MOUNT PROSPECT, IL — A relatively new entry on the technician certification scene is the HVAC Excellence program, which has certified about 8,000 technicians in a variety of fields since its founding in 1995.

In recent months, the not-for-profit agency has been promoting its programs through hvacr wholesalers, specifically at the recent national meeting of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Wholesalers International (ARWI). Many of these wholesalers’ offices act as testing locations.

The organization competes head on with the recently blended NATE certification program, which has allied with the ACE certification program of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society.

The program, administered by the Esco Institute, is being offered to degree-granting institutions, along with state and private vo-tech programs.

Most recently, the program will be the accrediting agency for the Tennessee Technology Centers, which has an enrollment of more than 180,000 students. A comparable arrangement has been made with Florida’s vo-tech schools.

3,000 proctors

As explained by its president, Jerry Weiss, the program has more than 3,000 proctors at test sites around the country and plans to sharpen the administration of testing within the next 18 months.

The first prerequisite for the test-taker is passing the electrical exam. Subsequent tests on heating (gas, oil, and electrical systems) touch on electrical questions, but these do not duplicate those in the original test.

An exam on air conditioning is a prerequisite for subsequent tests on commercial air conditioning and commercial refrigeration. “We want to ensure that the applicant understands the vapor-compression cycle,” Weiss says. “We don’t want to ask the same questions over again.” A preliminary test on heat pumps is a prerequisite to the geothermal technology test.

Not included in certification are such skills as sheet metal fabrication and piping, which are often taught in unionized and open shop apprentice programs.

Prices for the tests range from $25 to $75, depending on the proctor’s cost structure. All tests have 100 questions.

The program had its origins in the Section 608 and 609 certification program on refrigerant management required by the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1990s. Esco was one of the first agencies certified by the EPA, and it continues to certify up to 40,000 applicants a year. Passing performance in the four types of certification ranges around 80%, Weiss says.

The Section 608 and 609 testing has yielded about $1.4 million annually, he says.

New methodology

Weiss thinks testing agencies are on the brink of an exciting new technology that is more efficient — and more effective — than the traditional multiple-choice system.

He is experimenting with a “character recognition” process that enables the computer to recognize the written words or phrases that reflect the correct single-word answer to a question — even when the word is misspelled.

If the correct answer to a question is “George Washington,” the computer will recognize the name in various forms.

This, he feels, is more precise than the multiple-choice system, which — apart from having inherent deficiencies — can be manipulated by the applicant.

For instance, he says, in a four-answer multiple-choice question, the longest answer is correct 80% of the time; “all of the above” is correct 80% of the time; and a wild stab is correct 50% of the time.

“It’s easy to write the question and the right answer to multiple-choice tests. What is hard is including three wrong answers, called distracters. Take a test bank of 500 questions — that means you have to write 1,500 answers that are wrong, and 500 that are correct. There is definitely a limit to the fairness of multiple choice.”

Further information is available from P.O. Box 521, Mount Prospect, IL 60056-0521; 800-394-5268; (Web site).