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Can Mammograms Teach Us Something Useful about Energy Efficiency?

At first blush, mammograms and energy efficiency investments appear to have nothing in common – one’s a personal, preventative health tool and the other helps you save money and energy. But I suspect they raise similar time-management issues. Let me explain.

This starts with an energy-efficiency experience that I had recently. As I blogged about in late December, my family and I spent a couple days at the beach over the holidays. It was really cold in Berkeley while we were gone, so we relished checking our new Nest (a Hanukkah gift from my in-laws) to see how cold it was in our house – bottoming out at 53 degrees. On the way home, we turned the heat up from the airport, definitely appreciating that feature of the Nest.nest-mobile-app

An hour later, when we were actually in our house, our feelings for the Nest took a nosedive. It was still 53 degrees inside. It got up to 55 degrees by the time we went to bed and was only 58 degrees when my husband woke up the next morning and called the Nest customer hotline – this had never happened before, so we thought the Nest was somehow slowing down our furnace. The extremely helpful rep talked to my husband for almost an hour (5-stars for Nest on customer service) and gradually deduced that it was likely an issue with our furnace filters.

My husband went to the basement and took out the filters – score! They looked like they had 3 inches of fur. After he vacuumed them, our furnace kicked into gear. We had basically been asking an asthmatic to run a marathon, and it was getting tired. With clean lungs, our furnace got our house to 68 in an hour.Dirty-Filter

So, the energy efficiency lesson is this: remember to clean your filters. According to the web research I’ve done, this can help you save 10-20% on your heating bill.

What does this have to do with mammograms? If you’re like me, both “get the furnace filters cleaned” and “get a mammogram” (or “get a prostate screen,” for men) are annoying tasks that you know you should do, but, as life happens, get short shrift.

I think of myself as basically conscientious, maybe not 95th percentile, but at least above the median. I do get approximately annual checkups with my doctor, and every year I walk out with a requisition for a mammogram and every intention of getting one, but then don’t get around to it.

to do list

Last week, I got a call from a local number that I didn’t recognize. I tend to answer those as my thoughts go pretty readily to an EMT checking one of my kids’ phones and finding “Mom.”

Luckily, it wasn’t an EMT, but a friendly yet firm woman who told me she was calling to schedule a mammogram for me. I agreed, eyeing dates in February on my calendar, but she wanted to talk about an appointment in 25 hours. It was brilliant—as it turned out, I didn’t have anything pressing at 5PM on a Friday, so I went in and got the test. If she’d gotten me to schedule something for February, there’s probably a 50/50 chance that something more pressing would have come up for that time slot in the meantime, and I would have canceled, telling myself I’d do it later.

I suspect that both the mammogram and filter cleaning fall victim to what behavioral economists call, “rational inattention” (as Meredith mentioned 2 weeks ago). I have some vague sense that I should be doing them, but actually getting them done involves looking up phone numbers, finding the referral from my doctor (or neighbor in the case of furnace filter cleaners), which is a pain, so I don’t do them. There’s probably an element of less rational procrastination, too.

If others are similar to me and put off filter cleaning, perhaps something like the proactive mammogram scheduling could work. If a filter cleaner had gotten in touch with either me or my husband over the past year encouraging us to sign up for a cleaning tomorrow, we probably would have done it. Not only would we have saved a bunch of energy, but we would have also avoided 18 hours in a frigid house at the end of our vacation (plus cleaner air for our family over the past couple years, no doubt).

Even better would be if Nest could use our personalized data, figure out when our furnace is huffing and puffing too much, and suggest a furnace filter cleaning. Wasn’t personalized data one of the reasons Google was so interested in paying lots of money for Nest?

Behavioral programs and nudges for energy efficiency have received a lot of attention. Opower, the founding father in this domain, recently raised $120 million through its IPO. My general impression is that Opower-type results are pretty intriguing – garnering 2% savings from a simple home energy report. But, 2% savings won’t be the silver bullet for climate change. Maybe nudges targeted at specific actions will be the next important step for behavioral energy efficiency.

Also a good behavioral marketer?
Also a good behavioral marketer?

Ultra-rational economists would argue that if people like me will be super responsive to proactive scheduling calls, furnace-filter cleaners would be doing them already. But small business owners have a lot on their minds, too, like keeping up with the tax code, health insurance laws, etc., so they also may be rationally inattentive to the latest behavioral research.

Then again, mammograms and furnace filter cleaning are not unique. Firms that offer closet cleaning, physical training and time-management consultations might also figure out that they should call people with offers to schedule an appointment tomorrow. I, for one, would very quickly learn not to answer phone calls from local numbers while I was at work. So, they’d have to come up with another way to penetrate my inattention.

Energy efficiency is a core component of most major carbon mitigation plans. And, it’s something that 91 US Senators recently voted in favor of! Figuring out how to help people make good decisions about energy efficiency is a fundamental challenge. But, people make perplexing decisions in many parts of their lives, so, hopefully, we can continue to learn from lots of domains.



Catherine Wolfram View All

Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. ​She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.

She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.

11 thoughts on “Can Mammograms Teach Us Something Useful about Energy Efficiency? Leave a comment

  1. Better (but much more expensive) advice: install radiant heat under the floor. Our “furnace” is a boiler the size of a file drawer that provides domestic hot water year-round and heat during the winter. I live in a climate that’s three times colder as measured by heating degree days in a bigger house and I’ll bet my heating bills are much smaller than yours. No filters, no Nest thermostats. The only drawback is a very long payback period compared with forced air heating, especially at current natural gas prices.

  2. Glad you are rid of the fur, but please get rid of that disposable filter and put in a new one. Most high quality disposables trap down to very tiny particles, and the process is not really reversible (that is, the vacuum is not upsucking them). Easily gotten at Ace or Home Depot or wherever, including on line.

  3. This and the paper on no-cost EE program effectiveness illustrate a bigger issue too often overlooked or misestimated by economists: the value of our personal time. We too often ignore what we can’t directly quantify, and often we use measures that might not truly reflect the value of our time, such as hourly wages. People are reluctant to commit to an activity that might save them out of pocket but has highly uncertain time commitments. The hour your husband spent on the phone probably squandered the energy savings for the year from your NEST. Riding mass transit is another good example–the arrival and departures are uncertain to some degree, making connections and waiting time uncertain. Then add in other costs such as scheduling anxiety. Will I make my bus? How long until the technician arrives? These are all hidden costs to consumers of different kinds. Relying on tried and true solutions gives assurances that reduce those uncertain costs.

    On one hand this may argue for trying to reduce these costs through easing transaction costs and uncertainty. But on the other hand, we may have underestimated those costs and risks so much that when the mitigation costs are included, the actions are no longer cost effective from a social standpoint. At least we’re starting a better conversation about this situation.

  4. We get a discount for signing up for twice yearly regular service on our HVAC system, which has also evolved into “and replace the filter while you’re here”. HVAC service companies could offer an “opt-out” on filter replacement along with the discount. Scheduling is still an issue; time is often the “scarcest resource” (i.e., highest perceived opportunity cost, however vaguely defined).

  5. There are lots of ways to get a reminder like this. I order my HVAC filters online, and the site I buy them from sends me an email when it’s time to change the filter.

    I think the bigger problem is that a lot of people don’t even know that their HVAC system has a filter or that it ever needs to be changed.

  6. You just made a point that I have been pushing for a long time.
    What is it about us that we cannot be ‘just slightly’ inconvenienced/ ‘discomforted’? Unless a medical condition was involved, so what that your house was at 53deg for an hour or two after you got there. What if you had got the home warmed up to 68deg, and then were delayed in traffic for 6 hours. This is an example of why we are unlikely to ever achieve much reduction in our energy consumption. We want lush green lawns in our backyards, wasting huge amounts of water [and energy]. It is generally only slightly more inconvenient to go to a park. The water usage in most suburban homes is mostly for lawn, yet we don’t get rid of it [or reduce lawn turf area] to reduce consumption. We install low-flow sprinkler heads, and tossing away perfectly good older ones; more energy wasted.

  7. I like the post Catherine, but mammograms and prostate screenings may not be the ideal example because there is serious debate about whether the net (or even gross) benefits of those tests are positive for people without elevated risk of breast/prostate cancer. Colonoscopies are probably a better example since those have been definitively shown to reduce mortality in RCTs.

  8. The filter pictured in the post is a disposable filter, and is not considered cleanable (unlike the case with the cells in an electronic air cleaner). I’d wager that most homes’ HVAC systems utilize disposable filters. In any case, it certainly is important to regularly replace or clean filters, as appropriate.

    As for the Nest, it actually does provide the option to receive reminders to check filters. These are based on system runtime.

  9. If I get a phone call out of the blue, I’m inclined to say “no” to whatever is proposed. I like to think about it, and usually conclude it’s not important. HOWEVER if, when I installed my Nest (which I don’t have but let’s say I did), there were an app that you got from Nest that would schedule filter cleaning, and would send me a reminder on my phone, I might be much more inclined to say “yes” if I got a phone call, from Nest, saying “your Nest Reminder App tells us that you haven’t cleaned your furnace filters on schedule; would you like to make an appointment for this Thursday?” I’m not a huge smartphone phan but I do think this sort of thing could be very useful.

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