Helping Others Go Green
How One Woman’s Love for Nature Has Helped Others Save Money and Live Better
Tamasin Sterner's motto in life should be "Save Money, Live Better ™.”
Unfortunately, that slogan is already used by another company, but fortunately for the residents of Lancaster County, Sterner knows how to help everyone do these two things well.
As many people in the county begin to look at ways to make their lives more sustainable, one local business stands out as the go-to place for assistance. That place is Sterner’s auditing and consultation company, Pure Energy.
Sterner spends her days helping residents evaluate their households and lifestyles in an attempt to save energy and live greener lives. What started as a local initiative from her house just outside of Lancaster, Pure Energy has turned into a well-known business in the northeastern United States that is becoming accessible to more people every day. The company has recently expanded to include services in Montana.
Sterner, a graduate from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, performs energy audits in homes, holds workshops to educate the public about energy use and conservation, and even teaches an occasional class at a local technical school. She hopes to continue expanding this business to more homeowners so that they too can save money, energy, and the environment.
Everything she does, however, comes from her love of nature, her love for conservation, and her enjoyment in working with people. It is a role she treasures, and one that came from an interesting journey in life.
Growing Up With Nature
When Sterner was a kid during the 1960s, the United States did not have a focus on the environment or on energy conservation. As a result, people were becoming more and more carefree about their energy consumption, especially with the increase in the number of automobiles on the road.
As a kid, Sterner fell in love with nature. But due to the lack of focus on the environment, Sterner’s feelings about nature went unrecognized.
“I have always wanted to have a minimal impact on the earth,” she explained. “Much to my parent's dismay, I wore the same flannel shirt for several years as a teenager—until it fell apart!
“I didn't want to waste anything. When I was growing up, we didn't have many of the things available now.”
Despite this, Sterner received some support from her parents.
“My parents are Depression age people, and they [taught] me to be respectful of our resources,” she said.
Sterner feels like she has a personal relationship with the earth. “Nature is my sanctuary—where I feel closest to myself and to all that is,” she explained.
“Earth is a beautiful and special place - here to help us learn and grow. I respect that, and nature is where I feel closest to all that is, and hear guiding messages.
Whenever it was possible, Sterner would inject her love of nature into her schoolwork. She recalled two projects she completed during her grade-school years. The first was a third-grade book report in which she mentioned in the “About the Author” section that she loved nature and enjoyed spending time outdoors. Four years later, she wrote a paper explaining her fears that overpopulating the earth would lead to problems with land usage. As a seventh-grade student, Sterner thought that it would be irresponsible to have children because of those concerns.
The environment began receiving attention from the country in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated. Sterner actively participated in that celebration, and, upon entering high school a year later, joined the Recycling Club and continued to broader her experiences with nature and conservation.
After graduating from high school, Sterner turned to Millersville University of Pennsylvania for a degree in economics, with minors in psychology and art. Millersville did not have a business program at the time, so, in Sterner’s opinion, this was the next best option. She liked the economics program for its retail aspect, but otherwise, she did not have much interest in the program.
While she was living at Millersville, Sterner and her roommate lived conservatively.
“My room at Millersville had a light, a mini-refrigerator (a luxury at the time!), a stereo, and a clock radio - that's all the electronics we had,” she said. “I never liked buying or using things that needed batteries, because of the disposal. We didn't drink soda - no one really used single-serving products much. I still cringe at how much trash we make and toss.”
The energy crises of the 1970s added more influence to Sterner. Upon graduation from Millersville, she took up residential construction and took a non-traditional women’s remodeling course.
A short time later, Sterner decided to take her love of the environment on the road. She used all of the money and resources she had available to fund a cross-country trip through America’s national parks. When she arrived in Port Angeles, Washington, she ran out of money, forcing her to live there for six years. It would be here in Port Angeles that Sterner found her calling that set up the rest of her life. In 1980, Sterner found an advertisement in a local newspaper for an energy auditor. Given her love for people, homes, and nature, as well as the fact that there weren’t many certifications that she needed, this job was right at home with Sterner. Interested in the position, and supported by her best friend, Sterner applied for and received the job.
“The only thing that was out there at that point was called RCS, Residential Conservation Services, and it was brand new … and I did get that certification fairly quickly. That is no longer out there, but that’s all there was at the time.
“The BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) was the sponsor of the residential programs that we (the utility companies) offered … they had training courses and certifications of their own, so I got all of those. It was energy auditor, inspector … that’s all they really had at the time. So I got those certifications, and it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that people had even heard about the current certifications like ResNet.” Inspired by the work she was doing in Washington, she decided to move back to the Lancaster area in the mid-1980s to become a consultant.
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Starting a Business from a Passion
Like most entrepreneurs, starting a new company doesn’t happen overnight. For Sterner, however, it didn’t take long.
“My husband calls me his ‘time hero’ because there is so little time between thoughts and manifestations in my life,” she said.
Thanks to the experience she received in the non-traditional programs for women, she had no trouble finding her calling in residential energy auditing.
“Because of my experience with the non-traditional programs for women, LETA training in 1979, I was trained in house and building repairs and improvements. Along with my deep interest in conservation, residential energy auditing was a natural field for me.”
Sterner studied psychology at Millersville, so she certainly wouldn’t have trouble working with people, either.
“With my minor in Psychology from Millersville, working with people was also a clear passion,” she said.
“I've never been afraid to start new things, and I've always felt a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to common sense, so starting Pure Energy wasn't a problem at all.”
Again, like most entrepreneurs have learned, it can be difficult to find a starting point. Not for Sterner.
“I just decided what I wanted to do and wrote letters to utilities and realtors and home inspectors,” she told me, “telling them what I do and how I could help them. I started out with very low overhead and didn't charge much money for my services.
“I made it a goal to have some fun everyday while working, so I took walks in neighborhoods and met many interesting people. Word of mouth kept the work going.”
One major roadblock that many first-time entrepreneurs also encounter is figuring out where the money is going to come from to get the business started. This is also something that Sterner had no trouble with.
“I put my money back into the business—and always have—and it didn't take much money to start the business back in 1987. Because of my enthusiasm, it was easy to help others see how my work could benefit them, so I never really had to sell my talents much, either.”
Sterner originally began her business as a consultant in Pennsylvania under her own name. She did work for PPL and the Columbia Gas companies. As time progressed, Sterner found herself performing audits in more and more homes across the state. It was in 1994 that she realized that she needed help. She hired two people to help with the work, and that’s how Pure Energy found its name.
“It wasn’t a big step to bring on the first inspectors, but it was a big step to bring on full time help in the office,” she explained. “It took me a long time to get that point where I realized that I had to because I didn’t think anybody else could do it.
“I don’t know how I did it before. I have no idea, but now I’m able to do the things that I really want to do … like the teaching. I wouldn’t have been able to add that kind of work if I was still stuck in the office.”
Sterner’s motivation to help others become environmentally-friendly was, and still is, so strong that she was able to make a dream come true by owning a business devoted to what she loves most in life. Her personality also made this job possible, as well.
“When Tamasin has a thought, she takes that thought and turns it into an action right away,” her husband Richard explained. “That’s one thing that I had to get used to with her.” When she thinks of something, she hits the ground running to make that thought a reality.
Richard has always been supportive of his wife’s desires in life; however, one thing that makes this story interesting is that Richard had (and continues to have) a limited role in Sterner’s business.
“During the years when Pure Energy was growing, Richard had his own business running in addition to a normal 9-to-5 job,” she explained. Richard would only help Sterner with the education part of her job by making handouts, slideshows, and other computer-related tools.
Along with the desire to make everything happen immediately, Sterner doesn’t let anyone tell her “no.” Her desire to make things happen and to help others out is so passionate, so strong, and so detailed that she will not let anyone stop her from making it happen.
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Sterner and Pure Energy Today
In the almost 25 years since Sterner became an energy auditor and consultant, over 44,000 homes have had energy audits completed. Much of that success, at least from a commercial standpoint, comes from the different strategies that Sterner’s business uses.
For starters, Pure Energy uses what Sterner likes to call the “lean and mean” approach. By truthfully analyzing every aspect of a person’s home energy use, without being judgmental, Sterner can show that person all of the ways that energy is being wasted. But before Sterner or her contractors come to the house, the homeowners must provide at least one year’s worth of energy bills. After examining the bills, a process referred to as a “use analysis,” Pure Energy will come out to the home and perform a number of different tests that can identify causes of energy waste.
In addition to performing these tests, Pure Energy uses a “test in, test out” formula: the tests that are performed before any changes to the household are also administered afterwards to ensure that the audit was correct and that the adjustments worked.
While many energy auditors perform similar tests, Pure Energy’s “lean and mean” approach through the use analysis sets themselves apart from the others. In addition, there are many other characteristics of Pure Energy that give the company its identity.
“We walk our talk. We teach people about natural energy, energy use and waste, and energy efficiency. We help people become more environmentally and energy responsible, energy efficient, and energy independent by honestly assessing their situations,” she says on her web site.
When asked what sets Pure Energy apart from other auditors, Sterner quickly said, “We tell the truth.”
“We aren’t judgmental when we do theses audits, but in order to get homeowners to see how much energy they are misusing or wasting, we have to be honest and pick apart every aspect of their lives,” she added.
And as much as the truth might completely shock (or even hurt) some of her customers, Sterner says it’s the most crucial part of her success in this job. “I find this to be a service of mine … and if you are asked to do something, you’re going to put forth the best effort possible.” Sterner said that if she was the customer, she would want to know the truth, even though it might not be pretty.
Telling the truth is one-fourth of Pure Energy’s philosophy with the customers. The other three-fourths are:
• That Pure Energy is customer-focused—especially related to a family’s pattern of energy use.
• That Pure Energy’s business model avoids customer disappointment and maximizes profit.
• That with anything in life, if you become good at it, you should stick with it, refer to it, and believe it.
Going along with this idea of telling the truth, Pure Energy strives to educate homeowners while helping them save energy and money. For example, Sterner said that her contractors specifically focus on the balance between electricity and fossil fuels. “22 pounds of carbon are produced per person per day in Pennsylvania,” she explained. It is crucial to cut that number significantly in order to make the earth more sustainable.
Sterner also has success in educating people because she has tried many of the energy-saving methods in her own house first. She likes to think of herself as an “early adapter” to energy efficiency. By trying things in advance—and at her expense—she can show her customers, with confidence, that doing one thing over another is truly beneficial.
“I want them to get it without having to go through the painful steps,” she explained. “I want them to learn from how I pulled out of making my mistakes.”
Because of her desire to educate people about sustainability, Sterner tends to be selective in deciding if a home is worth Pure Energy’s services. “I want to make a difference,” she said, and if a homeowner does not seem interested in the process of becoming more sustainable, the trip would be a waste of time. She adamantly explained that she will turn a client down if he/she isn’t serious about making a change.
“It’s an option: if people are clear about what it is that they want, I can help them get there.”
This brings up the topic of finances. Pure Energy is doing well, since they’ve been to 44,000 homes in 25 years and recently expanded their operations out west. But Sterner said that she isn’t doing this for the money.
“You might think I’m [pulling your leg] when I say this, but I really don’t do this for the money,” she said. “I do this because I care enough about people and the planet to make a difference for both.”
Sterner doesn’t like to be thought of as a businesswoman. She is an advocate of energy efficiency and of helping others make their lives better. She likes to think of her work as her “natural talent.” And she doesn’t help people, either—she teaches, she assists, and she demonstrates.
One thing that Sterner loves the most about her job is the intimate relationships that she has developed over the years. Some of her customers from 15 years ago continue to remain in contact with her, sending birthday cards and letters every so often.
Most of Sterner’s clients don’t have much of an income to support themselves with. They are just getting by, and as a result, they don’t have many options. “95 percent of the people we work with are low-income,” she explained, “but, depending on their situation … they have the most to gain from changing their behaviors or changing something in their homes.”
One of Sterner’s favorite demographics to help is the elderly women. Sterner is repeatedly impressed with their desire to live within their means and make the most of what little resources they have. This compares to some of her younger customers who grew up in the “entitlement age” and expect to have so many different things even if they don’t have the money to fund them. Entitlement people believe that they have a right to whatever they desire simply because it’s out there.
In addition to helping others maintain energy-efficient homes, Ms. Sterner and her husband live greener lives, too.
“We shop locally. We don’t buy more than we need, and we buy U.S. products whenever possible,” she explained. The Sterner family also buy carbon credits when they fly, and they each drive a hybrid.
“We have extremely low household energy use [since it’s] super insulated and air-sealed,” she added.
The Sterner family also recycles through composting.
Another key to the Sterner’s sustainability success is having Pure Energy operate right out of their house. Ms. Sterner and her contractors all work in their homes, saving a substantial amount of money and energy since they don’t need an office.
Pure Energy has been recognized in the Lancaster area and in the region. The company was featured in the September issue of Home Energy magazine. Sterner has also appeared on WGAL, Lancaster’s NBC station.
Pure Energy is a partner of Energy Star and of the Building Performance Institution, as well as a founding member of the Susquehanna Sustainable Business Network and Efficiency First.
Pure Energy has even been asked to help in the construction of new green homes, but, according to Sterner, “[Although] we have been asked to design green homes, retrofit is our specialty, not design.”
When asked if Sterner expected her consultation firm to develop into what Pure Energy is today, she told me that she didn’t foresee it, but knew at the same time that energy auditing as a whole would be increasing over time.
She admits that there may have been a more structured way to run her firm, but is quick to say that she “can’t imagine having done it that way.” Part of that has to do with the job’s uncertainty.
“You cannot have an attachment [to this],” she explained. It’s possible to have a lot of work to do in two weeks and then have a month where much isn’t happening.
“If you need to have a rigid 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, you wouldn’t be able to do this job or work with me,” she added.
Sterner also commented on where she stands in her life. She does not have children, and she had married her husband Richard well after she had hit the ground running as a consultant. Even though she has invested her entire life into energy efficiency and nature, Sterner says that there probably isn’t anything else she would rather do more.
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The Future of Pure Energy
With energy bills continuing to increase, Sterner believes that more homeowners will be asking for energy audits because they are feeling the crunch of the energy bills in their wallets. Unfortunately, that may still not happen for a long time because the general public is still so uneducated about energy use and sustainability.
Sterner says that “many people were raised to not take advantage of nature and had the mindset that ‘it’s not there for my use.’”
People need to learn how to be “in harmony” with nature and to understand how “the natural laws of the universe” effect our lifestyles, she added. It’s important to be one with the house you live in, she continued.
In addition to the financial crunch, Sterner suggests that getting homes audited could help if a disaster would happen to impact residents. Sterner believes that water could be the next big crisis that people face.
“Individuals will make the decision—by choice or by need—to make their homes more secure and independent,” Sterner said. “The more they know, the more empowered they are to take care of themselves and their families if a crisis develops.”
The bottom line: “The more you learn, the easier it will be to decide what you and your family can do to meet your goals,” Sterner said.
Sterner recently finished teaching a course at Thaddeus Stevens Technical School. Now, she wants to teach a course that shows women what “green” jobs are out in the market. By providing them with “green” training, Sterner can show women how to take responsibility for the choices they make in their lives.
In the meantime, Sterner admits that she could be more sustainable than she is presently.
“Of course we could be greener—by having a zero-energy house, growing our own food, and by riding our bikes more often instead of driving.”
In fact, in the four or five weeks between my visits, Sterner had her driveway remade with permeable bricks that absorb rainwater and distributes it into the earth’s ground instead of the sewer.
“We needed to replace our driveway due to a sink hole and cracking. Although a black driveway helps melt the snow (black absorbs the sun’s heat), we didn't want to contribute to the heat island effect over Lancaster by installing another black driveway. Also, we wanted to help nourish the surrounding trees and also stop dumping water into the drain water sewage system, so we had a permeable paver driveway installed. Although it cost more than my first house, we think it’s worth it environmentally.”
Despite this, Sterner says that the way everything is right now is best for her and the business.
“There are always trade-offs in everything and right now in my life, the choices I am making are the best choices for me, my family, and my customers and clients.”
Sterner also explained that she would be ready to make more changes if global environmental conditions do not improve or get worse.
“Sometime in the future, if we are not successful at reversing climate change, I may be forced to change my lifestyle even more - everyone will. I believe I do more good with what I have and use now than I would if I had a lighter lifestyle.”
Since she predicts that the demand for home energy audits will increase, Sterner expects that Pure Energy’s business will increase and that its services will continue to expand. Having an office now established in Montana could potentially open the door for more business along the northwestern and western parts of the country. This could really benefit homeowners in California, where energy consumption is probably the worst in the nation.
For now, Sterner is content with Pure Energy’s position, as well as her position and relationship with the environment. As long as she gets to continue making a difference in many lives while saving the earth, Sterner will be pleased.
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