The housing industry isn’t known as an early adopter of cutting-edge technology, but Mat Gates wants to change that perception.
As CEO of Residential Science Resources, a Twin Cities-based company that provides energy efficiency consulting services to utilities, builders and homeowners, he believes technology can radically transform the ways buildings are constructed, operated and maintained.
He and a team of building scientists and technology experts created a mobile and online app called HouseRater, which lets raters, utilities and others capture more than 1,200 datapoints and synchronize it all during home energy inspections.
“The two primary obstacles for raters are speed and the ability to create a variety of reports, and HouseRater solves both,” said Gates, who is also chief executive of HouseRater.
For decades, the industry has had access to a variety of tools that measure the health, safety, comfort, durability and energy efficiency of new and existing homes. Since the mid-2000s, RSR has done more than 5,000 home energy audits based on a national standard for measuring energy efficiency that’s known as the home energy rating system, or HERS index.
That rating can be used for a variety of purposes, from obtaining energy rebates to getting a reduced mortgage rate because the house uses less energy and will cost less to operate. Sometimes, houses that are more energy-efficient even command a higher sale price.
While such audits are sometimes done using high-tech tools, gathering that info doesn’t always happen in a high-tech way. During a typical audit, a HERS expert — usually a building scientist — does a whole-house walk-through and documents what they see and experience in a very low-tech way with pencil, paper and camera. Back in the office, the results are transcribed and entered into computer system.
Gates and his team have developed what they think is a much more efficient method. For example, HouseRaters enables testers to integrate readings in the field from a variety of devices, including thermal imaging machines that can measure the heat transfer within a wall system.
Gates, who served in the Air Force and has a degree in building science from the University of Minnesota, said that HouseRater was designed to record and integrate those results, and keep track of what’s been entered, and what has not. Raters can also send those reports directly from a job site to a homebuilder in the office, enabling them to fix problems more immediately.
Gates said that he launched the first version of the app and website in 2010 as an internal-only product that was used by in-house testers. But the tools officially debuted in February at an industrywide gathering of RESNET, a national nonprofit network of house raters and contractors.
Technically, the HouseRater mobile and web applications are powered by REM/Rate, a Denver-based energy rating software company that also provides technical support for other HERS raters. REM/Rate has a partnership agreement with HouseRater but no ownership role in the company
Amber Wood, senior manager for REM/Rate, said in a statement that the company is teaming with HouseRater in hopes of setting a new standard for the rating industry. “This app will provide the most user-friendly, yet highly sophisticated residential energy analysis software to a market that desperately needs it,” she said.
Gates, who’s been in the building science industry for at least two decades, says the app has the ability to transform the industry and streamline the entire process from rating to report.
Gates said the app and website offer HERS raters two major advantages: efficiency and a computer-generated report. The faster they can test and complete a rating, the more ratings they can do. The app also enables the tester to generate reports from the field, further reducing the time spent generating the report back at the office.
Eliminating the transcription step in the process saves time, but it also cuts down on mistakes and omissions, Gates said. And that eliminates the need for the rater to go back out and get the data and photos they might have missed.
Gates said that he expects the rollout of the system to happen in at least three phases. The first, which is already underway, is for use by HERS raters and others who have some kind of building science training.
Eventually, he’d like to make it available to consumers so that it can be used in a variety of ways. For example, Gates hopes that the HERS rating information will eventually be integrated into house listing information so that buyers can get information about the energy efficiency of the houses that are for sale. HouseRater is also expected to benefit those who want to do a better job tracking the performance of their house.
“One of the theories out there is that homeowners will be able to log into their house and figure out how much energy it uses,” Gates said.