A Doctor in the House

Much like a doctor diagnosing a patient's illness, remodeler Michael Lotesto makes house calls ready to treat a home. His specialty: energy-efficiency and building performance. First, he listens to the owner to find out the house's symptoms and runs tests to diagnose the problems. Then he treats the home and even performs a follow-up checkup.

May 31, 2006

Strengthening the Team

Much like a doctor diagnosing a patient's illness, remodeler Michael Lotesto makes house calls ready to treat a home. His specialty: energy-efficiency and building performance.

First, he listens to the owner to find out the house's symptoms and runs tests to diagnose the problems. Then he treats the home and even performs a follow-up checkup.

Michael Lotesto tests the air over a lit burner to check the ambient levels of cabon monoxide.

It's a "medical approach" to solving air infiltration and performance issues that Lotesto, president of Performance Exteriors in Crystal Lake, Ill., credits with improving his business' bottom line and employees' morale.

Air infiltration testing reveals buildings with leaks that lead to poor energy efficiency — and the testing proves that many contractors need to take their remodeling further. Lotesto's method of identifying the problems and remodeling to solve them give him an edge over his competitors, he says.

"Diagnostic testing takes the guesswork out of remodeling," says Lotesto, who has worked in the building industry for more than 25 years. "It makes my clients much more comfortable in making a decision. We combine the right diagnosis with the best prescription and follow-up care."

Lotesto's routine

Too often, when a homeowner calls a contractor and complains about high utility bills, the contractor might simply push a product.

"We ask questions to determine symptoms," Lotesto says. "A house is a group of systems that are working side by side. If you address one of those systems, it may affect another. If someone is trying to save on their energy bills, telling them, 'I'm going to change all of your windows and it will automatically save you a bundle,' is kind of ridiculous. You need the house to tell you what it needs first."

After he performs the tests, Lotesto compiles a report that tells the owner about the house's energy efficiency, air infiltration and other performance issues. Based on that data, he scientifically diagnoses the problems and makes recommendations. Then, he educates the homeowner about the solutions and products that will work best for the home while preparing the owner for the affects renovations might have on the house's moisture levels or air pressure. After the changes are implemented, he retests the home to show the owner that the renovations are doing what they were intended to do.

Michael Lotesto tests water heater gas lines for leaks.

"This approach completely separates us from the competition," says Lotesto. "Although it takes additional education and commitment, I recommend this as a surefire way of increasing a remodeler's business, professionalism and confidence."

Paging Dr. Lotesto

Excessive air leakage is a common problem, but the solution is not always immediately apparent.

One homeowner spent a significant amount of time and money renovating his four-bedroom, 1960s home to make it more comfortable and energy-efficient. He installed a high-efficiency boiler, added insulation in the attic and crawlspaces, re-sided the house with rigid foam insulation board, installed energy-efficient windows and followed standard remodeling principles. Many dollars and much time later, his home was still drafty and his utility bills were almost as high as ever.

That's when he turned to Lotesto

To diagnose the problem, Lotesto used a series of tests required for companies accredited by the Building Performance Institute, which provides performance standards for technicians and certifications for contractors. He checked gas lines for leaks, measured the carbon monoxide output of all the home's combustion appliances and assessed vent pressures. He made a visual inspection and calculated heat loss of the siding, foundation, roof, ceilings, walls, windows and doors. He conducted a blower door test to assess the extent of air infiltration. Then he sectioned off individual rooms and crawl-spaces and used a second pressure gauge to determine specifically where the house was leaking the most air.

"We discovered that all the contractors who had worked on his home had missed the key areas of air infiltration," Lotesto says. "A house that is properly air-sealed will replenish far less than half of its air in the space of an hour. This home was letting in outside air at over three times this rate. Although he used good products and experienced contractors, they didn't use the right diagnostics or building science to determine the true cause of the home's problems."

A  blower door test reveals air leaks anywhere in the home.

Lotesto attacked with air sealing and insulation measures at key areas. He recommended plugging leaks in the crawlspace and rim joists; adding an insulated attic hatch cover; installing new air conditioning vents; air-sealing all plumbing, electrical service and duct penetrations; adding some joist insulation; and replacing the crawlspace access door — all measures, he notes, that can improve the efficiency of most older homes.

The price of the upgrades was approximately $2,500; Lotesto estimates the homeowner will save about $700 a year in energy costs while experiencing greater comfort as well.

Building market recognition

Before reestablishing his remodeling business in Illinois, Lotesto spent two years as a remodeling consultant in New York, where building science approaches are popular. In the Midwest, Lotesto finds, diagnostic testing has been slow to gain recognition; in fact, Lotesto's is the first BPI-accredited company in Illinois.

"Unlike some other states, Illinois has not dedicated sufficient funding for programs that educate remodelers about building performance testing, and no state or local agencies require energy ratings," Lotesto says.

This gauge for the blower door test measures how much the house leaks.

To build his business, Lotesto, who won a BPI national award in 2006, structured pricing to make testing attractive to homeowners. Clients who hire him for diagnostic testing pay $400. Those who hire him to perform the recommended upgrades get the testing free.

He markets his services through print advertisements, and he has hired a public relations firm to direct media coverage. But Lotesto believes that government acknowledgement lends the most credence to his services.

"Public awareness is the greatest challenge facing us right now," Lotesto says. "Gaining media coverage of our work and having the support of government programs like PATH and Energy Star helps a lot, adding additional legitimacy to what we do."

Diagnostic testing and your business

The amount of time it takes to become certified in building performance testing depends on the depth of knowledge you want. Lotesto studied to become a BPI-Certified Building Analyst, a BPI-Certified Shell Specialist, a BPI-Accredited Contractor and a RESNET-Certified HERS rater in a year. He estimates that others could satisfy one or two of the basic requirements in less time if they pass the requisite field and written evaluations.

The basic equipment needed to perform the tests costs about $5,000, while the length of time it takes to make up for that investment depends on the aggressiveness of your marketing strategies and how popular building performance testing is in your region, Lotesto says. Remodelers working in areas where the testing has already become recognized will have an easier time earning back their initial investment. It has increased his leads and closing ratios by approximately 20 percent, he says.

Having that edge is a great investment, Lotesto says. "Raise the bar for yourselves and for your clients," says Lotesto. "The rewards are tremendous, not only financially, but psychologically. You and your team will rise above the competition."

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Strengthening the Team

Lotesto employs eight staff members to perform upgrades on the building envelopes of the homes he tests, and he believes that pre- and post-testing has a positive affect on his crew.

"Going into a project, my installers know that their work is going to be evaluated because I retest all of my homes after the renovations are complete," Lotesto says. "They look forward to this because they get verification that they did a great job. It has a positive effect on them; it makes them feel like they're involved in a stronger operation with a superior end-product. It increases morale."


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