Though geothermal heat pump technology has been around for decades, the market has experienced its most significant growth in the past dozen years or so. As a result, many state-level geothermal organizations have been created to help organize and support the geothermal contractors in their states and promote training and quality installations.
Meanwhile, geothermal manufacturers, distributors, and organizations like the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA) have stepped up their training efforts to ensure HVACR contractors are installing and servicing geothermal equipment to the highest standard.
ENSURING QUALITY GEO INSTALLATIONS NATIONWIDE
Twenty-eight years ago, IGSHPA began offering its industry-standard Accredited Installers program for those just getting into the geothermal business. A decade ago, the organization also began offering the Accredited Drillers program.
“We have partnered with the National Ground Water Association [NGWA] to deliver a training and certification program along with NGWA’s Certified Vertical Closed Loop Driller [CVCLD] certification,” said Roshan Revankar, training program manager for IGSHPA. The organization also offers a Certified GeoExchange Designer (CGD) course for commercial applications in partnership with the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) as well as a Certified Geothermal Inspector (CGI) course.
“That’s something for building code officials or building inspectors who want to inspect geothermal systems,” Revankar said. “It’s a two-day program for anybody who wants to get into the inspection side of a geothermal system.”
On the residential side, IGSHPA is developing a Residential Designer Program and intends to launch it this fall.
“It’s very much for HVAC contractors and the folks who work out of the office for these guys and look at a project, design a system, and then hand it over to installers,” Revankar said. “These are the folks who would understand what goes behind the heat pump, what’s required, how important the soil is, how important it is understanding the building itself, and what the challenges are that installers face when they go to put it in the ground. A lot of times, what’s on the paper isn’t what goes into the home.”
To ensure IGSHPA training and certifications are accessible to contractors regionally, IGSHPA has more than 120 trainers nationwide. “A lot of our manufacturers set up courses across different parts of the country because it’s easier for folks to drive somewhere nearby and take a two-day course,” Revankar said. “We partner with the state geothermal associations that help us put together courses, and we also have online programs, including for the CGD course. Some of our trainers offer online training or part of it online for the installation course, as well.”
IGSHPA strives to work with manufacturers to make sure HVAC contractors are performing quality geothermal installations throughout the U.S. and beyond, Revankar said. “Our goal is [to form] partnerships with all our manufacturer members — they’re the folks who also train on their products. They need an organization like ours to train contractors on the ground side of things — that’s our expertise — and the installation that goes with it. We try to make training accessible. We understand traveling to Oklahoma is easily a couple thousand dollars’ expense on top of the training fees and the time off work, so we try to make it accessible through regional training.”
TRAINING STARTS IN-HOUSE
When Stephen Bowman, president and owner of Bowman Mechanical Services in Garner, North Carolina, began installing geothermal heat pumps in 1980, IGSHPA was not yet offering certifications, and there was very little, if any, training available to contractors.
“There wasn’t any way to get training other than going to a building and taking a class with a distributor, and that is still a really common way to do it,” Bowman said. “Now, manufacturers offer training and certification, and distributors offer training classes for people who want to sell geothermal. We send technicians to those classes when they’re offered, and that gives them a really good overview of loop design, equipment setup, and things of that nature.”
Now that training is more widespread and accessible than ever, Bowman said the amount of training contractors receive depends on how much they want or need.
“It really depends on how heavy you want to get into it,” he said. “Since we do so much of it, everyone here gets an opportunity to take the class. If they want to be a lead mechanic, they have to take those classes or we won’t let them run the job.”
Mark Sakry, owner of Northern GroundSource Inc. in Brimson, Minnesota, and president of the Minnesota Geothermal Heat Pump Association (MNGHPA), also highlighted the importance of manufacturer training, both for the benefit of understanding the proprietary technologies as well as for the broader training that is often involved.
“At the top, manufacturers all have their own proprietary training specific to their products, but also some design and installation training because one of the most critical aspects of geothermal is the loop design and installation, which is the heart and soul of the system,” Sakry said. “All the rest of the mechanicals kind of go in as they might for a conventional system with the exception that geothermal is inherently a low-temperature technology.”
Dan Walsdorf, co-owner of Advanced Custom Geothermal in Kiel, Wisconsin, and current president of the Wisconsin Geothermal Association (WGA), said he and his technicians participate in as much geothermal training as possible.
“We always try to get our techs, at least once every two years, to manufacturer training, even though it’s training they may have received before, because there are lessons to be learned in those two years on how to do things better, and you can learn different and new techniques,” Walsdorf said. “More importantly, it hones in on the new equipment and how to make it work properly. Really, the key is the manufacturer’s training on the units you’re representing.”
In addition to training with manufacturers and distributors, most contractors worth their salt also ensure training is ongoing within the company, too.
“If certain issues come up from the manufacturer, they’ll send out a tech bulletin and say, ‘Hey, these are some issues we’ve had, so look for this or that,’ and we pass them onto the employees,” Walsdorf said. “We also have a trainer board in our office, which all the manufacturers use for training, but we purchased one for ourselves to help new techs with their troubleshooting as well as the guys who perhaps need a refresher. We can throw a fault into the board and make them troubleshoot it right here. We purchased something the manufacturers have in order to help our techs learn.”
“We have safety meetings every Friday where we usually go over issues we’ve found on the job, or we discuss recurring things the service department is finding so that we can improve the installations,” Bowman said, adding they are both IGSHPA-certified and a member of the Geothermal Exchange Organization [GEO]. “We’ve been a charter member of GEO since the very beginning, and we contribute to their lobbying efforts in Washington.”
STATES SHOW INITIATIVE
In just the past few years, industry leaders have founded more than a dozen state-level geothermal organizations in order to connect contractors, advocate for geothermal, and provide training and certification regionally throughout the U.S. Many of these state-level organizations host annual conferences that include training and certification opportunities, and several even offer their own statewide geothermal certifications.
“The industry standard everyone is encouraged, if not required, to take is installation basic training and accreditation through IGSHPA,” Sakry said.
Additional training, especially in issues that are specific to that region of the country, can only benefit contractors.
“One of the things I set out to do as a founding board member of MNGHPA was to have an annual conference and, in conjunction with that, really good technical training,” Sakry added. “When you talk about who to bring in to do that, this is where you reach out toward those upper layers of expertise from manufacturers and distributors. They have webinars, and they’ll offer to send their people out and do, like in our case, hour-and-a-half sessions.”
Walsdorf said WGA is also a “big believer” in IGSHPA’s training but felt that Wisconsin should also have its own training and certification.
“[WGA] developed a program called the Master Geothermal Installer for both the equipment installer and loop installer,” he said. “It is a pretty comprehensive test of your knowledge of a geothermal heat pump, some common problems, and best practices — things like that. As an association, we thought that was an added value where people would look to the association for guidance. We want to be the authority in Wisconsin.”
Ultimately, there is no such thing as too much education when it comes to geothermal, and “any training is good training,” Walsdorf said.
Publication date: 8/29/2016