Q: How are utilities doing virtual audits and inspections? What are the software and hardware technology requirements? What are common challenges?

A: In the following sections, we describe examples of virtual inspection and virtual audit programs, offer insights into the hardware and software requirements for each program, and lay out five challenges and solutions for implementing a virtual program.

What are the differences between virtual audits and virtual inspections?

Utilities perform virtual audits and inspections through:

  • Video chat
  • Photo submissions
  • Video submissions
  • Online portals and checklists
  • Software platforms

Virtual inspections are more common and straightforward than virtual energy audits. For an inspection, the installation contractor or the customer conducts it. For a virtual audit, software-assisted energy managers or third-party contractors conduct it. Virtual inspections and audits typically follow a checklist and include photo or video submissions or a walk-through inspection. The virtual inspection process requires minimal hardware and software, including:

  • A device for video and photo recording
  • Access to Wi-Fi or 4G services
  • Free video chat software
  • A submission platform

Virtual inspection programs have reported minimal challenges, thanks to their customer-centric approach and clear descriptions of the requirements. Conversely, virtual audit programs have seen mixed reviews. Some have performed well and demonstrated persistent savings, while others haven’t.

In this Ask E Source answer, we look at virtual audits for nonresidential buildings that use meter and weather data for their results.

How are organizations conducting virtual programs?

Tacoma Power. In 2016, Tacoma Power’s video chat inspection program won the Leadership in Energy Efficiency Award for Innovation from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. You can read more about the win in the utility’s press release Tacoma Power named a leader in energy efficiency.

In Tacoma Power’s video chat inspection program, the utility reviews the work done in a customer’s home through a free video chat service such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, or Google Hangouts. During the inspections, the Tacoma Power representative fills out the inspection paperwork and takes screenshots of the video to capture any important installation information such as serial numbers. This allows the utility to forgo saving all of the videos to the cloud, saving the utility money.

Tacoma Power uses video chat, rather than photo or video submissions, for three reasons:

By using live video chat, Tacoma Power reduces travel time, mileage, and inspection time.

  • Through live video chat, the utility can make sure the work was completed at the correct location and time.
  • Live video chat streamlines the inspection process. It prevents the customer from needing multiple site visits.
  • If the contractor submitted pictures or videos, and the inspector later identified a problem, then the contractor would have to schedule another site visit with the customer.

This program eliminates the need for a utility employee to travel to the customer’s home to conduct the inspection, which in turn quickens the rebate approval time for the customer. In 37 inspections done by Tacoma Power as part of its original pilot, the utility:

  • Saved 28 hours in employee travel time
  • Reduced driving by 475 miles or 765 kilometers, with an associated $260 saved in fuel and maintenance costs
  • Reduced inspection time from 15 minutes to 6 minutes

Efficiency Works. Efficiency Works, a collaboration of efficiency programs between five Colorado utilities, requires contractors participating in its residential insulation, air-sealing, and window programs to submit multiple pre-, mid-, and postinstallation photos with every rebate submission. The organization also requires contractors to submit a certificate of completion signed by them and the customer. The certificate is meant to ensure that the contractor completed the work at the proper time and location. The program manager reviews every submission and either approves it or requires the contractor to fix something and submit new photos. You can find more details about the Efficiency Works process in the Service Provider Participant 2020 Guide (PDF).

City of Tucson, Arizona. The city’s Planning and Development Services Department offers its customers remote video inspections, including for permitting and engineering inspections. Because of COVID-19, the department has moved all of its inspections to this virtual approach. The department uses a live video call (via FaceTime or Google Duo) to connect customers with a city inspector, who walks them through the entire inspection (figure 1).

Figure 1: Example of the City of Tucson’s remote inspection process

Featured on the local news, the city’s Planning and Development Services Department offers remote video inspections, saving contractors’ time.

Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co (MMWEC). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, MMWEC announced it will be suspending all in-person audits and inspections and offering virtual ones instead. The organization expects customers will receive a similar experience virtually as they did in-person. Customers will continue to receive a detailed report following the virtual audit. For more information, check out the American Public Power Association’s article Mass. public power utilities offer virtual energy efficiency audits in response to COVID-19.

What software and hardware requirements are there for virtual inspections?

The only hardware needed to perform virtual inspections is a phone or tablet that can capture videos and photos and connect to web services via Wi-Fi or 4G. Customers may need some inspection-specific tools, such as a tape measure or a ground-fault circuit-interrupter tester, to provide additional measurements.

Most organizations offering live virtual inspections use free video software such as:

  • Facebook Messenger
  • FaceTime
  • Google Duo
  • Google Hangouts
  • Skype
  • Snapchat
  • WhatsApp

It’s essential that both the customer and the inspector have access to the internet throughout the inspection process.

Organizations that require photo documentation may use a demand-side management (DSM) tracking system, email submissions, or free platforms like Microsoft OneNote. Additionally, some organizations have implemented a third-party app to manage the photo documentation process. For example, Resource Innovations’ iEnergy Trade Alley Connect tool allows contractors to take pictures and record all required documentation even without an internet connection.

What software and hardware requirements are there for virtual audits?

Virtual audits require more-sophisticated technology than virtual inspections do. They use advanced data-analytics engines to analyze meter data, submeter data (where available), building characteristic data, weather data, and more. You can use these software platforms to identify energy-savings measures and to benchmark building diagnostics and energy performance.

The first two market-leading software solutions for virtual audits were by FirstFuel and Retroficiency. They’ve both been acquired—First Fuel by Uplight, and Retroficiency by ENGIE Impact. In addition to these two companies, a number of others have now entered the market (figure 2).

Figure 2: Software solutions for virtual audits

Please note that E Source staff hasn’t independently evaluated these software solutions and doesn’t endorse any of the companies or products.
Company Software description
© E Source
Buildee (formerly Simuwatt)Buildee is a cloud-based mobile and desktop software solution. It’s intended to reduce the time it takes to complete a commercial building energy audit, simultaneously lowering the cost.
Edifice AnalyticsEdifice uses the Energy Diagnostics Investigator for Efficiency Savings (EDIFES) tool, originally developed by Case Western Reserve University. EDIFES gathers 15-minute interval utility meter data and basic building characteristics to produce estimates of energy-savings potential and measure opportunities. It doesn’t require submeter data or independent building energy modeling.
EnergyX SolutionsEnergyX offers virtual auditing and other customer-engagement software.
GridiumGridium is a no-touch energy audit and building benchmarking software solution. It offers detailed advice and diagnostics support for building owners and operators.
ICwhatUCICwhatUC is an augmented-reality customer support application. It allows customer service reps to see what the customer sees, mark up video in real time, and provide improved virtual support.
AtriusThrough its BuildingOS tool, Atrius offers vendor-agnostic connectivity for building energy systems. It gathers data from:
  • Existing building automation systems
  • Submeters
  • Lighting systems
  • Plug-load controls
  • On-site generation systems
  • Demand-response aggregators
  • Electric and gas utility meters
New Buildings Institute (NBI)NBI developed FirstView, a tool to look at building energy performance. The tool creates a simplified building energy model that can identify opportunities for performance improvement and compare a building’s performance against like buildings. Like EDIFES, FirstView uses only monthly utility bills and a few building characteristics as its data inputs.
WegoWiseWegoWise offers a sustainability and building performance benchmarking tool, which can conduct energy and water audits and estimate carbon-impact.

What challenges are utilities facing for virtual audits or inspections?

Accessing Wi-Fi or 4G services may be difficult or impossible depending on the site location. You can use live video chat, but don’t solely rely on it. Use photo documentation or a third-party software that records installation data off-line and uploads it when it has an internet connection.

Don’t rely solely on live video chat in case of poor or nonexistent internet connections.

Confirming the project’s location for fraud mitigation. Require geotagging for all photos and videos. Capture video or photos of the installation that confirm the site’s location. And require customers to sign a certificate of completion for the contractor’s work.

Avoiding the high costs associated with saving large amounts of project inspection data, such as videos, in the cloud. Avoid saving video documentation by offering live virtual inspections when possible. Keep photos and screenshots of the projects, not full videos.

Having inspection staff available when customers and contractors are ready for the inspection. Offer a reservation portal to guarantee customers and contractors a specific time slot for the inspection. Require contractors to submit videos, photos, and project documentation instead of live inspections.

Ensuring that energy-savings estimates are accurate and recommended measures are appropriate for the customer. Virtual audit software platforms aren’t 100% accurate in their analysis and diagnostics. An experienced auditor can use these platforms to deliver more customer value, while ensuring that estimates and advice are valid.

Contributing Authors

Director of Mobility, Customer Energy Solutions

Bryan Jungers conducts research on emerging, energy-efficient, and distributed energy resource technologies. His main areas of expertise lie in...