Best Practices for Program Design and Implementation

There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to program design and implementation strategies because each market has unique characteristics. For example, some markets are represented by mostly small regional and custom builders, while others are dominated by large production builders. Some markets have a strong home energy rater presence, while others have minimal or no rater infrastructure. Therefore, the key to successful program design and implementation is having a thorough understanding of the market and effectively addressing the most important regional factors and potential barriers to program participation.

The program design and implementation best practices below were developed based on EPA's experience working with more than 100 utility partners to implement successful ENERGY STAR Certified Homes programs across the country for over fifteen years.

Best Practices for Program Design

The following are four key steps to effectively design a residential new construction energy efficiency program that incorporates ENERGY STAR certified homes.

Step 1: Conduct Market Research

Consult national home builder publications for annual reports on top builders in your region, including housing starts, predominant builder size, type, and geographic distribution. The ENERGY STAR Partner Locator is a great resource for identifying existing builders, developers, verification professionals, and sponsor partners in your area. The ENERGY STAR website has information to identify credentialed HVAC contractors in your service territory. Research may also be needed to determine regional availability of key energy efficiency technologies (e.g., high-efficiency equipment, windows, etc.).

Step 2: Assess Local Energy Rating Infrastructure

Energy Rating Companies (ERCs) are third parties who inspect homes to earn the ENERGY STAR. Some programs need to establish a strong rater network while working with builders to construct ENERGY STAR homes and apartments. Consult the ENERGY STAR Partner Locator for a list of ERCs in your area or in nearby states.

Step 3: Assess Credentialed HVAC Contractors in Market

HVAC performance is critical to delivering efficiency, comfort, and durability. That is why HVAC systems in ENERGY STAR certified homes and apartments are designed and installed according to industry best practices by expert contractors. Only contractors who hold EPA-recognized credentials can complete parts of the ENERGY STAR HVAC requirements. HVAC credentialing makes it easy for builders and developers to identify contractors to help them achieve the ENERGY STAR, for contractors to market best practices, and for consumers to be confident in the comfort and performance of their ENERGY STAR homes. Some programs need to work with the HVAC industry to ensure that there are sufficient credentialed contractors in their service territories to support their program partners. Consult the credentialed contractor page for a list of eligible companies.

Step 4: Benchmark Construction Practices

Work with the rating industry to benchmark current construction practices (e.g., quality of insulation installation, HVAC duct sealing). Evaluate the availability of key energy-efficient technologies and construction practices and their costs, and determine the rigor of the prevailing energy code and how effectively it is enforced.

Step 5: Identify Potential Barriers to Program Participation

Many markets are characterized by one or more of the following barriers to greater adoption of energy-efficient homes: industry resistance to change and concerns with risk; first cost decision making which ignores utility cost savings and improved comfort, durability and indoor air quality; lack of skills selling energy efficient homes; lack of consumer awareness and demand; and lack of technical infrastructure for construction and verification.

Based on local market research and specific program objectives, develop a program design that proactively addresses barriers to participation. Key elements of a robust program include marketing, a strategic incentive structure, technical and sales training, a strong communications strategy, data collection and tracking, quality assurance processes, and continuous evaluation. This Best Practices Checklist (PDF, 69 KB) offers some specific tips on how to design a program that incorporates these elements.

Best Practices for Program Implementation

Program implementation includes all activities needed to deliver the program, including day-to-day administration, marketing, a strategic incentive structure, technical and sales training, a strong communications strategy, data collection and tracking, quality assurance processes, and continuous evaluation. Prior to program launch be sure to submit a signed Partnership Agreement and Commitment Form to ENERGY STAR. Once you become a partner, you can create marketing materials with the ENERGY STAR logo and access additional resources that are useful in recruiting and training builders and raters.


The marketing component of an ENERGY STAR program should be designed both to attract builder partners and to increase consumer awareness. A key ingredient of an effective marketing strategy is to develop compelling messages. For builders, it is important to emphasize the value of the program as it relates to their business objectives (e.g., market share, competitive advantage, reduced liability). For consumers, the message should be as simple as possible and convey compelling homeownership benefits (e.g., better homes for lower cost of ownership). Once messaging is developed, the marketing strategy should ensure frequency of messaging (e.g., multiple advertising placements vs. single events). Take advantage the marketing tools and materials from the national ENERGY STAR Certified Homes Program.

Strategic Incentive Structures

Incentives can 'jumpstart' program participation and, if strategically designed, can lead to a healthy, self-sustaining market even if they are phased out. Incentives can include direct monetary payments, such as rebates, indirect monetary assistance such as free ratings; or non-monetary assistance such as free training. The four most common utility program incentive structures, which can be used alone or in conjunction with one another, are:

  • Tiered incentives. Several tiers of incentives are available to the builder based on the efficiency of the house. ENERGY STAR certification can be a prerequisite for all tiers or for the higher level tiers depending on the market conditions.
  • Equipment incentives. In addition to building an ENERGY STAR certified home, incentives are provided for specific high efficient equipment such as HVAC equipment, lighting, or on-site energy.
  • Rating incentives. The rating is either directly provided by the utility or raters can be directly paid to provide verification services to participating homes.
  • Homeowner discount. A percentage or flat fee discount on utility bills is given to owners of ENERGY STAR certified homes.

The cash value of incentives offered for ENERGY STAR certified homes does not necessarily correlate with the market penetration of certified homes. Therefore, even though incentives can play a role in the success of a program, other factors, such as the development of healthy builder and rater competition and consumer education and demand, are equally if not often more important.


Effective training can help program implementers to establish a viable Energy Rating infrastructure, prepare various local subcontractors for success, set clear expectations and requirements for builders so they can become successful program participants, train sales agents and real estate professionals to communicate the benefits of energy-efficient homes, and educate buyers on the benefits of purchasing energy-efficient homes. By implementing an ENERGY STAR Certified Homes program, sponsors can leverage a powerful brand advantage, along with fully-developed technical specifications and associated training and technical support available from EPA at no cost.

In addition to builders and raters, trade allies play important roles in the success of ENERGY STAR home construction. HVAC contractors, architects, insulators, and roofing and foundation contractors in particular may need additional training to see the value in the enhanced practices required by ENERGY STAR and understand how to do them correctly. As a sponsor of an ENERGY STAR Certified Homes program, there are many ways that you can provide training support to your builders and their trade allies:

  • Delivering individual mentoring or group training on program requirements;
  • Facilitating local training events through industry-recognized trainers; or
  • Directing partners and allies to ENERGY STAR training materials to use on their own.
Communication Strategy

Developing and nurturing strong relationships with all program stakeholders (e.g., consumers, builders, home energy raters, HVAC contractors, real estate agents, appraisers, and related home builder and trade associations) is a critical factor for success. This relationship-building begins by establishing procedures and expectations, including processes that involve stakeholders in important decisions and milestones, as well as periodic communication through newsletters and e-mails. It is particularly important to allow long lead times, typically at least six months, to educate partners about any upcoming changes to program requirements or incentives. To effectively manage limited resources, it is important to identify "champion" builders that can leverage the greatest growth through their own participation and ability to attract competitors to join the program.

Quality Assurance Protocols

Because program success is so dependent on homes consistently meeting technical specifications, quality assurance oversight for building and rating practices is critical. A robust quality assurance protocol serves to: ensure the integrity of the ENERGY STAR label; add an important additional layer of oversight beyond the quality assurance activities provided by the rating industry; promote a mature, self-sustaining high-performance building industry; and ensure that participants are meeting program guidelines, incentives are being properly awarded, and savings claimed are accurate. Key elements of a robust quality assurance protocol include:

  • Participation agreements that clearly delineate expectations and requirements
  • Incentive application review
  • Data file review (including rating reports and inspection checklists)
  • In-field inspections
  • Corrective action process resulting in removal of non-compliant participants
  • Training based on QA/QC findings
Measurement and Evaluation

By incorporating evaluation practices into program design and putting tracking systems in place as soon as implementation starts, sponsors will have critical data needed to assess whether goals (e.g., actual energy savings, peak-demand reduction, cost effectiveness) are met. It can also help to facilitate continuous improvement in program elements like incentives, the home verification process, training, and marketing strategies. This will allow sponsors to demonstrate critical performance metrics to regulators, and to rebalance program investments to optimize future returns. The most successful programs evaluate their performance against key savings and peak load reduction targets. Metrics that assist in evaluating program success can include: the number of homebuilder and rater program partners, the number of ENERGY STAR certified homes constructed, measurements of peak energy use for certified vs. noncertified homes, and utility bills of certified vs. noncertified homes.

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