Free virtual home inspections help Memphians fight winter utility costs

When the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to work with Memphis-based Frontdoor to offer free virtual home inspections in July of this year, they weren’t really thinking about keeping homeowners safe during COVID-19.

But with temperatures dropping and the number of COVID-19 cases spiking again, these virtual inspections give Memphians the ability to make their homes safer, more comfortable, and more energy efficient as they settle into a winter spent sheltering at home.

TVA can now inspect a customer’s home through an app on the customer’s smart device and make recommendations without setting foot in the customer’s home. The service is free and available to home owners, renters, and landlords in any single-family home in the city. 

“All they need is a smart device and a WiFi connection—it can be their phone, it could be an iPad, anything like that,” said Brad Wagner, program operations manager with TVA's EnergyRight Residential division.

The process is simple. The resident grants one of TVA’s home advisors access to the app on the customer's device. The customer then walks through their home using a video call feature to show the advisor specific areas related to energy efficiency, like their HVAC unit, attic spaces, and windows. 

For privacy, residents can pause and mute the video feed to move between inspection points.

“Some of these guys have decades and decades of expertise with home energy efficiency and home energy use and things like that. So the customer is getting the same level of service, they're just doing it virtually,” said Wagner.

“It was helpful and informative, but what I didn't expect was it was fun,” said Memphian Mary Day, who used the free service in April of this year.

“The only reason not to is that you wouldn't have the time to do it. We all have the time to do it now. We're home all the time. There's no downside to it. It took less than an hour," she said.

TVA’s advisor was able to talk Day through ways to reduce her energy bill by spotting issues in her home and suggesting the most effective repairs or upgrades.

“In terms of what they did, I mean it, it saved me a ton of money because I would have gone the wrong direction. I would have invested in the wrong things,” she said.

The virtual inspection also helped Day when she got ready to sell her home in June of this year.

“It added an extra level of transparency," said Day. “The documentation they give you is really, really nice. It shows all the pictures that they take through your phone and puts it together in a very organized way. [They] have the narrative with the pictures of your own home."

“In terms of the sale, I think it gave my new buyer a lot of confidence in that,” she said.

More information on virtual inspections can be found here. Residents can register their home and sign up for an inspection here.
This mock up shows a TVA-EnergyRight virtual inspection. Trained professionals can assess specific areas in a home related to energy efficiency and mark problem areas, as indicated by the blue circle. (Submitted)

How It Started 
This new offering has been in the works for some time.

“We actually were looking into moving to a virtual platform. We kind of started down this path last fall,” said Wagner.

In October, 2019, TVA’s long-term partner, CLEAResult, started working with technology developer Streem. Frontdoor acquired Streem shortly thereafter.

Streem developed the virtual reality platform that makes the virtual inspections possible. The program was in the research and development phase when COVID-19 hit. TVA to suspend its field operations on March 17.

“When we did that, we basically fast tracked the work that we were doing with virtual through CLEAResult and Streem,” said Wagner.

Frontdoor is a Memphis-based company which comprises several brands including American Home Shield.

“TVA was the first utility in the southeast to offer virtual home inspections though Streem’s technology,” said Melanie Thomas with Frontdoor. 

“It is hot here! So energy efficiency is beneficial for all customers,” said Thomas. “HVAC is something that stays top of mind for all customers."

Thomas says that there are simple, common sense things that Memphians can do to save energy, but deeper issues that have potential to save the consumer a large amount of money usually require a professional evaluation.

“That's where the benefit is for these assessments ” said Thomas. “And again, with Streem, I don't have to have a contractor to come to my home to do it,” she emphasized.
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.