs, which is key to the industry’s development and also required by the NORA statute. Contractors who use the calculator will be automatically providing this information to NORA.
PriMedia, a New York-based provider of software and marketing services, is developing the FSA Calculator Version 2.0 for NORA with extensive support from Butcher and Energy Kinetics CEO Roger Marran.
NORA President John Huber hosted a presentation on the new FSA Calculator at the recent Eastern Energy Expo, held at the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut. He was joined by Butcher, Marran and PriMedia Creative Director John Bruno. Robert O’Brien, of Robert O’Brien Oil Burner Service, and Kevin Steele, of H.B. Steele & Son, Inc., also joined the panel to discuss their experiences using the FSA Calculator as a sales tool.
Huber said NORA launched the original version of the calculator because AFUE, which is the “official” appliance efficiency standard embraced by the U.S. Department of Energy and Energy Star, does not express the energy-saving potential of modern, combined heat-and-hot-water system. Replacement equipment that has the potential to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent might carry an AFUE that is virtually identical to the customer’s current equipment.
The AFUE does not reflect the higher efficiency, so the salesman faces an uphill battle trying to educate the customer. “This tool was designed to look at the efficiency more carefully than AFUE does, so we can give the customer an accurate view,” Huber said. “We give a view in real terms of how much you could save in five, 10, 15 or 20 years. The goal is to encourage upgrades.”
He explained that the FSA 2.0 app is available for all smartphones, tablets and laptops, and the equipment comparison calculations (which NORA calls “audits”) are done in the cloud. Calculations are also stored in the cloud for each participating company, and companies can have multiple salespeople using the system and accessing each other’s calculations. Audits are visible only to others in the company and not to outsiders or competitors. Customer address information is never included.
The system enables companies to preload information on boilers they sell, which speeds and simplifies the process of comparing systems for customers.
Ease of Use
PriMedia’s Bruno explained that FSA 2.0 is designed with a simple, clean interface in a responsive design that resizes automatically based on device type. To get started, individuals and companies register with NORA, and they can link accounts under a single company ID. Companies indicate where they are located, so that FSA 2.0 will use localized degree-day data.
Each user logs in to a dashboard where they can view the audits they have done previously and add comments to them. Audits can be viewed in basic or advanced mode, which determines the level of detail in the displayed information, according to Bruno. In basic view, the display offers a simple expression of how much money can be saved with each replacement equipment type over five years, 10 years, 15 years and 20 years. Users can compare up to three new equipment types at a time.
Users can prepare and revise audits using oil prices that they select. Users can also select from a variety of preloaded equipment types to find the one that best matches the customer’s current equipment, or they can enter basic, easy-to-find information to profile the system. They can also adjust the location for precise degree-day data and profile the customer’s house size using the number of rooms.
True Savings Potential
Butcher told the Eastern Energy Expo audience that NORA and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) collaborated on the original FSA calculator to help communicate the energy efficiency potential of combined heat-and-hot-water systems, which AFUE does not address. “This was a big deal to NYSERDA. If the only metric was AFUE, we could not communicate that customers would save more than what AFUE showed they would save, so there was no incentive to install better equipment,” he said. “And with home energy audits, the only way for an auditor to evaluate an upgrade was with AFUE, and the difference did not look big enough, so people would upgrade windows or insulation and not do the boiler. We felt that was unfair.”
The Brookhaven National Laboratory team has spent a lot of time refining the efficiency measurement of combination systems to get reliable numbers that the calculator could use, he said. NORA is willing to help boiler manufacturers learn to test and profile their boilers so that NORA can preload them in the calculator.
Energy Kinetics’ Marran said the FSA Calculator helps salespeople and consumers by creating a visual representation of potential energy savings. Many consumers want to reduce their energy costs, and companies need powerful demonstration tools to help show how effective Oilheat upgrades can be, so they can compete with contractors offering mini-splits.
“The FSA Calculator taps into unseen potential. It’s a nice way to show the payback and help homeowners see that it makes financial sense to upgrade,” Marran said. In the event that a customer needs to do an emergency replacement, contractors can use the calculator to compare the benefits of a premium, high-efficiency system to a lower-cost system and show how quickly they can recoup the original cost difference. The calculator can even help customers understand why upgrading immediately makes better financial sense than waiting another year or two, Marran added. He recommends that contractors use the calculator to refocus customers on long-term value as opposed to the installation cost only.
Steele, whose company is based in Orwigsburg, PA, said that when his sales team started using the first version of the calculator with customers, there was an immediate increase in sales. O’Brien, based in East Meadow, NY, said the original FSA Calculator required a lot of data entry and sometimes underestimated the energy savings, but he is confident the new version will address those issues. “You can add information easily without getting too involved and getting taken away from the face-to-face interaction that you are there for,” he said.
NORA President Huber said the FSA Calculator will help NORA prove its value to Congress. Contractors who take advantage of NORA’s consumer rebate programs may be required to perform FSA Calculator audits and then submit the audits with indications of what systems the customers chose under the rebate program. This will enable the Alliance to demonstrate precisely what sort of energy savings the rebate program is achieving.
“NORA needs actual numbers so we can go to Congress and say, ‘This is what we save,’” Steele said. “With this and the rebate program that PriMedia is doing, this will make NORA’s job much easier.” PriMedia has developed the Upgrade and Save Energy Efficiency and Safety Rebate System, which is an online program that helps state associations manage NORA rebates. It automates the communications between NORA and Oilheat companies to simplify the processes of allocating rebate money and submitting rebate applications.