What is your assessment of the current domestic retrofit market, and energy efficiency retrofits in particular?
Gloomy. Green Deal is a failure. All the business we get is through the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), but costs are being cut everywhere. We have large piece of work on a block of flats where we were suddenly told by the utility company that the price they can pay is now £9,500 lower, because they got a lower price per ton of carbon saving than they previously expected, and then we had to cancel the work. This is driving lots of small to medium installer companies out of business at the moment.
What went wrong with the Green Deal?
Just about everything, the bureaucracy, cost of finance, the standards… It is cheaper for a householder to go to a bank and get an unsecured loan and commission the works themselves, than to pay through the electricity bill.
It’s also unfair – I get 5-bedroom houses who can get works done for free because they are in the right post code, and then I get poor 2-bedroom couples who cannot get any funding because they live in the wrong post code.
With all the talk of the quality framework, standards of delivery haven’t improved a bit. There are still plenty of cowboys around happy to cut corners and deliver crap jobs. We’ve seen loft insulation where the installer didn’t even bother to produce a certificate or put warning signs up in the loft. And most installers continue to do a botch with the loft hatch, not using a proper product like HatchThatch.
Why do you use HatchThatch?
Because it’s a good product! We want to provide a service to customers that they are happy with and that works for them in the long run. We self-regulate quite heavily when it comes to quality, and take pride in our work. What we’ve taken off loft hatches and replaced with HatchThatch is clearly not fit for purpose [see the blog post plastic bag chamber of horrors] – it’s a botch and the installers doing this seem not to care a bit about quality or professional standards. We wrote to the Green Deal approved installers registered with the British Board of Agrément (BBA), like ourselves, informing them about HatchThatch and its advantages, and had zero response.
What are the steps you take to deliver quality?
Firstly, we run a formal training package for loft insulation, and our values – taking pride in what you do – is what Hillman Brown drives down with all staff. We issue conformance certificates, which is a opportunity for the householder to express how satisfied they are with the service they received. We also encourage the householder to have a look around the loft before we close the hatch. We keep on top of new requirements, e.g. the BBA are soon making some changes to their loft insulation certification, requiring installers to declare cables and halogen downlighter covers installed for each job. We changed the paperwork immediately, otherwise you have to think about it time and again until you finally get around to doing it.
Property is the largest transaction people will ever make in their lives, and the biggest commitment they take on, so we want to ensure things will be right. Faulty workmanship doesn’t just perform badly, it can also damage the home e.g. through condensation and rot. We want to improve homes, in terms of value as well as the comfort they provide.
But higher quality comes at a cost.
Sure. Ultimately if we provide better quality, we’ll get more recommendations and more business. Some large installer companies get abysmal customer feedback and lots of complaints, and seem to be constantly under investigation. It seems like we never get to see the results of these investigations though. If I do a proper job and use adequate solutions like HatchThatch, I know I won’t get any complaints or come-backs later.
But you’re right, we don’t get more money from the utility for each ECO job we do. So all purpose-made products come off our profits. Halogen downlighter covers (fire hoods) can easily be £15 a unit plus VAT, so if there are 12 in the hallway, I already have to deduct £216 off the profit for the job, which is where it becomes unviable. I’m not in business to make a loss. In some cases I just have to refuse taking on a job.
How can we raise standards and keep installers in business?
Ofgem is only inspecting 5 to 10 per cent of all jobs. That is not adequate. It becomes a numbers game, where cowboys think they can make more money by botching and then go back to set right a few jobs when they get inspected. Utilities need to employ people who know what they’re doing.
It is also nonsense to disallow householders to contribute to their ECO / GD work, to have it done to a better standard. The utilities dictate the prices. They argue that the ECO has to be done as cheaply as possible as otherwise everybody’s bills would increase more. But this way prices are driven down to where I will make a loss if I send qualified people to do a proper job. Companies go out of business and everybody loses.
There are some good companies and installers around, but they have to compete with the cowboys who have it all too easy. If the industry was regulated better and made to work to a better standard across all stages, the survey, the actual install and the checks afterwards, everybody would win.
Hillman Brown is a Green Deal accredited installer company based in Lincoln.
The interview was conducted by Mathias Hessler.