While most of Housing Assistance’s services were able to continue in the midst of the pandemic, our Energy Department was forced to take a brief pause.
The department, which conducts energy audits of people’s homes, didn’t have protocols in place to ensure the safety of clients and staff. Because the department falls under the supervision of the utilities – National Grid, Eversource, and Cape Light Compact – as well the Department of Energy and Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), it had to wait for guidance on how it could safely resume operations.
As management redeployed auditors Bethaney Murphy, Jim Ames, and Joshua Trott to assist with our Maintenance Department, Department Director David Fuller and WAP (Weatherization Assistance Program) Program Coordinator Suzanne Smith worked to create a strategy for how we could once again deliver energy services to low-income households.
Remote energy assessments
Several market-rate efficiency program vendors began the process of developing remote energy assessments. Fuller said Smith used these as a guide for setting up a system for our auditors to work with clients in filling out an online form and uploading photos and videos to support a remote assessment. Auditors have the capability to follow-up with clients virtually via Zoom or FaceTime.
“Suzanne has done a remarkable job,” Fuller said. “Considering what we’re up against, she’s gotten our organization functions escalated so we can get everything we need to do our job electronically as long as our customers have email and internet access.”
Housing Assistance conducted roughly 15 virtual assessments in June which enabled our agency to “order clients energy saving measures which have primarily been LED light bulbs and smart strips,” Fuller said.
Through the remote assessments, auditors have gathered valuable information regarding appliances and heating systems they will use when they eventually go into client homes over the next few months to begin catching up on the backlog of work, all while using enhanced safety measures.
These measures include required online training for all Energy Department staff and contractors; the use of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment); social distancing between staff and clients; and minimizing the time staff is in a client’s home.
In-person audits resume, with safety measures in place
In-person audits began the first week of July as auditors focused on finishing work that had been identified during remote assessments. “We’re still trying to limit comprehensive audits at this point,” Smith said. “We’re trying to keep any interaction in the house as short as possible, keeping the homes that require full inspections to a minimum. That’s why our remote energy assessments are so important. We’re being as concise as possible for everyone’s comfort and safety.”
While the pandemic has created challenges for the Energy Department, both Smith and Fuller agreed, it has led to improvements in the delivery of services.
“There’s been some really great developments that have come from this,” Smith said. “We can rethink the way we do things. We were able to develop this online system so people give us more information ahead of time.”
And it prepares our organization should there be a second wave of the coronavirus.
That’s critical because of the importance of the work the Energy Department does.
“Our department is obviously a little different than the rest of the agency in that we serve people already in their homes,” Smith said. “They aren’t necessarily in a crisis as far as lack of housing, but they will get into mini-crises based on fuel consumption, comfort, air quality and food safety. All of these things come into play in our department.”