by Bill Smith, president of Elite Software

In an era of increased utility deregulation, many utilities are scrambling to keep their energy customers in the face of new competition. Although deregulation has not yet happened in Ohio, FirstEnergy Corporation is not waiting for the inevitable day to come. The company has already implemented innovative programs to help hold and increase the loyalty of its energy customers. Notably, popular HVAC desktop computer software is a key part on one of their customer programs, First Energy A+ Energy Partners.

FirstEnergy Corporation is the 12th largest electric system in the nation. Headquartered in Akron, Ohio, its four operating companies serve central and northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania with electricity and natural gas. In addition, the company offers a wide range of HVAC maintenance and facilities maintenance services for its larger customers.

Kenneth Hedges is FirstEnergy’s product manager and works primarily with residential and small commercial customers. He explains their work, "In the mass market, we focus on energy efficiency for smaller customers, both residential and light commercial. We aggressively promote Energy Star compliant buildings and homes and try to provide our customers with the tools and information to make the right choices about energy conservation and the environment. Here in Ohio, geothermal energy is a big part of our energy efficiency programs. We are fortunate to have both ideal climate conditions and a well-developed infrastructure for geothermal installations. We let homeowners know that geothermal heating, cooling and water heating is always available to them as an option."

One of the company’s programs to promote energy efficient buildings, called First Energy A+ Energy Partners, involves an active working partnership with a network of around 300 residential HVAC contractors and 200 builders. He explains, "We underwrite and sponsor a variety of efforts to help them design and install energy efficient cooling and heating systems. One of the most important ways we help our partners is through the widespread use of Elite Software’s AUDIT program for residential and light commercial energy analysis. We have about 80 sales representatives who travel widely and all carry laptop computers with Elite’s AUDIT program installed. At a moment’s notice and at no charge to the customer, they can quickly perform a detailed energy analysis for a client’s building in the field."

"With it, we can show the customer all options for initial cost, operating costs, payback and a comprehensive analysis of several systems side-by-side in a single report. In addition to showing the builder, contractor and the homeowner the benefits of higher efficiency equipment, we actually try to show the cost of not going with the higher efficiency systems. Not only will AUDIT do the energy analysis, it will do the financial analysis as well. It persuasively shows what higher efficiency can do for a customer’s cash flow. Everyone wants to talk about quick payback, but ultimately the return on investment is what’s important."

"But the real beauty of AUDIT is its use with geothermal systems; we can actually model the specific heat pump that the consumer intends on purchasing. We can use actual, and detailed, utility rates in AUDIT. The savings in an all electric home are not just in the cost of heating and cooling, but in the advantage of our special discounted electric rate that comes from using ground source heat pumps. With AUDIT's powerful reports, our customers can easily see the many benefits of using ground source heat pumps. When we show them a graphic presentation with easy-to-understand color pie charts and bar graphs along with side by side equipment comparisons, it has a lot more punch. AUDIT’s strong reports make us look professional and credible."

"This is a service we provide to our A+ Energy Partners on an as-needed basis and it helps us promote energy efficiency while building good relationships with the contractors, and ultimately, the consumer." Hedges feels that in helping their customers make intelligent decisions in their investment in HVAC systems, the company promotes customer loyalty. "FirstEnergy Corporation works hard to build long-term quality relationships so that customers will stay with us when deregulation finally happens," he emphasizes.

These programs, like the First Energy A+ Energy Partners program, have achieved the desired results. Hedges explains, "After our contractors install a heat pump, geothermal or electric heating system, we send a customer satisfaction survey directly to the consumer. After six years of these surveys, our customer satisfaction rate is consistently in the 90% range!"

"We also have a number of programs that have very little to do with the sales of kilowatt-hours," he points out. "For example, our landscape lighting program, it's a service we provide to the consumer that shows them how to select let the right landscape lighting system and how to do it with energy efficiency in mind. We offer a high-level of expertise in lighting and a equally high-level of professionalism through our A+ Energy Partner lighting contractors."

Hedges points out that environmental concerns have also become more important as time goes on. "We are in the business," he says, "of providing safe, clean and reliable power. Our commitment to energy efficiency, geothermal comfort systems and developing our alternate energy sources like hydro-electric demonstrate a high regard for the environment."

"In the end, we're trying to build strong and ongoing relationships with our customers. This program helps increase the perception of professionalism of A+ Dealers and Builders with our consumers. And when deregulation finally occurs in Ohio, we think we’ll find we’ve done a good job in encouraging our customers to stay with us," he concludes.

Mr. Smith welcomes your email about this article. - email

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