Energy Conservation Actions: Analysis of Predictors

Patricia A. Tripple, University of Nevada, Reno
Carole J. Makela, Colorado State University
[ to cite ]:
Patricia A. Tripple and Carole J. Makela (1986) ,"Energy Conservation Actions: Analysis of Predictors", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 473-475.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 473-475


Patricia A. Tripple, University of Nevada, Reno

Carole J. Makela, Colorado State University

["Research completed in Western Regional states (AZ, CO, ID, NV, OR, UT, WA, and WY), part of Regional Project W159, Consequences of Energy Conservation Policies for Western Region Households. Financial resources for the collection of the data were provided, in part, by USDA Regional Research Project W-159."]

The continued demand on finite resources to provide energy for an ever increasing population requires a more comprehensive understanding of consumers' intentions and actions. This understanding is vital to provide rational responses to short term crises and long term solutions to the demand-supply imbalance whether public policy or personal practices. With lessened public policy related to energy, personal practice is expected to respond to supply and price fluctuations and to national well-being. The hoped for outcome is sound energy use practices, the reality is yet to be assessed.

Conservation has been advocated as an important factor in easing the energy problem. Response to the crises of the 1970s has proven that conservation practices can result in lessened energy use and decreased acceleration of the growth in demand. Yet predictions of the energy situation in the United States label conservation trends as 'highly uncertain' (Energy Information Administration 1985).

If conservation and its dependence on the individual consumer are viewed on a continuum, on one extreme conservation is dependent on the design and production of energy efficient structures and systems, automobiles and appliances. On the other extreme are the actions and behaviors of individuals or groups who occupy the buildings and use these goods. Though efficiency has been built into new structures and goods, gains in efficiency are dependent on the replacement of current inventories and on the maintenance of optimal use through consumer practices and actions. Meanwhile, existing units may need to be retro-fitted and operated and/or used differently from in the past to effect sustained conservation. Changes in the actions of people are essential to achieve optimal levels of conservation whether it be setting thermostats higher in summer and lower in winter, lessening heat loss or gain from one's living unit or using less hot water.

This paper looks at the plans and implementation of conservation measures by consumers in a longitudinal study done in the Western United States. The dynamics of factors in the residential energy picture and conservation efforts are explored to develop understanding between intent and action. Directions to take in further research related to the consumer and the conservation of energy are put forth.

Do people plan their actions to implement energy conservation retrofits? How much time elapses between stated plans and implementation of conservation actions? Do planners implement conservation actions more often than nonplanners? Is planning an ever present mode for a portion of people since actions can be done in increments (some weatherstripping this year, some next; add storm doors this year, windows at some later time)? What do people identify as barriers to taking planned actions?

Methodology of Sampling and Data Collection

Mail questionnaires were used to obtain a western states' perspective of attitudes and energy behavior in 1981 and again in 1983. Eight states--Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming--participated in the study. In 1981 and 1983 all eight states administered their questionnaires simultaneously using the same mail survey procedures. This common use helped assure collection of comparable data in each of the states and legitimized the combining of states' data for regional analyses. The technique used was Dillman's (1978) Total Design Method (TDM). The method includes the following steps: 1) an initial mailing of a cover letter (individually addressed and signed), a questionnaire and return envelope; 2) a follow-up postcard designed as both a thank you to respondents and a reminder to nonrespondents one week later; 3) a replacement questionnaire with cover letter and return envelope to nonrespondents three weeks after the first mailing; and 4) either a telephone follow-up or a second replacement questionnaire sent by certified or special delivery mail. Copies of relevant survey and correspondence implementation materials for 1981 are included in Makela, et al. (1982); those for 1983 were similar.

The 1981 sample was a stratified (rural/urban) random sample of approximately 1500 households in each state drawn from telephone directories. Households responding to the 1981 survey were included in the 1983 survey. This was considered important for the purpose of measuring change over time. In addition to the follow-up of 1981 respondents, each participating state was required to draw an independent random cross-sectional sample from each of its rural and urban strata in 1983. Minimum sample size requirements proportional to state population were specified. The overall sampling plan is summarized as follows:

*In 1981, a cross-sectional stratified random sample of approximately 400 from the rural and from the urban populations of each of the eight states (useable returns 6.893. 58 PerCent);

*In 1983, a resurvey of the 6,893 respondents using a similar questionnaire (useable returns in panel resurvey 4,548, 67 percent);

*In 1983, a new cross-sectional stratified random sample in each of the states (rural and urban), (useable returns 2,768, 57 percent).

Conservation Plans and Actions

In their analytic framework, Cooper et al. (1983) indicated that three elements interact to determine the impact of rising energy prices on consumers. These elements are changes in income, expenditures and 'avenues of retreat. t The regional project explored the latter two elements to the greatest extent. Changes in expenditures include those for energy, other goods and services and 'instantaneous' responses - behavioral conservation and reductions in savings. The regional project explored changes in expenditures for selected goods and services, savings and the practice of behavioral conservation.

Respondents indicated a greater adjustment in their expenditures for other goods and services in 1981 than in 1983. By 1983 cutbacks had moderated especially for the basics of food, housing, education and health care. Less than one-fifth of the respondents assessed their cutbacks as 'a lot' or 'some' in the aforementioned expenses in 1983. Discretionary items (vacations, recreation, eating out) were being cutback by two-fifths to one-half of the respondents. This may reflect that adjustments were made during the periods of rapidly rising energy costs and highest inflation. The result may well be that consumers have settled in on a new spending pattern that will be readjusted when internal or external events cause disequilibrium tue to a strain on one or more of the expenditure categories.

'Avenues of retreat' relate to plans to cope with the impact of energy costs. Behavioral conservation, investment, indebtedness and reductions in living standard are the avenues used by Cooper, et al. All of these were studied in the regional project. Behavioral conservation and investment were explored to the greatest depth. Fourteen structural features were studied. Those most commonly added by the panel between 1981 and 1983 were weatherstripping and caulking (16 percent), storm or double pane windows (10 percent), and insulated window treatments (10 percent) (Table 1). Four other features had each been added in the two year period by 7 to 9 percent of the panel.

These longitudinal findings indicate that people do carry through with plans implementing the less technical and more proven features while being less likely to implement the high technology features. Yet, plans to add 'newer' features continue. Planners were more likely than nonplanners to add features.

The portion of persons who plan and take action may appear small, but various factors influence the 'intent and action' relationship. The factors include:

*the presence of the feature at the time of the initial survey;

*climatic conditions that make the feature inappropriate;

*structure characteristics that make the feature inappropriate:

*nature of the feature that makes incremental additions appropriate;

*general reluctance to replace features in working order or good condition with 'improved' models (more energy efficient in this case);

*renters limited motivation or incentive to 'improve' their unit:

*perceived short term tenure in current housing unit.

What are the standards for annual rates of adding of these individual features? What internal or external factors will decelerate or accelerate these rates? Answers to these two questions would help us better understand diffusion and adoPtion of energy conservation features.

As its state research focus Colorado explored the reasons that respondents identified as preventing their planned implementation of the projects (Makela 1984). Economic reasons were frequently given as the barrier preventing two or more of the projects from completion. Forty-five different reasons were indicated by 675 Colorado respondents. Their statements ranged from the costs of the projects to the age of the respondents to the constraints of their housing situation. The reasons most often cited and their respective percentages were lack of money, 66 percent; renting, 13 percent; lack of time, 9 percent; plans to move, 5 percent; and lengthy payback period, 5 percent.

When categorized by the type of limitation that they presented the pattern for the 675 reasons were primarily economic. Current economic limitations (57 percent of the reasons), housing limitations (18 percent of the reasons), and time limitations (7 percent of the reasons) were most frequently cited for preventing implementation of the projects. These three groups of reasons accounted for more than four-fifths of the deterrents to implementation of the projects.

The identification of economic barriers and the small portion (no more than 13 percent in any one state) of people who borrowed to implement features in 1981 need further exploration now that energy prices are increasing at slower rates than earlier, interest rates have declined and energy conservation has taken on (or been relegated to) a low profile. Will the addition of energy features decline as price pressures moderate or will this situation be viewed as an opportunity to use dollars that might otherwise be earmarked for rising expenses?


The following conclusions are drawn from these preliminary analysis.

*Over the two year time span, the portion of planners remain fairly constant for most energy features.

*During the 1981-83 period the portion making energy feature additions was similar to the portion planning to in 1981 except for the technical and 'newer' features - setback thermostats, solar water heating and home heating.

*While nearly 80 percent of the respondents indicated projects they would like to do on their homes, only a small Portion planned to add any one feature.

*Of the projects that respondents would like to do, most were to improve structural efficiency or to allow for use of an alternative energy source.

*The reasons most frequently cited as deterring the implementation of the projects were current economic and housing limitations.

With the continued demand for finite resources to provide energy for an ever increasing population, a more comprehensive understanding of consumers' intentions and actions is vital to provide rational responses to short term crises and long term solutions to the demand-supply imbalance. The relationships of consumer intentions to actual consumption behavior have been modeled by many renowned consumer researchers. The conclusions are not definitive. New choice situations call for continuing study of the relationship of what consumers 'say they plan or will do' to what they actually do. The 'intent to action' relationship is of prime importance in our individual and national efforts to decrease dependency on foreign supplies of energy and to maintain reasonable costs for delivery of energy to the residential sector. Our next step is the exploration of the predictive power of consumer attitudes, demographic and housing variables as they relate to consumers' intent and actions.

The study of diffusion of energy conservation features and consumers' intentions and actions ray not mirror even the 'hazy' picture found for other consumer goods and services. Conservation features are not the relatively permanent goods and services described by Frankel (1977) "Prediction is apparently more successful for those goods and services that are relatively more permanent, such as financial services (bank accounts and credit card usage) and products for which the consumer is brand loyal" (p. 8).

Energy conservation practices and priorities are characterized by mixed messages at best. The major ones include the following:

*Media reports of contradictory scenarios as to the supply and price of energy now as well as in the future. What can we believe?

*Decreased attention to the need and practice of conservation as energy tax credits are allowed to expire and informational and educational efforts wane. Are we really convinced?



*Limited advertising of conservation features of housing units, heating ant-cooling systems and appliances. Seemingly even less advertising of conservation products --weatherstripping, storm doors, solar systems. Insulation isn't sexy!

*Time cost for do-it-yourselfer to obtain the materials and tools. Some of us speculate it takes longer to shop than to install the features. this is a highly researchable area exploring time as well as money limiters.

*The confusion/misunderstanding that the 'payback' period message has given compared to a message that return on expenditure/investment might give. Would you make an expenditure if you thought you would sell the house before the payback period expired?

Research on residential energy use is now ready to go beyond the study of energy usage patterns and the explanation of these to the explanation of conservation actions and practices. This research will provide answers that enable the consumer to gain some control in their energy environment where they often feel at the mercy of a utility company, builder or auto manufacturer.


Anderson, M. A., Iams, D., Jones, J. C., Chatelain, L. B., Dillman, D. A., and Anderson, D. A. (in press). Energy Directions for the United States: A Western Perspective Two Years Later. Laramie, WY; University of Wyoming ExPeriment Station.

Cooper, M. N., Sullivan, T. L., Punnett, S., and Berman, E. (1983). Equity and Energy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Dillman, D. A. (1978). Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method. New York, NY: Wiley-Interscience.

Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy (1985). Annual Energy Outlook - Executive Summary. Washington. DC: USDA Extension Service.

Frankel, M. (1977). A Summary Report: What We Know About Consumer Behavior. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

Jones, J. C., Dillman, D. A., Chatelain, L. B., Anderson, D. A., Iams, D., and Anderson, M.A. (1984). Energy Directions Two Years Later (slide set). Moscow, ID: School of Home Economics. University of Idaho.

Makela, C. J. (1984). "Household Energy Features: Actions and Plans." Families and Energy: Coping With Uncertainty. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, pp. 415-421.

Makela, C. J., Chatelain, L. B., Dillman, D. A., Dillman, J. J., and Tripple, P. A. (1982). Energy Directions for the Western States: A Western PersPective, (Western Rural Development Center Publication No. 13). Corvallis, OR: Western Rural Development Center.