An interview with Bill Chidsey: Driving Deeper Engagement with Mission-Minded Customers

Bill Chidsey

Bill Chidsey has a list of certifications, licenses, and work experience as long as your arm. But what’s more important to him is quality of life, family, and working with clients who share his big-picture philosophy on energy efficiency. His business, Solar Harvester, is based in Newbury, Vermont, serving clients in the eastern and central parts of the state.

What makes up the bulk of your work these days?

Bill Chidsey: I love sharing our efficiency story of hope, prosperity, and security. My work is meeting and serving customers who are committed to making their carbon footprint smaller. Part of my time is spent on marketing and sales, to find people who have already crossed that line. They are ready to make that transformation in their home or business. We connect in this way, sharing a common “change of heart” regarding energy use and environmental stewardship.

First I talk to the homeowners over the phone about their energy usage. Homeowners will say, “I had my energy audit, but I didn’t make any changes.” I ask, “Why not?” and the homeowner says, “It was too hard to figure out.” I offer personal leadership to meet their desire for change. I stay involved; I see it through. We are fortunate having Efficiency Vermont’s Energy Efficiency Network trade partners handy to fit together complex solutions. This network builds my confidence and ability to lead. Succeeding in making energy efficiency happen regularly provides our team meaningful personal rewards beyond basic profit and loss.

Succeeding in making energy efficiency happen regularly provides our team meaningful personal rewards beyond basic profit and loss.

At an appointment, I usually spend a whole day analyzing my client’s baseline—their entire energy consumption. I merge several areas of expertise: my BPI Analyst training, CFM 50, CAZ safety standards, inch-by-inch HVAC / ASHRAE heat loss calculations, building science, and decades of practical construction experience. I write up an integrated, clear path toward their unique clean energy future, creating a cost-benefit action plan. We then focus on tangible opportunities while acknowledging existing safety hazards, pollution, and fuel waste challenges in a nonjudgmental manner. I also have a unique hands-on insight into how fossil fuels are used. I’ve worked in those dirty basements since the 1960s.

How so?

BC: I grew up on a multigenerational family farm in upstate New York. We produced hundreds of acres of wholesale vegetables, grains, and beans. My grandfather established off-farm income by becoming a seasonal coal dealer. He’d truck his vegetables to New York City, and so he didn’t return with an empty truck, he’d buy anthracite rice coal in Pennsylvania, truck it back home, and sell the coal to neighbors. His hired man installed and serviced automatic coal stoker boilers. When I was a youth, my responsibilities included tending our own automatic coal stoker boiler, so I know firsthand the dangers and deadly pollution of fossil fuels.

You’ve been in business a long time.

BC: Yes. At age 64, I’m in a transitional time in life. In the 1990s, when I lived in Western Massachusetts and founded a mechanical contracting business, I gained experience with balanced heat recovery ventilation and superinsulation. My practice included annually servicing up to 1,200 modern fuel oil heating systems, and I diversified my business to include high-tech greenhouse climate controls and device-level data logging.

I eventually closed my HVAC business to take care of my elderly parents back in New York State. Later, I moved to northern Vermont. I volunteered on a number of leading town energy committees, enjoying these like-minded people. But I found entering the market there was very challenging during the Great Recession. The Norwich / Upper Valley area looked more lucrative than the Northeast Kingdom, and I moved to nearby Newbury last year.

The end of “cheap” peak oil, inflation, and the recession had a big effect on my business. It’s not completely over. It had a real impact on construction, and the effects are lingering; people do not feel able to make investments in the home. I’m concerned about our fragile, fixed-income senior population—they are still feeling the effects of the recession and have few options.

But I think we’re turning the corner, and word is spreading about reliable, renewable energy systems.

I’m concerned about our fragile, fixed-income senior population—they are still feeling the effects of the recession and have few options. But I think we’re turning the corner, and word is spreading about reliable, renewable energy systems.

What made you come to Vermont originally?

BC: I viewed Vermont as having the core values of caring for the earth and each other. Vermont feels like home. It fits in with my observations of what’s important. I recently attended Efficiency Vermont’s Better Buildings by Design conference [in early February 2018] and it felt great, like a reinforcement of positive activity. The conference was full of kindred spirits. I always felt, with Efficiency Vermont, that I had found my tribe!

Where do you see your business going in the future?

BC: I prioritize family and local community needs, but I do expect to continue working. I love my work; it’s integrated into my own personal needs. I have no plans to slow down.

I’ll stick with the specific market of people who’ve already made up their minds to make a change in their carbon footprint. I will continue to foster and support our town energy committees, UVM, and [the nonprofit organization] Vital Communities.

My familiarity with design build balances whole house heat recovery ventilation, integrated with central air ducted cold climate heat pump systems, to provide exceptional indoor air quality and value. My business is growing not in volume, but in depth. I’d like to add an educational component for the next generation. I want to reach out to engage young people. I believe we need a qualified “energy master” embedded in every neighborhood, every farm.

My familiarity with design-build balances whole house heat recovery ventilation, integrated with central air ducted cold climate heat pump systems, to provide exceptional indoor air quality and value. My business is growing not in volume, but in depth.

My 2018 priority is joining the Building Performance Professionals Association of Vermont.

How does Efficiency Vermont, especially the Efficiency Excellence Network, help you?

BC: Oh, it’s my primary source of work. If it weren’t for Efficiency Vermont, my marketing would be much less effective. For example, someone I already knew in St. Johnsbury got an Efficiency Vermont letter about heat pumps. She called me right up. She had known about me and my work for years, but it was that letter that resulted in action and got her to call me.

I like it that Efficiency Vermont has the Efficiency Excellence Network, that there’s a bar to meet, where people are well vetted. I’m looking forward to getting to know each EEN member better in person at the next training opportunity.

I also, as a member of the Efficiency Excellence Network, had a wonderful opportunity at Better Buildings by Design to get an hour of free consultation with a business expert. It’s important for me to express my gratitude to the Efficiency Vermont founders and the Efficiency Excellence Network team. Their actions foster our community’s ability to become strong.

We’ve enjoyed using “easy” fossil fuel power—and this power has also been used to take power from others. The new ways of providing shelter and heat for our families develop strength for ourselves, our communities, and others, especially the younger generation. A gallon of gas pollutes everywhere I go. But if I invest in solar panels and an electric car…[we gain] strength through renewables.

Your business name is Solar Harvester, but you haven’t said much about solar specifically.

BC: The business name reflects agriculture and care for the land. I recognize that all our clean energy is simply a gift from the earth’s sun. Most people are warming their houses and heating water with fossil fuels. Solar PV is an important piece of the puzzle, but it comes in later, after you have done your conservation work. Solar PV hardware becomes more affordable and occupies a smaller footprint when less collection is required. I have a real passion to install and maintain solar hot water systems.

Solar PV is an important piece of the puzzle, but it comes in later, after you have done your conservation work. Solar PV hardware becomes more affordable and occupies a smaller footprint when less collection is required.

Here’s the pecking order of what to address: first, balanced whole house ventilation with heat recovery. Second, the envelope: —air-seal and insulate. Third, hot water: —it typically accounts for 30% of energy used. Fourth, appliances. Heat pumps and a modern, automated pellet boiler system are a winning combination—you have an opportunity to collect the electric power from solar panels to run the heat pumps, and collect solar bio-energy, now stored in the pellets providing a secure heating backup.

Then continually log and review the data to make sure everything is working as it should. If you don’t take care of it, you start to lose efficiency. Why waste any of it?

Housing can support quality of life or it can detract from it. The fun, rewarding part of my work is that people’s quality of life goes up.

Housing can support quality of life or it can detract from it. The fun, rewarding part of my work is that people’s quality of life goes up. You as a clean energy navigator feel you’ve played a role in taking away stress. No cost for the heat? No more mice in your pantry, because you tightened the envelope? That’s less stress! People are comfortable in the home; they’re not arguing over how much hot water their teenager is using. That frees up energy to take care of more important parts of life, like being kind to each other.

Making Vermont more energy efficient is a collaborative effort, and would not be possible without a strong network of independent contractors. In 2014, Efficiency Vermont created the Efficiency Excellence Network in order to better support and encourage Vermont contractors to provide energy-efficient solutions in the field. There are currently over 250 members in the Efficiency Excellence Network, including Solar Harvester of Newbury, Vermont.

Interested in becoming a part of Efficiency Vermont’s Efficiency Excellence Network?

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