Farewell to Maine’s Leading Independent Energy Auditor
The Legacy of DeWitt Kimball
Our friend and Energy Circle client, DeWitt Kimball, died last week after a lionhearted, fearless and very personal fight against esophageal cancer. I was privileged to have been one of his caregivers, and had some indelible conversations with him in the months before he passed.
DeWitt was passionate about his particular approach to impacting better buildings: he was an unabashed and often strident advocate of the independent energy auditor model.
Independent energy auditors have fallen out of favor with many in the industry. Programs don’t see audits correlating with completed retrofit work. States that once saw merit in the separation between the company doing the work and the one testing it have abandoned that requirement. As audits became more commoditized, or given away for free, the business of energy auditing became stressed. And in most of the country, skewed markets make it impossible to charge what a thorough audit genuinely costs (and is worth.)
DeWitt defied these trends. Even in Maine, where the efficiency program has essentially abandoned independent auditors, DeWitt ran a thriving business.
To be clear, Energy Circle is not partial to any particular business model. We’re unbiased. Our team supports any business model that makes an impact on better, healthier, more durable and more energy efficient buildings. But, in honor of DeWitt, I wanted to at least document his approach and business success, because it is so contrary to conventional industry wisdom.
Here’s how DeWitt ran his business, and some observations from me on why he was successful, both financially and in his impact on buildings in Maine:
No Financial Ties to the Work
- DeWitt had no financial stake in the outcome of his recommendations; they were unbiased. His only income was getting paid for his evaluation and recommendations.
- He regularly charged $350 to $500 via a transparent, tiered audit structure, and had thriving demand for his service.
- He maintained relationships with good contractors, and actively guided his clients to find and hire the best company for the unique challenges of their home.
- He “fired” contractors from his preferred list if their quality declined.
- Quite a lot his work came from contractor recommendations--quality companies who knew he’d include them on the list, and were confident enough in their performance that they welcomed his scrutiny.
- He tested out and held contractors accountable for performance and fair pricing, and sent many a contractor back to jobs that he deemed inadequate.
Audits that converted to jobs
- His conversion rate from audit to work completed, the critical metric of the home performance industry, was 85 to 90%. (Typical conversions for integrated companies are 30%.) People willing to pay for the value of independence are serious about doing the work.
- Residential energy audits weren’t his only product. DeWitt was a multi-faceted building consultant that offered blower door testing, large building pressure testing, duct testing, home inspections, ratings (at one point) and healthy home evaluations.
- He loved working with DIYers, and offered training in air sealing for people doing their own work.
- He aggressively (to put it mildly) promoted the value of independence, sometimes to the chagrin of very good integrated auditor/contractors. He showed that taking a bold stance on a particular philosophical approach to fixing buildings, and aggressively promoting it, can be very powerful marketing.
- He was an instinctively good marketer who invested in his brand and his web presence. He let the clarity and straightforwardness of his approach be his qualifying filter. I’d often hear him say to phone leads, “Check out my website. If you like what you see, email me to book a time.”
- He embraced the healthy home movement, and was a frequent critic of insulation companies that tightened homes without consideration for mechanical ventilation.
- He was a former teacher who brought that sensibility to his clients--showing them their home’s challenges with thorough, informative audit reports and explaining building science without dumbing it down.
All about the mission
- DeWitt was giving. When we discovered a Maine couple attempting to trade their car for oil, DeWitt unhesitatingly lept at auditing their house and guiding the pro bono work to fix it.
- Ultimately, he was deeply committed to tackling climate change, and was a loud and fearless voice for that as well as many other energy issues.
Fixing the housing stock is a big job that can only be tackled from every angle--we need many business models and approaches to succeed. DeWitt’s approach was one that had a very real and measurable impact here in Maine.
Maine’s buildings and homeowners are the lesser for his passing. Cranky bastard that he could be at times, DeWitt is sorely missed.