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U.K. Green Deal Housing Accreditation Program

Posted by Tim Sullivan on January 24, 2013
U.K. Green Deal Housing Accreditation Program

With the passage of the Energy Act of 2011, the United Kingdom created a unique Green Deal program to encourage owners of residential and non-residential properties in England to upgrade their buildings to the latest in green technologies to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

The beauty of the program—embodied in the PAS2030 technical document written by the British Standards Institute—is that it creates a new financial framework to facilitate the installation of fixed energy efficiency measures to existing properties without any upfront payments by the property owner. The installations are instead funded by a surcharge on energy bills attached to the property so that if the householder or business owner ever moves, the new owner takes on the payments. The entire program operates on a Golden Rule principle, which means that the energy cost savings as a result of the measures will exceed the actual loan repayment costs for loans, which will be structured for up to 25 years.

The entire Green Deal process is consumer-driven, based on initial inquiries made by the householder, business owner, or tenant. An advisor will visit the property to carry out an in-depth assessment of the property and recommend the relevant energy savings measures in a Green Deal Plan. The actual retrofitting of new energy-savings systems to the property will be managed by a Green Deal Provider.

The program calls for energy suppliers to deliver measures that will provide overall lifetime carbon dioxide savings of 154 million tons, equivalent to the emissions from 700,000 homes each year. It’s estimated that energy investment suppliers will invest nearly £3 billion (approximately $4.5 billion). Current government estimates are that £21 billion (approximately $33 billion) in capital spending will take place under the program by 2022.

Accreditation is Crucial

One of the most critical elements of making PAS2030 successful is the law’s requirement that all Green Deal Installers must be accredited for the types of equipment they install—from HVAC to boilers, insulation, lighting, solar, and many other systems. This guarantees that every retrofit meets the stringent quality control requirements of the program, but it also places a burden on each company and every installer to be accredited before they can go any work under PAS2030.

When the program launched in early 2012, installers could visit the Green Deal Manager site and download a Word document template for completion before their company could be certified. Inspectors would visit sites installed by each company to check the quality of the work done, and if approved, the Installer had to complete the Word document and upload it to the Green Deal Manager site. This wasn’t an ideal solution, for a pair of reasons. First, not all installer personnel were computer literate, so some people had trouble downloading, completing, and uploading forms. Second, this approach wasn’t secure. The Word document could be lost, corrupted, or otherwise unusable.

Graham Jack, owner and managing director of Green Deal Manager, sought a solution that would be much easier for people to use and would also guarantee the security of the all-important accreditation documents. He worked with one of his regular computer system supplier partners, Wimbleton Cross Ltd., based in Arlesey, Bedfordshire, to develop a system that would work. And they did.

Secure, Server-Based PDF Solution

David Owens, Managing Director of Wimbleton Cross, assessed the situation and decided on the use of the Portable Document Format (PDF) as the answer to multiple needs. He and Graham Jack decided that PDFs would allow them to create templates that met each of the 30 different accreditation documents needed, along with as many as 20 document subsets related to each of those 30, with the end result being PDFs that could be form-filled online in real time so that no one had to download or upload files. The PDFs could be secured easily as well, and as forms are updated to meet changing information needs or as Installers add to their systems accreditations, they can all be merged together so that each company’s certifications are neatly contained in one file set.

“This approach was all quite theoretical until we discovered the server-based PDF tools that would let us manage the process this way,” Owens said. “After assessing several different providers, we narrowed our potential vendors to Adobe Systems Incorporated and activePDF® Inc. We chose the latter because they were so much less expensive, provided the performance features we needed and their products were so easy to use.”

Wimbleton Cross began about two years ago building their solution for Green Deal Manager using the activePDF Toolkit and the activePDF Portal products. It only took two days to build a prototype system and it’s been running successfully now for about 18 months. “Since the activePDF products are server-based we can maintain complete control over our PDF templates to ensure security and privacy as well as make it easier for Providers to file their documents without any downloading or uploading,” Owens explained.

Toolkit provides all the functionality needed for form-filling from databases. Users can append, extract and stitch pages, create cover sheets on-the-fly, attach headers and footers, embed watermarks, stamp text into PDFs and create bookmarks. It supports conversion of more than 40 image types to PDF. You also get native 40- and 128-bit PDF encryption and decryption. Portal hosts PDFs behind Green Deal Manager’s firewall, enabling users to view documents while protecting them from unauthorized distribution or tampering. Users can do standard page manipulations as well as add annotations, text, shapes and callouts—while still maintaining centralized control at the server level for enforcing business guidelines and load balancing for the nationwide accreditation process. Browser-based, Portal doesn’t require a separate PDF reader or any other third-party software or plug-ins, and it even lets Providers save their work in progress and come back to it later, with no loss of data.

 “The system we built uses an ASP.net web application linked to a Microsoft SQL 2008 database,” Owens added. “We have stored procedures that are called to load the documents from the templates. We store each Provider’s documents and any changes to them by copying them into user tables. We link them to call tables that come with activePDF Portal and it stores all of the changes. It’s a typical web solution in that we use our own code to call the link base to load and access the information and portray it over to the web browser. There’s a UI, which is separate from our data access layer that sits on top of our true database.”

In use, Installers can log onto the Green Deal Manager web site, select the area of expertise in which they’re applying for accreditation, and type their information into the appropriate PDF. Since it’s actually only a copy of the original template, there’s no danger of anyone damaging or destroying a document and the PDFs of course are reusable. Each completed PDF is editable and viewable by everyone in the subscribed company, at the business level, and there are versions that are only applicable to the technical people who work on PAS2030 installations. If a particular Installer handles installations in related areas of technology, they can simply click on links embedded in each master technology PDF to go directly to any related technology accreditation documents.

“This last item is truly important to Installers because they don’t have to interrupt their form-filling of a master document to go find and complete related documents,” Owens said. “This provides tremendous flexibility, whether the candidate is a large company with thousands of installers—each of whom must be accredited—or whether you’re a one-man band. It’s all an easy process.”

Bullet-Proof Solution for the U.K.

The Green Deal Manager solution has already been well received by the industry in general, but it will get a real performance test in the next few months, when the volume of accreditation seekers ramps up to prepare for a major installation push in the next year.

“We feel this system will stand up well to high volume demand because we currently have more than 500 concurrent users on the system at any one time and no one has experienced a problem yet. When you multiply those 500 users time 30 PDF documents and as many as 20 versions of each for all of the specialties involved—we feel the activePDF system will handle it easily. We did rigorous testing before launch and we couldn’t break it. We couldn’t ask for more. We know that activePDF products can produce, manipulate and manage more than one million PDFs per day.

“There were lots of software products out there that thought they could do this, but they couldn’t,” Owens said. “It came down to two server-based solutions, activePDF and Adobe, and no one else. The only alternatives were solutions built on the Adobe platform already, but they didn’t do everything we needed and they were cost prohibitive, since it costs £25,000 just for their server. activePDF costs a fraction of that, and if we approach potential limits for the volume of users we serve, we’ll just add another server and keep going.”

 

Tim Sullivan is the founder, president and CEO of activePDF, and has more than 30 years of software development and management experience.

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