D.C. energy efficiency world gets murkier

Aug. 31, 2011
At first I was going to begin this posting by saying I’m stunned, I’m surprised, this situation is ridiculous and stupid. But then I remembered that I’m writing about the government. As reported on page 1 of CONTRACTOR magazine's September 2011 issue, ...

At first I was going to begin this posting by saying I’m stunned, I’m surprised, this situation is ridiculous and stupid. But then I remembered that I’m writing about the government.

As reported on page 1 of CONTRACTOR magazine's September 2011 issue, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have picked a certifying body to test and certify workers for the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and home energy upgrade industry.

It is not an organization that should have won the contract. Instead, DOE and NREL picked the Building Performance Institute, Malta, N.Y., a group whose expertise seems to revolve around winning federal contracts.

DOE and NREL made this award despite the call by an industry coalition of 22 organizations to start the selection process over in a transparent manner.

The coalition is composed of every significant organization in the plumbing-heating-cooling industry, along with other allies such as the National Association of Home Builders. The coalition formed when the industry realized that the Feds were on the cusp of creating a huge national energy efficiency program that involved plumbing and HVAC, yet nobody had asked the plumbing and HVAC industry about it.

There’s no doubt this program will be huge. Thousands of workers will be trained and certified to perform what may turn out to be billions of dollars in work. If workers are going to be trained to perform gas fitting or change out plumbing fixtures, it might be a nice idea to ask the people who know how to do it.

The organizations in the ad hoc coalition are:

• Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Safety Coalition

• Air Conditioning Contractors of America

• Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute

• Carbon Monoxide Safety Association

• Educational Standards Corporation Institute

• ESCO Press International

• Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International

• HVAC Excellence

• Indoor Air Quality Association

• International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials

• International Code Council

• National Association of Home Builders

• National Association of the Remodeling Industry

• National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association

• North American Technician Excellence

• Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association

• Refrigeration Service Engineers Society

• Residential Energy Services Network

• The ESCO Group

• The Green Mechanical Council

• Window and Door Manufacturers Association

I’ve discussed the problems of the Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades and the WAP program before in CONTRACTOR’s July 2011 issue, p. 58, and at http://bit.ly/jEELiE. In that blog post, I talk in detail about BPI’s long history with DOE and how intertwined it is with the Washington energy efficiency government/NGO milieu.

Charlie McCrudden, vice president, government relations for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, is spearheading the coalition.

Back in late June, McCrudden and the coalition sent a letter to Dr. Henry Kelly, acting assistant secretary, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, saying, “We are alarmed at the limited and opaque process by which the Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades and the selection process for the Workforce Guidelines Certifying Body are being carried out.”

The coalition expressed alarm that they, the people with the expertise to perform home weatherization work, had never been consulted.

At the time Peter Schwartz, president and CEO of North American Technician Excellence and the former top exec at the plumbing wholesalers’ American Supply Association, told me, “I have not seen many other examples during my professional career of a federal agency developing standards and guidelines of far reaching impact in such secrecy and restriction.”

On August 4, McCrudden received a reply from Kathleen B. Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency, Office of Technology Development, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, that said, “Progress has also been made to help strengthen the worker certifications available to the WAP and broader home energy upgrade industry. The Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC, managing and operating contractor for NREL (“Alliance”) issued a competitive Request for Proposals on March 21, 2011, to nine organizations. Alliance and NREL intend to make one subcontract award to an industry-recognized certifying body to expedite the delivery of four new ISO 17024 accredited certifications for the job classifications most relevant to the WAP workforce. (ISO 17024 is an industry and government-recognized standard for ensuring the quality and integrity of personnel certifications.)”

By mid-August, Alliance and NREL did indeed make that one subcontract award to BPI. McCrudden found the announcement buried in a DOE website. The fine print at the bottom of the website said it had been last updated August 18, so the award was made in the days before that.

The coalition is composed of organizations that have spent decades training and certifying workers, including ACCA and North American Technician Excellence and Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association. The industry’s unions, the Sheet Metal Workers, United Association and the IBEW spend tens of millions of dollars on training, not to mention the non-union training programs that are run by contractor associations. HVAC Excellence, which accredits trade and secondary school vocational programs, runs an instructor training conference that competes with a similar instructor training conference run by ACCA, PHCC, NATE and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society.

The industry has done all of this training, testing, certifying and accrediting for years. BPI has not. In fact, BPI has no idea how it’s going to do this.

The day I wrote this editorial, I received an email from BPI that startled me.

“The Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI) is calling for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to help prepare test questions for four new certifications being developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL's) National Worker Certification Program for the weatherization industry,” the email began. “All SMEs will earn up to five BPI CEUs for their participation, and be invited to take a free alternative (beta) certification exam for the designation area they participated in.”

Subject matter experts would create the certification test for Crew Leaders, who will be the supervisors, Energy Auditors, Retrofit Installer/Technicians, and Quality Control Inspectors.

The energy auditor will evaluate and analyze “buildings and their energy efficiency, health and safety aspects by gathering empirical data, conducting tests and using energy modeling software. The goal is to reduce energy consumption, improve health and safety, and increase the lifespan of a building while also improving the quality of life and comfort for building occupants.”

The installer/technician “installs energy efficiency measures to single family or 2-4 unit homes using a variety of building science best practices to improve safety, comfort, durability, indoor air quality, and energy efficiency.”

BPI said in the email that it is looking for industry experts who are members of the home performance or weatherization industry that are involved with production, assembling and/or distribution, or sells materials, products, systems, or services covered in the scope of the certification.

Why didn’t they just put a subject line on the email that said, “We don’t know what we’re doing”?

I would hope that members of the industry jump on this invitation to try to make this certification test halfway meaningful. But they better work fast. The deadline to sign up is September 9. That’s right, they’re giving people 10 days to sign up for a program with this level of significance. Here’s the contact info:

Email to Kirsten Richnavsky, certification development coordinator, at [email protected] no later than close-of-business on Friday, September 9, 2011. She will direct you to the form you’ll have to fill out to apply for the committee.

BPI can be reached at Building Performance Institute Inc., 107 Hermes Road, Suite 110, Malta, N.Y. 12020, Phone: 877-274-1274, Fax: 866-777-1274, [email protected], www.bpi.org.

The reason subject matter experts have to sign up for the committee that quickly is because work begins this month. SME panels will convene during two work periods: September 27-29 or October 4-6.

You have to work quickly when you get a big federal contract but you don’t have the in-house expertise to back it up. If you go on the BPI website, you can find a list of the people who sit on BPI committees. Far be it from me to denigrate what people do for a living, but the committees are full of government employees, academics, non-profits, “consultants” and other people who can’t tell a compressor from a condenser and wouldn’t know a thermistor if it bit them on the ass.

Toward the end of her letter to McCrudden, Hogan states, “The subcontract to be awarded through this Alliance/NREL procurement does not signify that DOE intends to recognize only one certification body for weatherization or home performance certifications. It is intended that the ISO 17024 standard will be used as part of the evaluation criteria for future determinations regarding DOE recognition of additional certifications.”

I would certainly hope so. Maybe next time they’ll certify an organization that doesn’t need to put out an open casting call for subject matter experts because it doesn’t have any expertise in-house. Coalition members should jump on this, either separately or collectively. Organizations like NATE could certainly do it themselves. Or, perhaps, the coalition can form a new non-profit just for this purpose and pool their expertise.

The alternative is that the program doesn’t get funded. I believe that government serves legitimate purposes, addicted as I am to clean water and paved roads. This particular program, on the other hand, would make a good target for Congressional budget cutters. What worries me, however, is that we need a residential energy efficiency program — properly functioning — and if this one gets whacked we may not see another one for years to come. I think we would be better off if coalition members do everything they can to steer this program in the right direction.

As McCrudden told me back in June, you have an appliance in your basement that’s on fire. This is not the time and place for amateur hour.

About the Author

Robert Mader Blog | Editor in Chief

Bob Mader is the editor of CONTRACTOR magazine, Green Mechanical Contractor magazine, and Radiant Living magazine. He has been writing about plumbing, mechanical, green building and HVACR topics for more than 25 years.

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