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This article was originally published in the January/February 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.

 

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Home Energy Magazine Online January/February 1999


Training for Tomorrow: 
Are Your Contractors Certifiable?


by Chris Weinreich and Leon Neal

Leon Neal is a senior building science engineer at Advanced Energy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Chris Weinreich is a technical specialist with the Housing Improvements program in the Washington Department of Community Trade and Economic Development in Olympia, Washington.


Today, training is crucial. But who has the right training? Is certification part of the answer? Will certification someday be as universally expected for home performance professionals as it is for, say, automobile mechanics?
Russ Rudy, trainer and consultant with KBSI, explains the functions of a set of Magnehelic gauges during a blower-door training session.
Doug Walter, president and owner of KBSI, uses a plastic hose to demonstrate the pressure effects of duct leakage.
Residential building in the United States has changed drastically since the energy crisis of the 1970s, when the issue of energy consumption first got public attention on a wide scale. Since then, homes have been built to incorporate all kinds of ways to save energy--with better insulation, building materials, and windows; through switching fuels; or by using new high-efficiency comfort equipment. But along with these changes came a new level of complexity, and sometimes new problems. Home buyers have had 30 years of experience, both good and bad, and are now able to judge that not all construction and retrofit work on homes is of equal quality. Most of the time, quality comes down to one thing: contractor skills. The contractors who understand the whole-house approach and know how to use and interpret diagnostic tools are the ones who are best able to deal with the high-performance homes that more and more buyers want.

To help today's contractors prepare for tomorrow, Home Energy has expanded and updated our list of training programs and added informatin about training programs that offer certification (see Guide to Training Programs for Home Performance Professionals,). These typically are training programs in which participants must meet documented standards, accomplish written or manual tasks, or complete an exam before they are awarded their certificates.

In the training guide, we have tried to include all the training and certification programs in the United States and Canada that focus on the whole-house approach, but new ones are being introduced regularly, so there may be some we have missed. We are counting on our readers to update us on new programs.

Doing Good Work in a Complex World The residential energy conservation field has expanded far beyond the time when all it took to do a retrofit was an insulation blower and two or three employees who showed up on time most days and were willing to crawl under houses. In today's world--where home design, construction, and maintenance has become building science and contractors must become house doctors--successful contractors must not only have several thousand dollars' worth of diagnostic equipment, but they must also know how to use the equipment and be able to make sound judgment calls based on what it tells them.

Today, contractors need to be proficient in such things as indoor air quality, human health issues, combustion safety testing, and cost-effective air and duct sealing. They also must have more than a passing knowledge of heating and cooling systems. This is in addition to being able to put in windows, hang doors, or dense-pack a wall.

Customer Demands Customers often want proof of ability before they sign a contract. And when the customer's money is on the line--as for example, with an energy efficiency mortgage--it is essential that energy savings estimates be accurate.

Companies know that customers value certification. Many companies have marketing programs that promote the fact that their workers are certified. Examples of such marketing programs are national television ads for Sears auto service and Midas auto service, each pointing out that their mechanics are ASE Certified. Utilities like Tucson Electric Power Company in Tucson, Arizona, and Wisconsin Gas Company are using workers with particular training in their energy efficiency programs (see Wisconsin Utilities Prime the Whole-House Pump, p. 13). Many companies partner with builders that have trained and certified workers to bring high-performance homes to the market, because they know that their customers seek quality (see Improving Ducts in Southern California, HE Nov/Dec '97, p. 11).

Benefits of Certification Aside from gaining customer confidence, there are several other benefits for contractors who get certified, one of which is simply meeting government and industry requirements. Many states and governmental organizations today require certain kinds of contractors to be certified. For example, trainer Rick Karg says that Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont require all low-income weatherization auditors to be trained and certified by state authorities. This ensures a basic level of knowledge for all the auditors, Karg says, The auditors see it as positive because they are able to list the certification on their resumes and find it easier to get a job.

Certificates are sometimes required by law or as a condition of employment. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's refrigerant handling license is granted only to certified handlers of refrigerants. Anyone who handles refrigerants for cooling equipment without a national EPA-approved certificate is subject to a $25,000 fine.

In addition, some government programs are increasing the demand for certain kinds of certified contractors. For example, with the growing popularity of Energy Efficiency Mortgages (see Mortgages Make the Market, page 43), and the related increase in Home Energy Rating Systems (HERS) testers, more HERS-certified professionals are needed in the field. Therefore, contractors who are certified in HERS testing have more and more options available to them. HERS-certified raters gain exposure to programs offered by the EPA, lending institutions, and others, points out trainer Claude Papesh of Mid-Iowa Community Action.

But not all certificates are required--many contractors opt for certificates because they want to demonstrate a commitment to improving their skills. Some of the gas utilities for which Karg provides training give their employees a certificate after they have successfully completed certain training sessions. The certificate shows that the attendee is progressing through a comprehensive course of study, Karg explains.

Larry Harmon, executive director of Building Performance Institute (BPI), says certification can bring benefits not only to workers, but also to the industry and to society as a whole. Certification helps to define roles for workers in an industry, credentialing different types of careers, Harmon says. Certification processes create mechanisms for keeping worker skill sets up-to-date, and brings professionalism to the field.

Harmon says that certification helps the industry because use of certified workers reduces callbacks and exposure to liability claims. Certification processes are a good mechanism to review worker skill sets, pinpoint weaknesses, and identify training needs, he goes on. For society, Harmon says, Certification should improve consistency within the industry, helping to reduce warranty losses and litigation costs, thereby lowering the ultimate cost for goods and services.

Whole-House Opportunities Staying up to date in a quickly evolving industry, keeping up with legal requirements, meeting customer expectations, and reducing callbacks are all good reasons to seek out training and get certified. But there's another excellent reason to get training specifically with the whole-house approach, according to trainer Russ Rudy of the Kansas Building Science Institute (KBSI): market potential.

Rudy says that the auditors he knows who take a whole-house approach are getting a greater than 80% return on their contacts, because they can offer their customers the dual benefits of cash savings and increased comfort. This market has barely been tapped, according to Rudy.

For example, says Rudy, most heating and air conditioning contractors typically just go into a home's HVAC system and install new parts. They have not yet recognized the potential for whole-house diagnostics, he says. Instead of just installing a new part, they could be the first person to make that family comfortable. HVAC contractors shouldn't just look at the heating and air conditioning systems, Rudy says; they should also do audits, use blower doors, and suggest changes in the house that can dramatically reduce fuel bills and solve the residents' comfort problems. A skilled person using diagnostic tools to tell residents the truth about what's wrong with their house is a powerful sales tool, he says. Informed consumers, who know what they can get, are willing to pay for it.

Rudy feels that more and more contractors are beginning to recognize the success they can have with the whole-house approach. Interest in our training programs is growing, he says. More and more people sign up for every session.

More Money? Despite all these great reasons to get certified, one question remains: Are certified home performance contractors guaranteed to make more money?

I can't say that, admits Rex Boynton, of North American Technician Excellence Incorporated (NATE), But I can point to the auto repair business, where certified mechanics, on average, do make more money.

Pat Love, Building Technology Transfer program manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, echoes the idea that training is good for business--and that contractors are getting that message. Training programs are on the rise. Very popular, Love says. More and more groups are offering training and seem to have success in filling the classes. I'm not sure about the contractors getting more business, but they are using the training in their advertising, and hopefully people are paying attention.

It's the nature of business that every new money-making activity in which workers offer services to the public will automatically move toward a certification program, both to increase its own credibility, and to keep out crooks. If residential building science is truly becoming a viable business activity, then certification programs are a part of that path.
 
 
 

 


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