Contractors Step Up Their Games in Energy Star Programs

October 11, 2010
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The geothermal equipment shown was installed as part of a project that Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. performed under the Home Performance with Energy Star program.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not only has an Energy Star program for appliances, but there are Energy Star programs for the work an HVAC contractor executes. In order to thrive doing work under an Energy Star program, it takes a new attitude, training, dedication, and spending money on the part of the contractor to make sure the end result of the work is a home that is more energy efficient.



AT HOME

One of the Energy Star contractor programs is Home Performance with Energy Star. The scope of the program goes beyond looking at a whole-home HVAC system to looking at all the systems of a house. The objective is to figure out how the different systems in a home can be improved in order to reduce the amount of energy a house uses. Joe Kruger, vice president residential sales and installation, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Rochester, N.Y., said the program includes HVAC, water heating, house sealing, insulation, lighting, health and safety, and windows.

The first step is for an audit to be conducted. Kruger said that energy audits, which are done as part of this program, “assess the health and safety of the home as well as its energy performance.”

According to Scott Needham, president, Princeton Air Conditioning Inc., Princeton, N.J., part of his company’s energy audit procedure involves utilizing infiltrometers, infrared cameras, and combustion analysis equipment to make sure that equipment that burns fuel is burning properly and isn’t producing CO.

“It’s very important because when you tighten the home up you can create some of the problems, so we have to be acutely aware of how the home is performing.”

Needham continued, “When you start doing work on all of those components without a holistic or whole-home approach, you can do things that can negatively impact those other portions of the home.” He also said that one contractor who can handle multiple disciplines (as opposed to two or three different companies) will be able to see the big picture and will ultimately offer the solution that makes the most sense. For example, that may involve putting in new insulation and tightening up a home, which then can allow for a smaller-capacity furnace and/or air conditioner unit to be recommended; contractors working independently usually don’t coordinate on these important points, commented Needham.

After the energy home improvement work has been performed, it is time for the verification process, which is similar to the commissioning process in commercial work.

John Cross tweaks the controls of the Krendl cellulose machine to deliver the correct insulation/air mix in a whole-home energy project.

SEPARATE, YET CONNECTED

Home performance is performed by specially trained contractors and is known as the “contractor model,” whereas comprehensive energy audits are performed by energy raters with specific experience in existing homes, and is often called the “consultant model,” said Steve Saunders, Tempo Mechanical, Irving, Texas.

Saunders remarked that “Tempo Mechanical has a sister company that is a certified HERS [Home Energy Rating System] rating company. Together, they offer a unique blend of the best of the independent consultant from the energy firm and the specially trained contractors performance from the contractor model. The businesses work in tandem to offer unique services and exceptional value to owners of the home.”

Some HVAC companies have invested the effort and money it takes to set up a business that executes the auditing and verification and is separate from the part of the company that performs the installation and service.

Larry Taylor, president, AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc., Fort Worth, Texas, said his company did this because “If a customer wants a comprehensive report on actual home and energy-related issues, we will direct them to that company. This removes the possibility of us recommending items that may not be best for the homeowner just because that is what we have to sell.”

For his company, Kruger said that by separating the different sides of the company, it “made it easier to work within the guidelines of the program and allowed for a better internal and external marketing approach. We changed the look and type of trucks and logos - completely remarketed the company.”

As part of a whole-house Energy Star project, Rafael Torres of Princeton Air Conditioning Inc. is dense packing the lower half of a stud wall separating the garage from the living space. When completed, this wall will become an air barrier as well as a thermal barrier to keep cold air and any exhaust fumes from entering the home.

INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE

“Commitment is key. This building science side of the business is not your father’s way of doing work, selling, teaching, or running your business,” said Taylor. “It will take a top-down focus and will not happen overnight. It will require additional capital investment in equipment, tools, and team members. If you are not a training company, you will have to become one as the knowledge base is large and complex, but is very appropriate for the HVAC contractor to enter, as we know more about the house and construction than any other trade.”

About the training Kruger and other Isaac employees went through, he said, “We had to attend a week-long class set up by the state to get our people certified. They took a class as well as a field test.” In addition, he said that they underwent an approval process lasting a few months.

Saunders commented that those who haven’t yet started doing business this way will need to make the switch to it in the future. “Don’t feel any obligation or pressure, don’t do this work unless you want to. But it could be useful to remaining in business because I think that this is where the world is headed. If you don’t know how to play, you may get left behind.” He continued, “It’s a good thing to do, not because it’s fun, but because it’s central to survival.”

QUALITY WORK

Quality Installation is another Energy Star program. According to the EPA’s Energy Star Program website, the Energy Star Quality Installation Guidelines are based on the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s (ACCA) HVAC Quality Installation Specification and involve properly sizing the equipment, sealing ductwork, measuring and adjusting airflow for optimal performance, and properly charging refrigerant in central air conditioners and heat pumps.

Under this program, the installation and related work is verified by a third party, just like work done like Home Performance with Energy Star. Ellis G. Guiles Jr., P.E., LEED AP, HERS Rater, vice president of TAG Mechanical Systems Inc., Syracuse, N.Y., said that contractors “may also find that they can no longer take shortcuts perhaps taken in the past. The work will be inspected and verified by third parties, and if those third parties find excessive noncompliance, it will result in companies being removed from participation in the programs, which could negatively impact their businesses.”

Guiles said that in order for his company to do work as a part of this program, he spent time training to do this work, “and then performed five preliminary ratings under the supervision of an approved RESNET [Residential Energy Services Network] provider.” He continues to go to training courses throughout the year to retain his HERS rater’s certification. Guiles encourages all contractors who want to participate in the Energy Star Quality Installation program to train and learn a lot.

TAG Mechanical also made a financial investment in Quality Installation work by buying blower doors and duct blasters, and later “additional testing equipment to measure airflow in residential applications as well as thermal imaging equipment.”

It won’t be business as usual for those who join the program, pointed out Guiles. “For many HVAC contractors, there will be substantial policy and procedure changes, which will need to be implemented in their businesses. In many ways, it will be similar to manufacturers who have chosen to obtain ISO certification for their business.”

One of the challenges in performing Quality Installation-type work is measuring airflows, which seems like it should be easier to figure out than it is, said Saunders. It is the ability to measure the airflow and get the same result, in particular, that Saunders thinks is something that the industry has yet to quite figure out, but is a part of the whole-home puzzle because “If we’re going to be putting airflow measures, either total airflow or outlet airflow, into programs, we have to have tools and processes that allow for repeatable performance measurement on a consistent basis across contractors and across the people who are doing the verification.”

Publication date: 10/11/2010

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