Laying a Foundation with the SWS

June 30, 2013
July/August 2013
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The Standard Work Specifications (SWS) for Home Energy Upgrades were developed by DOE, its Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to set the standard for high-quality work in the weatherization and the home performance industry. With specifications covering single-family, multifamily, and manufactured housing, they define the minimum acceptable outcomes required for any task to be effective, durable, and safe. The SWS help home energy improvement contractors to do the work right while making homes healthier and more efficient. They also provide a foundation on which to build effective training curricula and qualified instruction for these same contractors.

What Are the SWS?

At the most basic level, a home energy upgrade is a collection of individual improvements (such as air sealing the envelope, upgrading the HVAC system, or adding insulation) aimed at increasing the efficiency, safety, or durability of a particular system in a home. The SWS identify the desired outcomes of specific tasks undertaken by home energy professionals. They define the outcomes, stated as objectives, and list the minimum specifications necessary for properly installed improvements to achieve those outcomes.

Home energy upgrade contractors are responsible for the proper installation of any energy efficiency measure conducted under SWS protocols. Over the years, a tremendous amount of work has been done by contractors, in the labs, and in classrooms to figure out how to make homes more efficient, safe, and healthy. The idea behind the SWS is to provide protocols to help ensure that energy efficiency measures are installed correctly. The SWS take institutional knowledge and organize it into a resource that can serve as the foundation for the home performance and weatherization industry. By unifying standards for work quality, worker competence, and training effectiveness, the industry can begin to provide consistently high-quality installations nationwide. Contractors will be able to work across programs knowing that their experience and qualifications will be valued regardless of which organization is sponsoring the work. Program administrators will have clearly defined expectations for work quality and training. Trainers and educators will know which skills their students need to learn. National leaders will come to understand that the home performance and weatherization industry has standards as rigorous as those of other professions.

Figure 1. In the SWS online tool, the DETAIL number provides the information needed to determine the SECTION, TOPIC, and SUBTOPIC.

The SWS online tool has a simple navigation system, organized around Sections and Topics.

The SWS online tool also allows the user to save groups of Details in individual files called Favorites. This makes it possible to create customized packages of Details for individual homes, for training materials, or for an inspection checklist.

Table 1. SWS Detail for Air Sealing Penetrations and Chases in an Attic

Users can navigate to the Detail level to view the objectives and specifications for a particular task.

Clicking on a Section opens up a left navigation bar that allows the user to progress to the Topic and Subtopic levels.

The Guidelines Project

The Guidelines project is an integrated suite of resources developed by WAP in collaboration with the home performance industry. Fundamentally, it is about achieving quality in any given home energy upgrade task. To achieve that goal, the Guidelines take a three-step approach:

Step 1: Define the work through SWS. The SWS for single-family, multifamily, and manufactured housing energy upgrades define the minimum acceptable outcomes required for any weatherization or home performance task to be effective, durable, and safe.

Step 2: Validate the training through JTAs. Job task analyses (JTAs) for four major energy upgrade job classifications define what a worker needs to know and do to perform high-quality installations. These JTAs cover job tasks for a retrofit installer/technician, crew leader, energy auditor, and quality control inspector. (See “Job Task Analyses Define the Home Energy Professional,” HE, March/April ’13.)

Step 3: Certify the worker through certification blueprints. The certification blueprints synthesize SWS content and the JTAs to lay a roadmap for developing worker certifications. They certify that the worker has demonstrated a practical ability to perform the work of the industry to the standard represented by the SWS and the JTA.

Breaking Down the SWS

The SWS are organized into four categories or levels: section, topic, subtopic, and detail. These four categories, and the relationships between them, are described below.

Section The first, and broadest category, is the section. Sections are organized using much the same format as a chapter in an instruction manual. In the single-family SWS, there are seven sections: 1. Using the Standard Work Specifications for Single-Family Energy Upgrades; 2. Health and Safety; 3. Air Sealing; 4. Insulation; 5. Heating and Cooling; 6. Ventilation; and 7. Baseload.

Topic Under each section, there are a number of individual topics related to that section. For example, in the Air Sealing section, topics include Attics; Windows and Doors; Basements and Crawlspaces; and Ducts.

Subtopic Subtopics provide greater detail than, and describe specific variations on, topics. For example, in the Air Sealing section, in the Attics topic, subtopics include Penetrations and Chases; Open Stairwells; Dropped Ceilings and Soffits; and Cathedralized Attic Ceilings.

Details Under each subtopic, there are a number of details. These details contain the actual specifications. For example, in the Air Sealing section’s subtopic of Penetrations and Chases, the details include Chase Capping and Walls Open to Attic. Figure 1 shows an example of the SWS detail numbers and how each component part has its own designation in the numbering system.

Objectives and Specifications

The SWS are organized around the outcomes of the individual measures. In this respect, the SWS are different from other documents that describe best practices. The SWS are narrowly focused on what the measure is supposed to do when properly installed, and on the absolute minimum conditions required to achieve that outcome. Table 1 shows a couple examples of desired outcomes in the Objectives column, and conditions required to achieve those outcomes in the Specifications column.

Energy Efficiency, Healthy Indoor Environments, and Codes

The SWS synthesize more than 30 years of building science expertise within WAP and the greater home energy upgrade industry. WAP is a long-standing leader in developing protocols and standards that help ensure the health and safety of the families served. Combustion safety testing, draft and pressure testing, lead-safe weatherization practices, and indoor air quality improvements, to name a few examples, are embedded into the day-to-day health and safety operations of the WAP.

To enhance this work, WAP is collaborating closely with agency partners on the development of the Guidelines project and the SWS. This collaboration has included a close partnership in the development of EPA’s Healthy Indoor Environment (HIE) Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades. The EPA document includes recommended assessment protocols to identify indoor environmental quality issues, recommended minimum actions, and opportunities for expanded actions to improve occupant health through home energy upgrades. DOE and EPA strove to ensure that most of the EPA minimum actions were integrated into, and used appropriately, within the SWS.

Numerous national standards bodies have provided insight and input into the SWS. The 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) for One- and Two-Family Dwellings serves as the primary referenced standard. While the SWS will help identify the desired outcomes of energy efficiency measures in a weatherization or home energy upgrade project, they do not replace the codes and technical standards mandated by a particular jurisdiction. State, local, or municipal codes or ordinances are enforced by law, and users should obtain copies of the applicable codes and standards for their jurisdiction before they perform the work.

Online Tool

The SWS were designed to be an interactive database. While it is possible to print the SWS out like a document, that isn’t the most efficient way to navigate the content. The SWS are housed in an online system, developed and maintained by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which was built with the input of trainers and other end users to be as accessible as possible.

Application Programming Interface

The SWS are intended to provide a foundation for the industry that can be built upon and expanded as practices and technologies change. To help the industry to use the SWS, and to create additional products and resources, the SWS online tool will contain an application programming interface, or API. An API is a particular set of rules (a code) and specifications that different software programs follow to communicate with one another. The API is a universal translator that allows outside software to read and utilize the information in the SWS. The API will allow organizations to create tools and resources and customize the SWS for a specific use. An example might be an audit tool that pulls content from the SWS to populate its recommended measures list. Another example might be a business management program that tracks the cost of installing certain measures. The API can also be used to create customized inspection checklists, training manuals, work orders, and so forth.

On the Job

To visualize how the SWS will be used in practice, it is helpful to lay out the process of completing a home energy upgrade and show where the SWS apply. The SWS give everyone involved in the project a common point of reference regarding the quality of the work. Disagreements as to which measures should be installed can be minimized by looking to the SWS for guidance.

The SWS are not meant to replace field guides and jobsite instruction manuals. They simply describe the desired outcome of a particular task and the minimum conditions necessary to achieve that outcome. They leave the specifics of how to achieve that outcome to the home improvement contractors performing the improvements. By focusing on outcomes, the SWS give flexibility to individual crews, as well as trainers, to approach the work in the way that works best for them. Conditions vary, and crews need the latitude to customize their work to the materials at hand and the conditions on the ground. As long as the installation achieves the outcomes called for in the SWS, any number of approaches could be taken to achieve those outcomes.

In the Classroom

The SWS form the foundation of the Guidelines project. Training program accreditation and worker certification are built on the content. The SWS describe the actual tasks performed by the workers and the JTAs describe the knowledge and skills that a worker must have in order to perform those tasks. The certification blueprints use the JTAs to guide the process of testing and verifying a worker’s ability to perform the tasks.

Given this structure, it makes sense that anything taught in a home performance and weatherization training program should be informed by the SWS. As a task is presented to a student, the desired outcome of that task becomes an important component of the lesson. This not only ensures that the student is leaving the training center prepared to work to the standards of the industry, but also gives the student a better understanding of the reasoning behind the work.

WAP’s National Standardized Training Curricula are aligned with the Guidelines. The curricula ensure that the complete JTAs are taught and allow training programs to adapt the material to suit their circumstances. Other programs can use the SWS as the basis for their curriculum development to ensure that there is common practice across the home performance industry.

A Trainer’s Resource

High-quality training is a prerequisite for high-quality energy efficiency upgrade work, and the SWS can be used to help shape consistent training materials for trainers and students. Anthony Cox, lead trainer at the New River Center for Energy Research and Training, a WAP Training Center, describes it this way:

“When providing training, the SWS will be a great reference to use in the classroom and lab so that our students will have a clear understanding of why they are doing what they are doing … These standards will move weatherization and home performance into a more standardized and respected industry … As one of my longtime mentors and friend John Tooley says, ‘Do the right thing right.’”

learn more

Learn more about the SWS online tool.

View EPA’s HIE Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades.

The Future of Home Performance

Even if consumers and stakeholders do not have a technical understanding of what is contained in the SWS document, the development and use of a foundational document with national acceptance has the potential to build greater confidence in the home performance and weatherization industry. The SWS provide a common yardstick against which consumers, financiers, and policy makers can measure the performance of their service providers. Over the course of its history, WAP has developed resources to facilitate greater industry adoption of new energy-efficient technologies. The SWS make it easier to adopt these technologies and codify the high-quality practice that will form the future foundation of the industry. The home performance world now has one of the fundamental components of a mature industry—the ability to define its own work.

Jennifer Somers is the team lead for training and technical assistance for DOE’s WAP. Josh Olsen is a training and technical assistance specialist with WAP.

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