This article appears courtesy of Jon Bell in August’s edition of the Home Building News
They’re as much a part of homebuilding as homebuilders themselves: utilities. The Home Building News recently touched base with the two big names in Portland-area utilities — Portland General Electric and NW Natural — to find out about the trends they’re seeing, the advice they have and the new resources they’re prepping that will make life a little easier for homebuilders.
Here’s an interesting thought: natural gas prices are about the same today as they were 10 years ago.
In other words, according to John Frankel, marketing manager for NW Natural, they’re pretty low.
“Natural gas prices are as low as they were 10 years ago, which is attributed to the increased supply in the country that the shale gas reserves have added,” he said. “That’s helped keep the supply very high.”
That’s also kept the market and demand for natural gas strong, across the country and here in the Portland metro region. Frankel said NW Natural has seen an increase in demand that’s gone along with the relatively recent uptick in multifamily construction around the region. Single family residential has been solid as well, with builders leaning heavily toward natural gas. Homeowners, too, according to Frankel, have continued to go with natural gas for everything from efficient water and space heating to outdoor living areas.
“The outdoor living spaces used to be just for higher-end homes,” he said. “Now it’s a wanted commodity for just about anyone.”
To help make it even easier for builders and homeowners to order residential gas services for new construction homes and existing home conversions, NW Natural is launching a new application at the end of August. Called NW Natural Partner Link, the app will be tablet-optimized and easy to use in either the field or in an office. It is the latest addition to the gas company’s “NW Natural Customer Connections Program,” which was initiated last year with the NW Natural Gas Availability online tool. That tool allows builders and homeowners to find out online, almost instantly, whether or not natural gas services are available in their area.
“As an element of our overall vision to make ordering gas services easier and more efficient, NW Natural Partner Link provides an intuitive interface “ Frankel said. “We are very excited about this genuinely unique and innovative tool that allows our partners to easily create new gas service orders online any time of day and follow up on the status of existing orders.”
The new app will allow builders and heating contractors to order gas service 24 hours a day, seven days a week from their tablet or desktop computer. They’ll also be able to check the status of a new gas service order and update their company profile for address changes, staffing or other information. Builders will also be able to use a copy and paste function for multiple subdivision orders, and an announcement section on the dashboard will provide news, updates, bulletins, incentives and other communications from NW Natural.
NW Natural will make the new app available to trade partners on a separate website later this month. There will also be an online training tool to help users learn how to use the app to place an order. Training will be available to builders, heating contractors and their staff.
For more information, contact Walter Cahall, NW Natural portal and process consultant, at (503) 220-2583 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portland General Electric
According to Theresa Haskins, business markets manager at Portland General Electric, there’s a trend sweeping across the big-picture utility scene in this country to make it easier for builders and customers to connect with their utility companies.
“The trend is really to have a much more dynamic relationship going on between the builder and the utility,” she said. “The old style was, you call and place an order and then you wait. That’s a much more linear process . . . and while there will still be some of that, we’re moving away from it.”
The new approach is one that makes it easier not only for builders to connect with, in this case, PGE, but for PGE to be able to more easily connect with builders and developers. It will be one that taps into mobile technology so that builders could, for example, drive up to a site and order service right from their iPad.
Haskins said PGE already offers a limited amount of mobile and online tools, but investments in the near future will greatly expand options and help builders have “more seamless conversations” with the utility company. She said PGE is investing in a new work management system, it’s converting to a new outage system and updating to a new connectivity map; it will also be making changes to its customer service system, all in an effort to improve the way builders and other customers can connect with PGE.
“Those will all wrap together in a big package,” Haskins said.
After meeting with the HBA recently to talk about what builders are seeing these days, Haskins said that the amount of retirements that PGE has been experiencing lately may be causing some builders a little “pain.” Long-term employees who’ve built relationships with builders over the years are phasing out, which means newer staff members are coming on board and having to get up to speed.
“Then you add in a change in our software systems and that can create another layer of change and potential challenge,” Haskins said. “But we really believe that the long-term opportunity far outweighs that.”
She noted that PGE is working diligently to keep its ranks filled. The company even partners with Portland State University and the Multiple Engineering Co-Operative program to help promote STEM education programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) that are important for the kind of workforce that PGE and other companies need. Through MECOR, PGE provides scholarships to engineering students at Oregon State University and pairs them up with PGE engineering mentors.
PGE continues to see more demand for energy efficiency, and, like builders and others in the region, the company has seen the homebuilding market pick up some steam lately.
“There’s been a lot of work in multifamily units . . . and single family is starting to pop,” Haskins said. “Residential subdivisions were almost nonexistent two years ago, but now it’s starting to come back, which feels good for us and our builder customers.”
Amidst this renewal of building activity, Haskins said it’s important for builders to remember to do their diligence when they buy a piece of property to make sure they know what’s there. In this day and age, it’s not uncommon to find that there’s less and less space for utilities; easements and right-of-way restrictions can also end up adding challenges if they’re not identified early on.
“The tip there is just to do your diligence early and up front,” Haskins said. “And by engaging PGE and our people early on, we can help them navigate some of these challenges.”
For more information about PGE’s services for builders and developers, visit www.portlandgeneral.com/business/builders_developers