NREL Provides a Foundation for Home Energy Performance

NREL Provides a Foundation for Home Energy Performance

NREL-led guidelines effort enables breakthroughs for the home energy performance industry.

 A man holding an infra-red camera inside a home while another man looks on. Enlarge image

Ray Bowman, right, a Home Energy Professionals Certifications Energy Auditor with Arapahoe County's Weatherization Division, shows Rocco Solano, energy loss detected with an infra-red camera during an audit of Solano's Thornton, Colorado home.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Ray Bowman was hunting a monster inside an aging ranch-style house in Thornton, Colorado—something that was gorging on energy. The trail began upstairs in the kitchen, and as homeowner Rocco Solano looked on, Bowman drew his weapons: a tape measure, combustion meters, and a master checklist. He moved with a precise confidence reflecting his experience. In 2012, he was among the first to earn the Home Energy Professionals (HEP) Certifications Energy Auditor certification which is based on collaborative work by NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the home energy performance industry.

Bowman, a 13-year veteran of Arapahoe County's Weatherization Division, worked methodically, analyzing smaller quarry such as the refrigerator and improperly installed outside vents. But a major nemesis to energy efficiency hulked in the basement, a fitful creature which had plagued the house.

Solano led him down creaking stairs until they came face to face with the beast—a 138,000 Btu furnace blazing away. The sight surprised Bowman, who audits homes for DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in both Arapahoe and Adams counties. "This looks to be about three times the size needed for this house," he said. He explained that when Arapahoe County Weatherization crews returned to make upgrades, the house would hold much of the heat it had been losing—making the furnace "cycle short," wasting more energy. "It would be like driving your car around the neighborhood with your accelerator floored," Bowman said.

Yet making one isolated fix is not the auditor's goal. During the four-hour session in December 2013, he found prey lurking in plain sight: an unreachable freezer draining electricity in the garage, hollow walls, missing insulation, and a blocked-off fireplace with a flue that had been open the entire 21 years the family lived there. By the time he conducted a Blower Door test, sealing off an entrance as a fan pulled air to simulate wind hitting the house, his impressions were confirmed. "It was even worse than I expected" as air leaked everywhere. By reporting his findings in the computerized Weatherization Assistant program—used to implement WAP—and the National Energy Audit Tool, he essentially creates a work order for weatherization crews to make the upgrades.

Certified auditors such as Bowman are trained to look at buildings holistically and not only in terms of efficiency. "The HEP certification helps you understand the whole system—how things relate to each other," he said. Safety issues such a gas leaks or improper venting are on their comprehensive checklist. The hunt for the multi-headed beast in Thornton was over, part of a quest to slash another energy bill—in this case an unacceptably high rate of nearly $400 per month for a 2,436-square-foot residence. Solano, anxious at first, was grateful. "Ray was very thorough," he said. "I hope he can tame the monster."

Evolving the Weatherization Model

A person wearing a white safety suit sprays insulation in an attic. Enlarge image

NREL helped develop the Standard Work Specification and Job Task Analyses that enable weatherization work like this home insulation to be performed effectively and safely.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

DOE's weatherization program, 35 years old in 2014, has provided retrofit services to more than 6.4 million low-income households, saving 36% of building energy use. The Recovery through Retrofit report in 2009 noted that upgrading energy performance in U.S. homes could reduce energy usage by 40% per home, cut up to 160 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emission annually by 2020, and have the potential to lop $21 billion off yearly home energy bills—with fixes paying for themselves over time.

But while there have been various energy performance standards and best practices across governmental agencies and industries, a single set of recommended retrofit guidelines had been missing in the home energy performance marketplace. That void led to a variance of verifiable outcomes in the energy upgrade industry. To remedy that, WAP, supported by the WAP National Training and Technical Assistance Plan, launched the Guidelines for Home Energy Professionals Project. The program is designed to empower the home performance industry to deliver high-quality work. It set three goals:

  • Define quality work through standard work specifications;
  • Define quality training through a rigorous process; and
  • Offer advanced professional certifications for industry workers.

Three years ago, DOE tapped NREL to lead the project.

"NREL was chosen because of our ability to bring industry together for market transformational activities," said NREL Principal Lab Program Manager Dan Beckley. "The industry wasn't going to invest in creating resources like these in the project because it's not organized in that way."

The $11.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded effort led to breakthroughs, starting with the Standard Work Specifications (SWS).

Building Consensus and Tools in the Building Performance Industry

A man in a white safety suit drill holes in the exterior wall of a home. Enlarge image

By using the NREL-developed SWS online tool, a weatherization crew leader can hand out checklists to his crews as they perform upgrades like drilling a hole to add insulation.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

To kick off the effort, NREL, along with partners such as market-energy consulting firm Advanced Energy, convened groups of national single-family housing industry subject matter experts to see what the new standards would look like. "It was for industry, by industry," Beckley said. "We simply were the facilitators and provided technical expertise." NREL Project Manager Chuck Kurnik added, "The key was getting industry engaged. The fact that we reached out made it that much more impactful."

"NREL and DOE took the right path by bringing industry experts together," said Advanced Energy's Brian Coble. Building energy performance gurus from six climate zones in the country worked in three sessions to create specifications, define work, and evaluate outcomes of retrofits—an industry first. "It's easier to hit a target when you know what to shoot for," he said.

NREL made the drafts available for public comments and factored in more than 2,000 responses. "It was not something that we created in a vacuum. This had industry buy-in," Kurnik said. During the three-year development process of the SWS, NREL had more than 300 industry professionals involved.

As important as the SWS was for single-family houses, there was as much value in both manufactured housing and multi-family housing SWS documentation, each generated by their own expert groups.

"One of the main benefits of NREL's work is that it gives something specific for multi-family housing," said Nick Dirr of the Association for Energy Affordability, another NREL consulting partner. These "give a holistic understanding of a building. Some things aren't plug-and-play—they're complex. And SWS does a really good job of showing how to install upgrades in a manner that's safe, durable, and efficient."

To increase uptake and usefulness, NREL developed a new SWS online tool which was released in August 2013.

"NREL pursued a user-centered design approach to building the tool, allowing us to identify key user requirements and deliver the functionality needed to support the activities of workers in the field," said NREL Communications Project Lead Steve Lommele. "For example, one of the functionalities of the tool is that as a crew leader approaches a house, he will have a scope of work so he can hand out checklists to his crews." A "Favorites" feature allows users to identify and show details of any part of the house being worked on. That information can be emailed to mobile devices so workers have clear expectations of outcomes. NREL also developed an application programming interface that is available to the public, so companies can integrate it into tools for their employees. "SWS trains workers, helps direct what kinds of products are used, and helps assure quality. Everything flows out of this," Coble said.

Other Quality Benefits Add on to SWS

Using the SWS as a foundation, the NREL project team and industry then developed Job Task Analyses (JTA) to reflect knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform a job effectively and safely. The JTAs reflect the four most common job classifications in DOE's weatherization network and the industry at large:

  • Energy Auditor
  • Quality Control Inspector
  • Crew Leader
  • Retrofit Installer/Technician.

"Defining quality work and outlining what it takes for a worker to deliver quality work has a lot of non-energy efficiency benefits," said NREL Project Coordinator Amy Hollander. "Experienced auditors know to check for gas leaks and carbon monoxide gas, ensuring the safety of building occupants. They understand building performance and can mitigate home temperature differences through zonal pressure testing to improve comfort levels." Another benefit is that companies can now refer to a document to see what's required of a job—and hold an employee accountable.

The final project component adds independent American National Standards Institute-accredited Home Energy Professional Certifications. The Building Performance Institute (BPI) was licensed as the first certifying body to oversee exam development and deliver four certifications to the marketplace that build on BPI's existing credentials in the home performance career ladder:

  • Energy Auditor
  • Retrofit Installer
  • Crew Leader
  • Quality Control Inspector.

DOE has mandated a certified Quality Control Inspector in government-funded weatherization by 2015.

Bowman is proud of his certification—one of the few in the state—and sees it as benefiting more than just him. "The education is not mine to have, but something to share—to pull my peers up to a higher level." Getting the training and having tasks broken down for home energy performance workers is a plus. "It helps improve the finished product through quantification," he said. No longer is it enough to simply add insulation. "We know insulation is crucial, but how much do you need? You see people who just put it in, but they can cover up health and safety issues. I've seen things like exposed wires hidden under insulation.

"It is important to have these checklists in your head when you do an inspection," Bowman added. He believes that the SWS and JTAs are improving the industry. He plans to seek Quality Control Inspector certification in 2014 so he can verify compliance of retrofit work performed based on work plans and standards. Across the industry, trainers can begin training others. And over time, it is likely that certifications will become valuable to workers and contractors seeking to show value to potential employers or customers.

Experts see a growing impact from all of these efforts. "My hope is that utilities increasingly see the SWS as a resource, and the basis for an energy efficiency program," Coble said. He has already seen it with utilities he consults with in the Southeast and Southwest. And with new certifications, the links between building public trust in retrofits as well as the benefits of fewer return calls for work could influence great industry acceptance. It could drive the expected boom in building energy efficiency performance.

The successful SWS and JTA effort has led to additional efforts for single family home and commercial buildings industry professionals.

—Written by Ernie Tucker

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