Timing Is Hot For Energy Star

January 30, 2006
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - HVACR contractors who have been debating whether or not to get involved with the Energy Star® Home Performance program may want to get off the fence. Higher heating costs are hitting consumers hard this winter, and many are looking for solutions to effectively seal up their homes.

In short, consumers are ready to listen to you about efficiency now.

WHAT'S INSIDE THE HOME

Essentially, Home Performance with Energy Star is a whole-house approach to improving the comfort and energy efficiency of single-family homes.

The program is managed locally by an Energy Star partner (typically your utility company, state agency, or a local association). The managing partner trains and qualifies contractors and ensures they deliver quality work. The partner may also offer financial assistance.

The program currently is available in the following areas and through these utilities/agencies:

CALIFORNIA: California Building Performance Contractors Association.

COLORADO: E-Star Colorado.

GEORGIA: Southface (Atlanta).

IDAHO: Idaho Energy Division.

KANSAS: Metropolitan Energy Center (Kansas City).

MASSACHUSETTS: NSTAR Electric, Massachusetts Electric, and Berkshire Gas.

MINNESOTA: Neighborhood Energy Consortium (Minneapolis/St. Paul).

MISSOURI: Missouri Botanical Garden's EarthWays Center.

NEW JERSEY: Board of Public Utilities (Atlantic City).

NEW YORK: NYSERDA.

TEXAS: Austin Energy (Austin).

WISCONSIN: Focus on Energy.

Qualified contractors in these communities are available to perform "a top-to-bottom energy inspection of your home," according to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Energy Star. The inspection may determine causes of problems such as cold rooms, ice dams, damp basements, moisture on windows, etc., and gauge the home's energy efficiency and durability in general.

"As part of the inspection, your contractor should also make sure your gas or oil appliances are venting properly," the DOE stressed.

The contractor's recommendations may include duct-sealing, adding insulation, installing energy-efficient lighting, new HVAC equipment, and/or new windows. "The best solution for most homes often includes a combination of several improvements," DOE stated. "Your contractor may perform the work or provide a list of contractors who will."

CROSSING OVER

Dick Kornbluth is a cofounder of insulation contractor EnTherm Inc. in Syracuse. The company has been involved with the Home Performance program practically since its inception. Consumer interest this year has been going "very well actually," Kornbluth said.

"I think there definitely is a lot more consumer interest, driven by increased heating and cooling costs, the weather, and ice dam issues. We were up around 20 percent over last year."

Heating work is not EnTherm's primary business, but it has grown significantly in the last year or two, he said. "We only install Energy Star-compliant equipment."

Kornbluth believes the program offers significant opportunities for primarily heating-cooling contractors. Crossover work is the norm for contractors who get with the program.

"There are also barriers to other heating contractors who get involved," Kornbluth said. "The program requires the work to be comprehensive, as in whole-house comprehensive. The contractor would have to address insulation and shell issues. This creates some problems for heating contractors, but also huge opportunities."

In the state of New York, for example, there are great consumer incentives (low-interest financing, 10-percent rebates, etc.) through programs such as those initiated by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

"You have to propose Home Performance to every customer; the customer can turn it down, but it has to be proposed," Kornbluth explained. A contractor also does not need to have the capability to perform all of the work in-house; he can refer the consumer to another contractor, or can subcontract it; "but they need to propose it."

IT'S LIKE NATE

The first step for interested contractors, said Kornbluth, is to contact program administrators. Then the contractor should become certified and accredited by Building Performance Institute (BPI), and make sure there are certified techs in the company.

Kornbluth noted that "Outside of New York state, if a contractor wants to become a whole-house contractor, BPI certification may not be a necessity." However, "The best option is to get BPI certified."

"EPA right now has a large contract with BPI to expand across the country," he said. "It's sort of like NATE [North American Technician Excellence]; you don't have to be NATE certified to be a heating contractor. However, certification may have marketing value."

BPI, headquartered in Malta, N.Y., is an independent, third-party provider of building science-based certification and accreditation credentials delivered through a national network. The institute conducts ongoing quality assurance and requires continuing professional training and education in order to retain use of the BPI mark.

The organization sets the standards and administers certification of technicians and accreditation of companies. "Remodelers, inspectors, builders, insulation contractors, heating and cooling contractors, are a few of the trades that can benefit from building performance certification," the institute said.

Its certification is based on core written competency testing in building evaluation, envelope, and mechanical systems, coupled with a practical field test. "Specialized certifications can be achieved in any of these fields, as well as a comprehensive designation achieved by mastering the specialties of all these fields," the institute said.

BPI-accredited firms must have written procedures relating to quality assurance. They also must submit to a process staff jobsite evaluation.

Building performance is described as "a systematic approach to improving the indoor environment, by applying improvements to the whole house, not just individual building components. This approach incorporates comfort, health and safety, durability, and energy efficiency into a comprehensive package.

"Buildings are systems of interacting parts," BPI pointed out. "Building performance contractors use a multidisciplinary approach to evaluate each improvement to a particular system of the house for its potential to affect other systems.

"For instance, an insulation contractor may recommend ventilation improvements in conjunction with insulation to make sure the house does not become too tight" and to preserve the indoor air quality (IAQ). Similarly, a heating contractor may recommend additional insulation before installing a high-efficiency heating system to ensure comfort and savings. Both contractors will ensure the safety of all combustion appliances in the home through diagnostic testing and verification."

HVAC contractors would not have to be able to install new windows themselves to participate in the Energy Star program. They could subcontract the work out, or simply refer the homeowner to window replacement contractors. (Photo © 2002 by John Curtis; reprinted with permission from Insulate and Weatherize by Bruce Harley, published by the Taunton Press.)

DIAGNOSING THE HOME

Performance diagnostics are available to assist the building performance contractor in evaluating the condition of a home and verifying the impact of improvements. These techniques, which should not be unfamiliar to professional heating-cooling contractors, include:

  • Blower door tests for building shell leakage.

  • Combustion safety tests to verify proper performance of appliance venting systems.

  • Carbon monoxide testing.

  • Duct leakage diagnostics.

  • Infrared thermal imaging.

    According to BPI, "A complete equipment package needed to diagnose a home and verify the integrity of installations will typically cost in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 for most contractors." Although payback on the contractor's investment is difficult to predict, "the protection and added value of testing and verification will reap benefits for both you and your clients," the institute said. "You will be able to charge a premium for your services and protect your work with the added assurance of independent third-party quality control.

    "Some contractors elect to charge a diagnostic fee as part of the initial estimate," BPI continued. "In addition, performance testing will help you ensure that problems do not spring up after you leave the home. You will save money by reducing the number of problem job callbacks you have to deal with, reducing your overhead and increasing your profits."

    To become BPI certified, a contractor first fills out an application and determines what level of certification they want to achieve. "BPI can help by assisting you in determining your training needs and directing you to resources for training and equipment. When you are ready to be certified, a BPI proctor will come to your location and administer a written exam and a performance exam." If both tests are passed, the contractor receives an official certification package within three weeks of the test date.

    The cost of certification depends on the size of the company and the number of certified techs the contractor wants to have on staff. "Most companies will pay between $3,000 and $5,000 for certification and accreditation," the institute said. In addition to the installer training, the contractor will receive:

  • A copy of the BPI Technical Standards for each certified technician on staff.

  • A certificate and ID card for each certified technician on staff, identifying the person as a BPI-certified technician.

  • Updates of BPI Technical Standards as they become available.

  • Laminated quick-reference sheets for use in the field.

  • A subscription to "Performance Matters," BPI's quarterly newsletter.

  • Worksheets and support materials for performing technical field procedures.

  • Access to BPI technical support.

  • A marketing kit giving the contractor access to and instructions for use of the BPI logo.

    "The whole concept of whole-house and building performance is not simple, not easy to sell in a 30-second spot," said Kornbluth.

    "It's more complicated than you can market easily. It's easier to explain in the customer's house, but not in the mass media. Health and safety issues are a little more subtle." A strong approach to use in mass media marketing is the energy-saving aspect, he said - and for now that angle is hot.

    "We mostly get called based on our specialty, insulation and windows, and convert these to whole-house projects," Kornbluth said. "It could be true of a heating contractor also. What heating contractors tend to do is, they just change out furnaces. They don't address any issues of heat load and other building requirements."

    Consumer interest and contractor marketing is driving the strong market now for Kornbluth and EnTherm - not utility or NYSERDA promotions. "Where we're located in central New York is considered a mature market," he said.

    Sidebar: A Closer Look

    SYRACUSE, N.Y. - EnTherm Inc. was founded in 1980 by Richard Kornbluth and Frank LaSala. The company initially specialized in residential retrofit insulation, a field familiar to EnTherm owners. "In 1983 we added windows and doors to our services; and radon testing and contracting in 1986," Kornbluth said.

    "Locally owned and operated, we maintain a staff of 50 experienced professionals."

    The company's affiliations include the Building Performance Institute (BPI), Building Performance Contractors Association, Syracuse Builders Exchange, and Syracuse Home Builders.

    The directors of BPI bestowed its 2005 Individual Achievement Award to Kornbluth. The award, given to an individual recognized by his peers for outstanding contribution to the promotion of a healthy, safe, durable, comfortable, and energy-efficient environment, was made during a ceremony that is becoming known in the building performance industry as "the BIPPYS."

    According to BPI CEO William Parlapiano III, "Dick's commitment to whole-house performance not only helps his customers live in healthier, more comfortable, and cost-effective homes, but he is a model that other individuals and contractors should strive to emulate."

    "I am truly honored by the award," Kornbluth said. "I look at all the great work that is going on in our community, in New York state, and all across the country, I am truly touched."

    Publication date: 01/30/2006

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