A thermal imaging camera

Energy efficiency consultancy StepLight’s work varies depending on government policy, but policy changes don’t alter the importance of energy efficiency activities, according to company director Ryan McCarthy.

With the reduction in state and federal programs that fund the delivery of free audits across Victoria, NSW and Queensland, the firm has been diversifying into training programs and thermal imaging services.

McCarthy says that in some ways, the funding of energy audits by government “destroyed the market”, as it created the impression such a service should always be free.

Ryan McCarthy
Ryan McCarthy

The 2000 audits his team undertook between 2009-12 across Western Sydney households as part of the Y Green program were free for customers, as were the audits carried out for small to medium enterprises in 2012-2014 as part of the 3E Project in collaboration with the Migrant Resource Centre in Parramatta.

These audits were focused on reducing energy bills, but the environmental gain of reducing greenhouse emissions was also promoted.

Currently, StepLight provides on-site audits for a fee in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney that include an energy action plan, and a lower-priced over-the-phone audit in all other parts of the country.

The business case for paying for an audit

McCarthy says the business case is a simple proposition that the audit plus action plan cost can be recouped quickly through a guaranteed 20 per cent saving on energy bills.

“There is now an opportunity for people to pick up on having energy audits done for themselves. The main problem is that people don’t necessarily know about them and don’t know the savings they can get,” he says.

“Around 50 per cent of our advice to people is around behaviour change in relation to the appliances they have and how they interact with them.”

In the absence of programs funding audits, that part of the customer base is “coming to us with problems”, such as being unable to equate their bill to the amount of power they thought they were using.

There are also a small percentage of audit customers who are motivated by the need to reduce their household or business carbon emissions, he says. But energy efficiency makes sense for anyone, even if they don’t have that “green motivation”.

We haven’t even really captured the economic imperative yet, he says, that households can halve their electricity use and bill for very little upfront capital cost.

Interest comes in waves

The level of interest in energy audits has followed a definite trend in response to rising energy retailer charges, McCarthy says.

“It goes in waves. Historically, Victorian people seemed to be aware sooner, and then NSW. There is a surge of interest currently in Queensland as bills are going up, whereas NSW and Victoria have hit a plateau.”

Simple steps for big savings

The key cost-free changes McCarthy says his team recommend to residential audit customers are things like changing to cold water for laundry, reducing the hours of pool pump run-time, and managing stand-by power and the number of gadgets that are plugged in throughout a home.

“Households are more about behaviour change – businesses have fewer behaviour change options.”

Business audit customers are generally advised to undertake technology upgrades, such as lighting, HVAC optimisation and managing the operational times of plant and equipment, which he says is a way of “automating behaviour change”.

For example, a hot water heater can be put on a timer instead of operating 24/7, because the hot water is generally only needed during business hours.

If IT equipment is switched to laptops, even with a flat screen there is a saving of 70 per cent in workstation electricity use compared to a desktop PC.

And considering whether IT and communications equipment needs to operate 24/7 is also important.

“Anything that is switched on 24/7 is a reason for concern,” McCarthy says.

Server rooms are another aspect where savings can be made through adjusting the thermostat.

McCarthy says the HVAC settings are generally set to maintain 22 degree temperatures in server rooms.

“I tell people, did you know these [servers] are designed to be able to operate at higher temperatures that that?”

One challenging aspect of the behaviour equation is that workers often don’t have the same level of personal buy-in to the need to save power because it’s the employer who pays the bill.

In both sectors, he says there are a decent percentage of audit customers that then proceed to further retrofit activities and installation of solar PV systems.

“People are [often] fairly disempowered with energy. They look at the bill, but then if they’ve owned the problem and gone and done something like bought an energy meter, they are on a way better platform to move forwards,” he says.

“Even in the free audit programs, when we checked back with people well over half of them had taken on a range of measures, and almost everyone had done one thing at least.

“As people went down the list of more involved actions, because they had awareness, and then saw their bill went down, they would then do more than just one or two actions.”

Growing interest in DIY energy efficiency and auditing

Another growing area of interest the company is seeing is people wanting to “DIY” their auditing through training or by owning their own energy metering and monitoring equipment.

The training courses the firm provides are both face-to-face and online self-paced training. McCarthy says that sometimes one of the utilities will book the firm to deliver training for its hardship team, or councils book them for half-day workshops.

Thermal imaging a growing market

The company is finding a growing demand for its thermal imaging services, as well as sales of thermal imaging cameras and hire of the technology.

It is a distributor for FLIR thermal imaging equipment, and McCarthy says the price is becoming more accessible, with a pocket-sized camera now $1000 instead of $5000.

As well as being used for tasks such as checking for leaks or faults in refrigeration equipment, or verifying insulation has been installed correctly, the affordability of thermal imaging is “opening it up for a whole bunch of different trades”, McCarthy says.

Electricians, for example, use the equipment for fault-finding on electrical boards. McCarthy says this assists with preventative maintenance as it can save tens of thousands of dollars in capital costs if a fault is found before a fuse blows and causes equipment damage.

McCarthy uses thermal imaging of a building’s switchboard or circuit box as part of an energy audit to show what circuit the most energy is flowing through. The next step is then to go and check the systems or equipment that circuit is related to to see if the level of use can be reduced.

Plumbers can use it to find leaks to reduce water wastage, and it is also being used by pest inspectors looking for termite activity or hired by homeowners trying to find where in their home’s roof space a troublesome possum has its den.

Overall, McCarthy is positive about the future of the energy efficiency and sustainability industry.

“I know the opportunities are out there – you’ve just got to offer the right service at the right price.”

Mandatory disclosure not a silver bullet

He says he does not see that the proposal for mandatory disclosure for residential properties will necessarily result in efficiency improvements. The building code’s current energy performance standards for new homes works, he says, because it focuses on the building envelope.

Mandatory disclosure of pre-existing homes itself won’t give an accurate picture of a home’s energy use, he says, because that relates to occupant behaviour.

“What impacts more on energy use is what you put inside the house and how you interact with it,” he says.

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