Home energy rating inspectors in California are now using durable handheld computers, which have replaced pen and paper as they check whether builders are meeting energy-efficiency requirements.

Inspectors for California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Services (CHEERS) have successfully completed a beta test of 12 durable handhelds from Symbol Technologies. The handhelds use a new Home Energy Rating System Mobile application from Colorado-based Countermind.

The deployment initially began with three dozen CHEERS inspectors, who paid about $2,200 each for the device and software, said Tom Hamilton, executive director of the CHEERS, a nonprofit based in Chatsworth, California.

New standards means new challenges
New state energy standards took effect last year, affecting both new and existing homes as well as heating and air conditioning systems, he said. Knowing that the new regulations would increase the number of inspections - and the amount of data collected - CHEERS wanted "some kind of mobile solution to allow inspectors to collect data cleaner, better and faster," Hamilton said in a recent interview. CHEERS inspectors completed more than 26,000 home inspections last year alone.

With the old paper-based system, the inspectors occasionally lost documents and had to deal with "at least a half dozen points where the data could be messed up," he said.

The regulations are used to verify that builders have met energy efficiency requirements, meaning CHEERS officials must check a builder's paperwork, the home's duct work and the types of appliances used, among other things. The ratings can also be used to determine whether a home meets the California energy building code and qualifies for utility incentives.

Durable - better than rugged?
Hamilton said CHEERS picked the Symbol MC50 Enterprise Digital Assistant. Symbol describes the MC50 as a "durable" rather than a fully "rugged" device, meaning it can survive drops better than off-the-shelf handhelds, but is less expensive than truly ruggedized devices.

Inspectors need the extra durability of a rugged handheld as they climb through houses while doing their inspections, Hamilton said.

He predicted that the inspectors, who check several properties a day, will get back their $2,200 investment in about six months, primarily because they can save one to three hours a week with the handhelds. That time can be used to make more inspections.

Hamilton said the handhelds could eventually be used for a variety of inspections including checks for energy efficiency, lighting and even termites.