“These workforce guidelines would apply in all cases where there was federal money on the line — potentially even the 25C tax credits,” said Charlie McCrudden, vice president of government relations for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). Because of this potential impact on HVAC contractors nationwide, industry leaders are calling on DOE to reexamine how the guidelines were developed.
According to DOE, the purpose of the new workforce guidelines is to ensure the quality of work performed for residential energy upgrades under DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). WAP provides money to the states to enable low-income families to make their homes more energy efficient.
According to Richard Knaub, project lead for Home Energy Upgrade Worker Certifications at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the main focus of the guidelines is to develop “a nationwide standard for weatherization assistance programs.” This includes a nationwide worker certification and training program. “As far as other federal money situations,” he said, “we don’t have any indication that anyone’s going to adopt them, although they could.”
The guidelines were first published in the Federal Register on Nov. 9, 2010, and made available for public comments. According to Knaub, over 900 comments were submitted during the public comment period.
“Initially, the plan called for the DOE to take comments and then release the final version,” McCrudden said. This push-ahead approach had many in the industry concerned that their comments were not being properly reviewed and considered. McCrudden noted that a smaller coalition of industry organizations initially reached out to DOE through a letter sent on May 18, but did not receive any response.
Consequently, a coalition of 21 associations affiliated with the home contracting industry sent a letter on June 24 to DOE expressing their concerns about the guidelines. The coalition included many organizations familiar to HVAC contractors, such as ACCA, HARDI, AHRI, RSES, etc. In addition, other organizations ranging from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) to the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) joined the coalition, as did training and code-making organizations such as NATE, HVAC Excellence, and ICC. (For a complete list of organizations participating in the coalition, see the sidebar below.)
The June 24 letter addressed the main concerns of these different industry groups by raising questions about the development process for the guidelines and the selection process for the guidelines’ certifying body.
“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 stated. It described the development process of the guidelines as “flawed from the beginning,” and criticized both the drafting and commenting phases. “The original version was drafted behind closed doors without input from industry stakeholders,” the letter stated.
In addition, the coalition also stated that there are technical problems in the guidelines, which cite standards that “in important instances are in conflict with national model codes and underlying consensus standards.”
DOE formally responded to the coalition’s letter on Aug. 4 and defended its process for developing the guidelines. “The first draft of the Workforce Guidelines was the product of an extended process involving WAP technicians and trainers, private home performance contractors, building scientists, healthy homes and worker safety experts, and other professionals from the building trades and home energy upgrade industry,” the DOE letter stated.
Additionally, DOE’s website now explains: “DOE is currently working with industry experts to reconcile some technical issues identified during the initial public review of the Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades document. A revised draft will be available for a second public review in fall 2011.”
For contractors, McCrudden said, the biggest issue with the guidelines is the process for how they were developed. “The original drafting that started last summer was essentially invite-only,” he said, adding, “I would say there was no input from the HVAC community.” Instead, McCrudden noted, those invited to help draft the guidelines were weatherization and home energy experts.
According to Jon Melchi, HARDI manager of government affairs, “The guidelines were developed without consulting the experts in the field. It was very exclusionary.” He added that DOE calls this document “guidelines — not standards — but they’re really walking a fine line because if you do any government work, these could become the de facto standards.” There is also a fear that state and local governments could simply adopt these guidelines as their standards, Melchi said. “In some instances, it looks like a federal regulatory version of Home Star,” he said, referring to the bill that didn’t pass in the Senate last year, but would have set up worker certification requirements to qualify home energy-efficiency upgrades for federal rebates. “Our members weren’t fans of Home Star last year. When they got wind of this, they felt like they were fighting the same battle.”
According to Knaub, the coalition’s claims are “highly inaccurate.” He explained, “Before the first draft went to public comment, we had over 300 industry experts involved in the process. … And then we developed a website specifically designed to capture public comments at the line level.” Knaub added that these comments were incorporated in the second draft of the guidelines. “Because of the significance [of the comments] and the feeling — largely from the HVAC community — that they hadn’t gotten enough involvement, we’ve gone out for a second industry technical review, and we’re going out for a second round of public comments.”
According to McCrudden, the guidelines were designed so that technicians will have to be certified to the guidelines by a third-party certifying body. But there are also serious concerns about how DOE has selected this certifying body.
The members of the industry coalition expected DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to open a competitive procurement process to determine “what organization or organizations would qualify to participate and potentially serve as certifying bodies.” Knaub said that NREL had two main criteria for a certifying body: expertise in whole-house energy upgrades and weatherization, and the ability to achieve ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024 accreditation within six months.
Knaub said that NREL sent out a competitive solicitation but only to a “limited source list” of organizations that met these criteria. NREL did not release that list, and the coalition has asked that NREL “restart the process with invitations to all organizations with ANSI 17024 accreditation or Applicants for ANSI 17024 accreditation.”
According to the coalition, at a May meeting about the guidelines, “It was publicly stated by DOE and NREL officials that the process had already concluded and that NREL was in the final stages of negotiating a contract with a single, unnamed entity.”
That entity is the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the same organization that was named in the Home Star legislation. According to Knaub, “BPI responded to a competitive solicitation from NREL to which other industry organizations were invited to respond. NREL selected BPI in this competitive procurement process as the certifying body for four weatherization related job classifications.”
When asked for comment, BPI issued the following statement from its CEO, Larry Zarker: “We’re committed to the ANSI accreditation process and ISO 17024 accredited certifications. We’re working closely with industry to develop certifications that are relevant and trusted by consumers, and working as fast as possible to deliver them to the marketplace.”
Part of the concern about the procurement process stems from NREL’s criteria that the certifying body be certified to ANSI 17024. According to McCrudden, only 33 organizations hold the 17024 standard, and “not one of the 33 is completely centered in the home retrofit or energy retrofit market.” McCrudden noted that along with BPI, NATE and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are both applicants for 17024 but neither of the two latter were contacted by NREL to participate in the procurement process.
According to Peter Schwartz, president of North American Technician Excellence (NATE), the way these processes were conducted was unheard of. “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,” he said. “What I personally am looking for here is transparency and openness of the process. To distribute RFPs to select and yet-to-be-identified administrating bodies doesn’t lend to openness, especially when the prerequisites established would and should qualify others who were not invited to bid on this opportunity.”
Tom Meyer, director of government and professional relations for The ESCO Group, noted that five ESCO affiliates (which function as independent organizations) signed the coalition letter to the DOE. “When [the five organizations] agree, we throw our full weight at the subject — and this one’s easy to agree on,” he said. Meyer reiterated that the coalition is seeking for transparency in the development and selection processes. “Certain things seem to be appearing without industry leadership having been consulted,” he said, adding, “I don’t think anything that is being asked by the coalition is unreasonable.”
However, the Aug. 4 letter from DOE reaffirmed the agency’s position that its “competitive solicitation was conducted in accordance with the NREL-approved procurement system.” Knaub added, “NREL currently is exploring how to make the certification blueprints available to other qualified certification bodies in accordance with ISO 17024.”
At present, he continued, DOE is working to address the coalition’s concerns about the accuracy of the guidelines with additional review periods for members of the industry and the public. “We hear those complaints and what we are trying to do is to address them and to bring those organizations that feel they’ve been slighted into the process in a way that they find acceptable,” Knaub said.
However, there continues to be concern in the industry about the guidelines. Overall, according to McCrudden, the coalition was “somewhat disappointed” with the DOE’s response. “There wasn’t a lot of substance to it and they really didn’t address some of the points and concerns we had raised,” he said, adding that the coalition is currently working on another letter to send to DOE.
Schwartz said, “I personally find [DOE’s response] to be conspicuously absent with respect to addressing the specific concerns that we asked to address. We hope to be able to meet with their representatives in the future in a forum that would afford us an opportunity to directly communicate our concerns regarding the processes and protocols that they appear to be utilizing in the development of these guidelines moving forward.”
Sidebar: A Concerned Coalition
The following organizations each signed the June 24 letter to the DOE:
Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Safety Coalition (AC&R)
Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA)
Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI)
Carbon Monoxide Safety Association (COSA)
Educational Standards Corporation Institute (ESCO)
ESCO Press International
Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI)
Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA)
International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)
International Code Council (ICC)
National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)
National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI)
National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA)
North American Technician Excellence (NATE)
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association (PHCC)
Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES)
Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET)
The ESCO Group
The Green Mechanical Council
Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA)
Publication date: 09/12/2011