Pressure House Learning in Real Time

New York State adds trainers and new facilities - including a virtual house - to meet the increasing demands on weatherization programs.

July 01, 2010
July/August 2010
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Weatherization

In the fall of 2008, the New York State Weatherization Directors Association (NYSWDA) dedicated its 3,800 ft2 energy training center, located in East Syracuse, New York. The center had already been in use for three years as a centrally located training facility for New York’s 65 weatherization agencies. With the completion of the heating lab, with its 17 heating systems, and a 600 ft2 pressure diagnostics house within the facility, NYSWDA was prepared to scale up its training program to full speed. Little did we know that a few months later, a newly elected president would stimulate us into warp speed.

Adam Harris prepares a class for hands-on combustion appliance testing. (Image credit: NYSWDA)

When the American Recovery and Reinvest-ment Act (ARRA) took effect, the weatherization world had to respond in an unprecedented way. NYSWDA Executive Director Andy Stone had several strategy meetings with staff to see what our priorities were going to be. “We recognized that one of our primary goals was going to be training entry-level technicians, since our local agencies were expanding their crew capacity at such a rapid pace. We knew that we were going to have to increase not only the size but also the training capacity of our facilities,” Stone says. “We added four trainers to assist not only with boot camp but also with our small home auditor course and lead-safe worker training, and to help develop and teach other critical curricula.”

While our trainers do travel the state delivering training to various community action agencies, most of our students come to us for training and testing. Most of NYSWDA’s training curriculum is either BPI-approved or approved for BPI continuing education units.

Andy Stone (Image credit: NYSWDA)

Dale Sherman (Image credit: NYSWDA)

NYSWDA added a second 6,000 ft2 training center near the first center to house our weeklong Weatherization Boot Camp for new hires into the weatherization program (see “Weatherization Boot Camp,” HE July/August ’09, p. 14). The boot camp covers fundamental course work in OSHA safety, lead-safe weatherization, basic building science, air sealing, dense-packing, blower door testing, and infrared thermography. The mix of classroom and hands-on training prepares the graduates to hit the ground running when they return to work.

The training center provides state-of-the-art conditions for teaching. Students learn how to handle materials safely and efficiently. During air sealing training, students are taught to measure, cut, and install metal flashing around chimneys, build Sheetrock boxes for can lights, and address bypasses in kneewall attics. Blower door setup and basic air monitoring are skills that every technician is taught. Worker safety is also an important part of any technician training. We provide a thorough review of tools and equipment commonly used in weatherization. Ladder safety and proper setup for staging and picks is a standard part of our OSHA training. Students even experience the difference between clutched and clutchless drills while practicing drilling siding with hidden hazards such as water pipes, electrical wires, and fire blocks. Hinged wall panels let the students evaluate the quality of their dense-packing and allow the instructors to quickly empty the walls of cellulose and prep them for the next class. Using a release agent on the attic, basement, and duct props allows us to easily remove foam, caulk, and mastic and prepare for the next class.

A student masters dense-packing. (Image credit: NYSWDA)

NYSWDA Director of Training Matt Redmond understands that, given the complexity of building science, some learning has to take place in the classroom. But with a heavy background in the field, he also makes sure that students are given hands-on experience at least 40% of the time. To gain that experience, they work not only with NYSWDA’s heating lab and pressure house, but with numerous smaller props and training boards as well. “Under ARRA, we have increased our training capacity nearly 400%. NYSWDA’s system of hands-on labs enables us to meet our training goals for New York State and deliver quality, comprehensive training in a realistic environment,” says Redmond. NYSWDA provided 2,979 person-days of training over the past year. That number really conveys the scale of training we are providing.

Heating Lab

The heating lab has an array of the most common heating systems found in upstate New York. This array includes furnaces, boilers, and domestic hot water systems. Bug boxes or trouble boxes have been cleverly wired into each heating system to allow NYSWDA’s heat tech instructor, Adam Harris, to create any number of common scenarios that students may encounter while troubleshooting in the field. Students may need to determine why an oil burner shuts off after a few seconds of running or why a gas furnace is performing below its stated efficiency rating. The problems encountered may be a bad igniter, open CAD cell, or a faulty fan motor or limit switch. It is up to the student to determine the cause of the fault and offer a solution to the problem.

Wiring the bug boxes to the backside of the circuit boards or to the inside of various components avoids confusing the students with the additional wiring and provides a realistic appliance for the students to work on. The boxes have nine unlabeled switches, allowing staff to “lock out” whatever component they want to fail.
Students also receive hands-on training in clean and tunes, heating and chimney fundamentals, troubleshooting, combustion efficiency testing, 90%+ installs, tankless water heaters, and heat pump water heaters. NYSWDA also periodically arranges to have various HVAC field reps come in for regular trainings on their brand equipment.

An exterior view of the pressure house lab with blower door installed. (Image credit: NYSWDA)
1693 CFM

Figure 1. A cutaway view of real-time pressures in various zones within the house. (Image credit: NYSWDA)
2537 CFM

Figure 2. Another view of the pressure house with real-time pressure readings and blower door air flow readings. (Image credit: NYSWDA)

Pressure House

The NYSWDA pressure diagnostics training house was designed to incorporate nearly every air sealing and diagnostic challenge that auditors and crews encounter in the field. Because pressure diagnostics can be a difficult concept for new trainees to visualize, NYSWDA’s Executive Director Andy Stone and Development Specialist Dale Sherman decided to create a different way to visualize concepts by utilizing a touch screen display. Using more than two dozen slide gates and bypass dampers, Dale was able to program controls to simulate balloon framing, blocked or leaky ducts, improperly vented fans, air leaks, garage connections, soffit leaks, porch attic connections, and problems with attic venting. “By providing a 3-D graphic representation of the pressure house and actual readings from critical pressure zones around the house, we can visually illustrate for our students how these areas can interact with each other,” Stone says.

The pressure house provides students with an immersive environment and a visual framework on which to build their zonal pressure diagnostics (ZPD) skills (see Figures 1 and 2). By learning to see the relationship between a digital manometer reading and a whole-house display of pressure zones, they learn to visualize ZPD in the homes they will eventually be auditing. By repeatedly probing various pressure zones with a manometer and then relating their readings to a cutaway view of the house they’re in, students reinforce their newly learned skills. They can also see in real time how opening a door or turning on an air handler affects all the various pressure zones. “This immersive experience really drives the concepts home for our students,” says Sherman.


Colored hats identify the four teams of six trainees as they move from station to station during a Boot Camp. (Image credit: NYSWDA)

A leaky top plate is quickly plugged with proper dense-packing. (Image credit: NYSWDA)

Add-a-hole, subtract-a-hole, targeted air sealing, duct diagnostics, worst-case configuration, and combustion appliance zone (CAZ) testing can all be addressed using the pressure house. With a nearly infinite number of configurations, the pressure house can be used to teach basic, intermediate, and advanced ZPD skills. The interactive touch screens and classes can be tailored to teach weatherization skills or building science.

Because the pressure house is so realistic, BPI has approved it for training as well as for field testing. Because the configurations are so easily changed, the house makes an ideal platform for testing a new auditor’s field skills. For the same reason, two consecutive students will encounter very different scenarios when they take their field test, so no one knows exactly what to expect.

Crews that attended NYSWDA’s Small Home Auditor training, BPI Building Analyst training, and Building Envelope training use the pressure house to expand their understanding of pressure diagnostics. For classes that are too large to fit into the pressure house, NYSWDA uses a SmartBoard interactive white board in the classroom to display pressure house information. The SmartBoard can also be used to control the blower door and bypass gates over the Internet. In fact, when the pressure house was being developed, Colin Olson of the Energy Conservatory was running our blower door from the comfort of his home in the Midwest!

Feedback evaluations from both students and instructors have been very enthusiastic. We are continuing to add to our training curricula and introduce new technologies and techniques, and we are always looking forward to new ways to improve our training. The next two years should be most interesting.

Andy Stone has over 25 years experience in the Weatherization Assistance Program in New York State. He is the Executive Director for NYSWDA. Dale Sherman first brought his electronics background to weatherization research and development in 1986. He currently evaluates new technologies and develops hands-on props to augment energy training classes.



For more information:

New York State Weatherization
Directors Association
5869 Fisher Road
East Syracuse, NY 13057
Tel: (315)701-0440

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