By Keith Reid
With a successful reauthorization behind it, the National Oil Heat Research Alliance is finally up and running as it serves the industry. The ongoing process has also begun on how best to utilize the funds available to fulfill its congressional mandate.
That money is divided up for a range of purposes. Some of it is set aside for research and development, some for improving industry safety, some for technician education and for promoting the move into Bioheat. While there is money reserved for industry promotion and consumer advertising the current reauthorization shifted some of that into other areas like research and development. Compensating for that is the ability to use some of the funds available to associations in the other core areas to support a rebate program that encourages energy efficiency and safety improvements.
NORA has now established a rebate program that is being integrated into a number of states. The program is highly flexible to both the state associations and dealers.
The program is only available for oil heat appliances and tanks. These include boilers, furnaces, burners and controls. The new equipment must be more efficient than the old equipment that it replaced. While not an efficiency upgrade, tanks are included because they represent a safety upgrade. While both underground and aboveground tanks can be replaced, the replacement has to be an aboveground tank.
The program is administered through the state associations that serve the industry, however; it is open to both members of those associations and nonmembers.
Currently the program underway with Oil Heat Comfort Corp. (Long Island), New York Oil Heating Association, Upstate New York Energy Association, Hudson Valley Oil & Energy Council, Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, NC Oilheat, Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association and Fuel Marketers Association of New Jersey is on the way. The program is currently under consideration in Pennsylvania.
Operating within the basic NORA requirements, each association has a significant amount of flexibility in implementing the program. For example, some require a minimum efficiency for the equipment upgrade even though NORA only requires it to be better. Some associations are similarly looking to link the NORA rebates with various state incentives that might exist for efficiency improvements and dealers within the industry can offer matching or complementary rebates.
Once on board, there is a registration period where an association would send a letter out to every dealer in the state that is possible to identify to let them know about the program. The dealers are then given a window of opportunity to register.
The associations currently have a pool of funds to work with that could range from $75,000 to $150,000. Some associations are allocating that money by the amount of gallons delivered. Some are using a flat number of rebates per company, such as 10 and a flat fee for the type of upgrade. Each association determines how much money is in the pot, how much is available for rebates and then determines which types of equipment they are going to cover.
“I’ve been here for 34 years and this is the most exciting program that we have done during my time,” said Kevin Rooney, CEO of OHCC. “I think it is so positive and it meets all of the goals of the association and our industry–more efficient equipment, saving customers money, burning a cleaner fuel–this helps accomplish all of the things we talk about.”
OHI is acknowledged to be farthest along in the process, having begun in the fall of 2015 with a launch on Jan. 1 with about $100,000 of its NORA money. This was allocated based upon the gallonage for each of the companies that went to the sign-up process. That included virtually all of its members and numerous nonmembers. So far, it has issued over 200 rebates in the first quarter of 2016.
“The beautiful thing about this is that the customer doesn’t have to do anything. The company files on behalf of the customer,” Rooney said. He noted that OHCC decided to send out the checks directly to the customer instead of sending them to the oil company. “If you say we’re taking $300 off the price because we’re getting a rebate that sounds like some marketing message. I wanted the benefit of being able to send a check and a nice letter out to every homeowner,” he said. “’Dear Mrs. Jones, congratulations we understand your recently upgraded your heating system and oh, by the way, here’s your $300 rebate—have fun.’ And we’ve probably got almost 20 calls from consumers asking us if it’s for real. And they are thrilled when they find out it is.”
The HVOEC program offers each dealer 10 rebate slots, as long as the dealer sells oil as well as provides HVAC services. A customer can receive $500 for a heating appliance upgrade and $250 for a tank.
“It’s an exciting thing to be able to offer customers rebates, especially in this economy,” said Leann Panebianco, manager of Stony Point, N.Y.-based Panco Petroleum and HVOEC president. “People are still struggling, and a lot of people view having to replace their heating system is not particularly exciting compared other things they could do with the money. Any time we can offer a customer a rebate or a discount or something like that it is an exciting thing.”
How each company offers those rebates is also flexible. For example, Marlboro, N.Y.-based Porco Energy Corp. is looking to fill its 10 slots based upon need, if possible. “We want to basis program on people who need a little extra help but were finding people are maintaining and fixing but not necessarily pushing their units,” said Chris Scaturro, Porco’s propane manager and fleet dispatcher and HVOEC vice president.
Both Panebianco and Scaturro credit former HVOEC president Ron Mustello, general manager of Petro Poughkeepsie and Love Effron Fuel, both based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., with bringing the program to life at HVOEC. “When Ron brought this up there was absolutely no negative feedback and the only thing we asked was how quickly can we get it off the ground and how many customers are we get a be able to help,” said Panebianco.
Automating the Process
An integral player in the process has been PriMedia, a multifaceted marketing and public relations firm well-established the industry. While the program can be administered manually using paper forms, this process can be exceptionally cumbersome. PriMedia has developed a digitized, web-based solution that associations can implement to eliminate most of the headache and hassle. This program is currently in place at all of the associations except NC Oilheat and VPCGA.
“When we looked at their rebate program we discovered that it’s all done by paper,” said John Bruno, PriMedia’s creative director. “There is a form for a company to register for the program through the association and then there is a form for them to get pre-rebate approval that goes to the association, and the association approves that and makes sure there’s money in the bucket that is allocated for that rebate and gives approval to the dealer, which involves more paperwork.”
And it doesn’t stop there. NORA wants detailed information on the upgrade to include the AFUE rating of the old equipment, the AFUE rating of the new more efficient equipment, and the make and model numbers for the old and new equipment if possible. Also it is recommended that a customer signature signifying that the upgrade was completed be included. This information will be used to help show the success of the program at the next reauthorization. If everything is added up there might be 45 sheets of paper involved from forms to spreadsheets to receipts that would need to be scanned and sent back and forth between the three parties, sheet by sheet.
Handling that amount of paperwork for tens, not to mention hundreds of rebates, would be a challenge for large associations and large dealer operations with abundant resources, which is certainly far from the norm in the heating oil industry. The more cumbersome the process is the less successful the program is going to be from the customer, to the dealer, to the Association and finally to the responsiveness at NORA itself.
At the most let basic level, PriMedia converted the paper forms to the PDF format to allow easier online access. This still allows a company to work through the process the old-fashioned way but a bit more conveniently. Beyond that, PriMedia further digitally incorporates those forms in an online portal where heating oil company can fill them out electronically, the association can review and allocate rebates, and the required information can then be electronically sent to NORA.
“It’s a lot a leg work that we as a council don’t have to do because it’s automated,” said Scaturro. “Everybody on the council has a full-time job running companies are managing are doing other things so this is a lifesaver at the back office end. Obviously we pay for this, but it has helped out a tremendous amount.”
Bruno stresses that all of the information is secure. While Primedia has access to the system and the portal the association really has the granular access. And, each dealer has a unique password and they see only their own information, and each association only sees its own information it’s very secure and backed up.
The branding is also designed to unify what is generally a flexible program. This is particularly important for companies that do business across state lines. For example, the New York program is named Upgrade and Save New York Energy Efficiency and Safety Rebate Program. For a program in Connecticut, The program name would remain the same with only the name of the state changed. However, the company would have to understand and explain the specifics of the rebate program offered in each state.