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Energy Raters Go Mobile

With one of the strictest building codes of any state in the nation, California requires that all new houses adhere to specific regulations regarding insulation, heating and cooling appliances, duct leakage, and so on. Enforcing those codes is a small army of home inspectors known as "raters."

Now, raters contracting with California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Services (CHEERS), the largest home-energy rating organization in the country, have a new tool in their arsenal: an MC50 enterprise digital assistant from Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL), running a software program known as "HERS Mobile" (for Home Energy Rating System), specifically designed for CHEERS by Symbol partner Countermind LLC.

The new devices, says CHEERS executive director Tom Hamilton, will transform a job traditionally marked by cumbersome forms and laborious data entry. "This industry has historically been paper-based," explains Hamilton. "Moving to this mobile device is going to make a big difference both in terms of the volume of data collected and the accuracy of the data."

Inspecting thousands of new residential construction sites every year, raters act as independent contractors to verify that builders have met energy-efficiency requirements, checking everything from windows to ducts to attic insulation, as well as home heating and cooling systems. The rollout of the MC50 to California's energy raters could not be better timed, as the advent of the 2005 Federal Energy Act (which offers tax breaks for homeowners making conservation improvements to their houses), new state regulations requiring inspections of replacement heating and cooling units, and increasingly stringent energy standards are expected to increase the demand for energy raters by at least 15 percent in the next year alone.

"I really started looking at [rolling out EDAs for raters] two and a half years ago," says Hamilton, "realizing that the need would be greater: There will be more inspections and more data collected per inspection."

Previously, raters have collected data manually, filling out lengthy forms over the course of multiple visits to a construction site or to inspect new homes at various stages of completion. With the HERS Mobile application, the MC50 leads inspectors through a step-by-step process for each inspection, not only making data collection easier but insuring that the inspection proceeds according to plan.

"On some items you have to collect data at certain stages of construction," points out CHEERS marketing director Anita Taylor. "You have to inspect the insulation before the drywall goes up, for instance. The rater might come back a month later, and that piece of paper ends up with coffee stains or whatever -- it's hard to tell what the numbers were."

Once the day's inspection is complete, raters can use the Symbol device's wireless communications capability to upload data directly into the HERS database from a WiFi hotspot -- or wait until they get back to the office to transmit via a wired cradle. Hamilton estimates that the handhelds will save raters three to four hours per week in data entry and increase their billable hours by one or two hours a week. The devices, which cost around $1,500 depending on add-ons, will pay for themselves, he claims, in three months.

CHEERS raters do about 26,000 inspections a year, at anywhere from $150 to $1,000 per inspection -- numbers that will increase significantly once the new regulations take effect. That's about 10 percent of the annual home-energy inspection market in California. Hamilton expects the number of CHEERS-certified raters to increase to 1,000 by this summer, up from 600 today.

For now, individual raters will buy their own MC50s on a voluntary basis. "We don't have the wherewithal to go to Symbol and say 'We want 500 of these things,' " says Hamilton. CHEERS expects to make the devices mandatory for certification by early 2007.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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