Weatherization Boot Camp

July 01, 2009
July/August 2009
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Weatherization
It has become evident, with a national focus on the new “green-collar” job sector, that there is a lot of work to be done if we want to train a workforce to meet the demand for professionals educated in clean-energy technologies. At present, there is no clear career training path for the renewable energy, energy efficiency, and weatherization fields.

In New England few if any organizations provide training to fill this need. During the summer of 2008, Self-Reliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmentally sound and sustainable practices, partnered with Bruce Torrey of Building Diagnostics, a well-respected building science expert, to offer an initial energy auditing and weatherization training program (nicknamed weatherization boot camp). The program was provided to YouthBuild New Bedford. YouthBuild is a youth and community development program that addresses core issues facing low-income communities: housing, education, employment, crime prevention, and leadership development. The energy auditing and weatherization training program weaves the aforementioned core issues together to help educate members about how energy touches everything in our society and how valuable the energy retrofitting work is to addressing these fundamental issues in making their lives better. In YouthBuild programs, low-income young people aged 16 to 24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills and serve their communities by building affordable housing, and transform their own lives and roles in society. By working with YouthBuild, and with other interested organizations and businesses whose constituents are poised to be trained, the number of green jobs that can be filled by members of the community will increase. Further, the demand for energy-related services is likely to increase as these organizations educate their home communities from within—which we seldom see when a government agency or outside company comes in and suggests improvements.

Taking it Outside

The initial phase of training consisted of 50 hours of combined classroom and hands-on field training. The classroom training focused on air flow and heat transfer dynamics in buildings, including an overview of retrofit strategies and related building performance issues. For many YouthBuild students, the traditional classroom setting has been a barrier to experiencing the “ah-ha” moments vital for real learning and motivation. Heading into the field for the second half of every training day gave the work an added dimension that classroom theories can’t fully provide. Using the equipment, watching the gauges on the blower door as the building was depressurized, and “seeing” the air leakage patterns via the infrared imager gave the YouthBuild students the ah-ha moments, as they experienced firsthand the relationship between building dynamics and building envelope.

Through the entire portion of the training, various community members opened their homes to let the students conduct blower door tests and infrared scans. One homeowner told the students that his home had previously been audited, but the auditor had not conducted either of these tests. He was thoroughly impressed by what the students told him about his home’s envelope, about the problems that they found, and about what should be done to correct them. He felt empowered by what they told him. He said he didn’t feel as if he were being sold a bill of goods that might not work.

The initial energy audits helped identify buildings that the students could return to for additional hands-on training in air sealing and insulation techniques. This includes everything from sealing attic bypasses and key junctions with two-part foam to weatherstripping doors and insulating pipes. The first part of the hands-on training concluded with insulating an attic with loose-blown cellulose and dense-packing cellulose into exterior walls and sloped ceilings. The team approach needed to execute these large-scale projects was challenging, but eventually the crew pulled together and enjoyed an all-too-rare sense of satisfaction in a job well done. More training is scheduled for the upcoming months that will build upon the first and second phase of classroom and field training, but will also include some training on necessary skills like oral presentations, work order and proposal writing, and other “soft skills” needed to be a good worker.

Youth and community leaders from New Bedford have been inspired by Green For All’s founder, Van Jones, who is calling for a green revolution that empowers and educates people of all races, cuts across socioeconomic boundaries, and addresses issues of social and environmental justice. Green For All is an organization dedicated to “building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” New Bedford, known as “the whaling city” has experienced a somewhat depressed economy since its hey day in the 19th century as one of the world’s most important whaling ports. It still remains one of the most productive fishing ports in the United States. The housing stock is very old and mostly uninsulated. The population consists largely of renters, which eliminates much of the incentives for investing in the energy performance of the home. The low-interest loans currently available for financing energy-efficient upgrades and weatherization are for people who own their own homes, thus excluding the very population that lives in the extremely energy-inefficient rental properties. It will take time and energy to create a successful program for weatherizing rental property, and seeing it to fruition. The community that advocates for these changes is understaffed and unprepared to take on such a daunting task.

The current fuel assistance programs are designed to help low income people pay for their heating costs from November through April. The emphasis is on helping to pay for fuel and not on making improvements in the building envelope to reduce the amount of energy that is consumed annually due to the lack of insulation and air sealing in the building. By addressing the leaky building envelope issues, the overall amount of energy consumed would decrease. It would also hedge against the rising energy costs that strain the fuel assistance programs every year.

Unsung Heroes

Energy efficiency and weatherization constitute the first step in the greening of existing buildings. We live in an energy illiterate society where energy has been relatively cheap and convenience is key to our lifestyles. Energy efficiency, conservation, and weatherization also suffer from the fact that they are not sexy. Insulation and air sealing is done in the dark corners of buildings where people rarely go…like the attic and the basement. Air leakage is rarely seen and in general, people have little understanding along with misconceptions about how tight a building should be. But energy efficiency and weatherization are critical to reducing emissions and keeping people comfortable in the winter, when rising fuel prices may make it impossible for them to heat their homes. Sadly, many residents do not understand how they can burn thousands of dollars’ worth of fuel and still be cold. The unfortunate energy illiteracy that our society suffers from has caught up with all of us, and the demand to shift from business as usual to a sustainable-energy economy is increasing every day.

Every ratepayer in a public utility territory in Massachusetts is eligible to have a free energy audit through the utility. However, the communities most in need are not always aware of this service, and if they were, they wouldn’t know the questions to ask. And whatever funds are available to pay for energy-efficient upgrades to their homes don’t seem to be enough to make a substantial impact in addressing the insulation and air-tightness of buildings. Meanwhile the weatherization industry as a whole remains understaffed and poorly trained, while the unemployment rate and fuel prices both continue to rise and state and federal dollars pour into the sector without adequately addressing the critical issue of training the workforce to meet the policy goals for energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Weatherization work is often under appreciated; having well trained workers in this field is imperative to ensure that local jobs in the clean energy sector become available to local workers who can do the job right, and help to make the transition to a clean-energy economy a reality.

Let’s hope that weatherization boot camp training serves as a small step toward addressing all these critical issues.   

Megan Amsler is the executive director of Self-Reliance, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote environmentally sound technologies and sustainable.

>> For more information:
Cape & Islands Self Reliance
23A Edgerton Drive
North Falmouth, MA 02556

YouthBuild New Bedford
Tel: 508.984.3558
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