As homeowners become increasingly aware of home performance and the benefits it offers, home-performance contractors must continue to find ways to promote and differentiate themselves from their competitors. Training and certification is a crucial differentiator, and it has the added bonus of making contractors more trustworthy to prospective customers.
Contractors, and those working in the trades, will want to differentiate themselves from their competition, and that is where certifications come in, noted John Jones, national technical director, Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI).
“Some of these contractors also aspire to become specialists,” Jones said. “To do that, they opt for BPI certifications to show they have the requisite skills and knowledge to perform certain types of work in the home. BPI certifications are nationally recognized and verify a contractor’s knowledge and experience. By studying for and attaining BPI certifications, these professionals earn expertise in various aspects of home energy efficiency, comfort, durability, and health.
“For example, the BPI Building Analyst, the most popular BPI certification, focuses on preparing contractors to complete whole-house energy audits,” he continued. “Without this type of certification, a contractor has not demonstrated he is qualified to conduct that type of assessment. Formal training prepares contractors to identify and solve homeowners’ trickiest problems; certification proves they have the competency.”
Anthony Spagnoli, testing and education manager, North American Technician Excellence (NATE), agreed, saying certification programs are a means of validating professional competence.
“NATE certifications are particularly important to home-performance contractors because they indicate that technicians have superior levels of job knowledge and the expertise required to accurately install, diagnose, and repair HVAC systems,” he said. “NATE exams are developed for the industry by a committee of HVACR industry experts. Earning a NATE certification signifies that the standards of excellence set by that committee have been met.”
Dominick Guarino, chairman & CEO of the National Comfort Institute (NCI), said certifications add third-party credibility to home-performance contractors.
“More than traditional home-performance contractors who typically focus on sealing and insulating homes, HVAC performance-based contractors actually deal with how the entire HVAC system, including the equipment, ductwork, and grilles and registers, interacts with the home,” Guarino said. “Through HVAC performance-based contracting, NCI-certified technicians know how to test, diagnose, and provide solutions that make the entire system work in harmony with the home. They are taught to focus on all four key aspects of true performance: safety, health, comfort, and energy efficiency. Contrary to popular belief, a home or building owner can get all four of these benefits without compromising the others when the ‘whole’ HVAC system is properly tested, diagnosed, corrected, and, when repaired, tested again to verify actual performance.”
There are numerous benefits to home-performance training and certification, including having a more educated, capable staff.
“Home-performance contractors look at the house as one unit with numerous systems interacting with each other,” Jones said. “If one system fails, or is not functioning properly, the entire house can be impacted. Understanding how to identify and diagnose problems of these various systems, and the interactions between them, helps contractors solve their customers’ problems and reduces callbacks.”
BPI certifications not only assure contractors have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to properly diagnose and fix problems, but they also expand opportunities for jobs and career development, Jones added.
“Once a candidate becomes a BPI-certified professional, they can view the BPI website for industry professionals to find jobs or post their resumes for companies to see,” he said. “At any one time, bpi.org has 30-plus jobs posted with companies across the country. BPI also has a significant number of resources available for BPI-certified professionals, including logos, patches, best practice documents, and communication opportunities with other BPI-certified professionals.”
The NATE certification program allows certified home-performance contractors to differentiate their businesses from competitors, Spagnoli said.
“Our certification signifies that a technician has exceeded the basic state or local licensing requirements and has the skills and job knowledge needed to effectively perform diagnostics, upgrades, and repairs to home HVAC and water heating systems,” he explained.
According to Guarino, NCI-certified technicians can provide customers with an unsurpassed level of quality and performance.
“NCI-certified technicians know how to diagnose and correct problems that most contractors walk past every day,” he said. “This differentiates them from the typical service company, putting them head and shoulders above the competition.”
ACCA highly recommends home-performance contractors hold certifications, and they recommend those certifications come from either BPI or RESNET.
“Having BPI and RESNET certifications shows that the home-performance contractors and auditors have the appropriate skills and tools needed to perform the comprehensive home audit,” said Todd Washam, director of industry and external relations, ACCA. “So it adds to their resume that they have the proper certifications, and they’ve been trained on the requisite standards. We recommend RESNET and BPI because both of those organizations recognize ACCA’s home-performance standard, ACCA 12. We are very supportive of what both of those organizations are doing.”
Certified home-performance/HVAC contractors are in a better position to offer homeowners solutions to their problems, Washam noted.
“A few years ago, home auditors would go into a home, do a quick evaluation, and make some recommendations, like adding a new HVAC system, insulation, windows, sealing up doors, and things like that,” he said. “A lot of times, homeowners would say, ‘I want the biggest bang for my buck,’ and they would put in a highly efficient system. So they may put in some Energy Star-system and then realize they’re not getting the savings they thought they were going to get. Then, they start to add insulation and maybe update their windows; however, those things have now decreased the load of the house, so now they have an HVAC system that is likely too large for the envelope. HVAC contractors, as they get into the space, are in a better position to walk homeowners through this process and offer turnkey solutions to the home-performance part of this equation.”
BPI offers 14 certifications and one certificate. These certifications are in areas such as air sealing, the building’s envelope, duct leakage, multifamily buildings, energy auditing, and health and safety. For contractors who have even more experience and skills, advanced certifications that combine and build on these topics are quality control, crew leadership, and retrofit installation certifications.
“Due to our American National Standards Institute Inc. [ANSI] accreditation, BPI cannot offer training leading to certification,” Jones explained. “Instead, independent, third-party BPI test centers and independent training organizations across the country offer training. To find a BPI test center in your area, visit http://bpi.org/locator-tool/find-a-test-center.”
According to Spagnoli, being NATE certified gives technicians the ability and confidence to get the job done right the first time.
“HVAC systems are complex, use a substantial amount of energy, and can be unnecessarily costly for home or business owners if improperly installed or serviced,” he said. “NATE encourages continuous learning and development through our network of recognized training providers. Staying abreast of industry trends allows technicians to further their knowledge of HVAC systems, which can help them to do their jobs more effectively. In addition, contractors can use NATE’s four levels of testing — Ready to Work, HVAC Support Technician, the NATE Core and Specialties, and Senior Level Efficiency Analyst — to groom and gauge the development of their employees.”
Spagnoli also noted that NATE offers the HVAC Performance Verifier certification exclusively for RESNET HERS raters. This certification augments existing whole-house energy-efficiency certifications to further demonstrate that the rater has the knowledge and skills necessary, specifically in rating HVAC performance.
ACCA also offers training to back up certifications from BPI and RESNET by offering its online Qtech Home Performance training, which is based on ACCA 12. Additionally, both BPI and RESNET offer technicians continuing education units (CEUs) for taking the course, which is completed through ACCA’s website.
Additionally, NCI offers residential, light commercial, and large commercial advanced training and certifications. These advanced classes and certification exams focus on real-world application of the knowledge they gain. Classes are taught by peers who have performed performance testing and solutions in the field for years. Many of the instructors are field practitioners who continue to test and work on systems every day.
“More specifically, our residential training ladder begins typically with our Duct System Optimization certification training,” Guarino said. “This training focuses first on proper testing and diagnostics of airflow problems in homes and buildings. This class takes students from very little or no knowledge to being able to measure system pressures, calculate fan airflow, provide airflow improvement solutions to significantly improve system performance, and test out to verify their work. Subsequent classes include NCI’s exclusive Combustion Performance and CO Safety certification training, Residential System Performance and Air Balancing, and Hydronics Balancing training. NCI’s commercial training includes Commercial System Performance certification, Commercial Air Balancing certification, and our National Balancing Council Large Commercial Air and Water Balancing certification program. We also provide implementation and sales training to support NCI’s technical training.”
Although the home-performance market is growing, thanks to a growing awareness among homeowners and through state and local standards and regulations, there are still some challenges contractors face.
A couple of the biggest challenges, according to Jones, are the aging home-performance workforce and getting homeowners to pay attention to non-aesthetic improvements.
“The industry is facing an anticipated shortage of skilled workers,” he said. “Aging home-performance professionals are starting to retire now and will continue to retire over the next decade. BPI is working to market to and encourage millennials, especially, to consider home-performance contracting as a viable career option.
“Additionally, many utilities incentivize homeowners to complete energy improvements,” Jones continued. “In their marketing, utilities often also inform homeowners how their energy use compares to their neighbors. However, too many of these utilities offer single-measure (e.g., furnace change-out), technology that is specific and whole-house programs concurrently, which can confuse homeowners as to the best improvement. Home-performance contractors must prove to homeowners that it is more beneficial to insulate and seal their attics than it is to buy new countertops. These contractors need to gain homeowners’ trust and encourage them to take the correct step and act on energy- and health-related improvements, which are in their best interest but often are not visible. This is easier for those with BPI certifications, as they’ve gained the expertise in these areas and can best educate homeowners of the logic when it comes to making these improvements.”
Spagnoli said earning homeowners’ trust is the biggest challenge; however, earning certifications builds customer confidence.
“As with any contracting business, home-performance contractors need to inspire confidence in their customers that the installations, repairs, or upgrades needed to improve the energy efficiency of their homes are being done correctly,” he said. “Certifications and training demonstrate that the contractor has technicians with particular areas of measurable competence and a commitment to skill development in the field.”
The biggest challenge for contractors is actually learning how to provide solutions, according to Guarino.
“Most home-performance training programs in our industry revolve around basic skills, a lot of theory, and protocols,” he said. “While some of that is good, our students tell us that without practical application training on how to test, where to test, and how to diagnose and solve performance problems, the theory and protocols just aren’t very helpful in terms of making things work in the field, keeping customers happy, and contributing to the company’s bottom line.
“My prediction is, over the next decade, more HVAC companies will embrace delivered performance as their true product,” Guarino continued. “I think this will begin to happen at an exponential rate. With the advances in technology and communications, both with regard to comfort systems and in terms of customer knowledge and expectations, it would be reasonable to expect a doubling of the number of performance-based contractors every year going forward. An HVAC industry that makes performance its delivered product will increase in value all the way up and down the channel, from manufacturers to end consumers.”
Publication date: 10/23/201