Bringing Multifamily Expertise to Weatherization Programs

July 01, 2011
July/August 2011
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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According to the U.S. Census, there are nearly 23 million residential-use buildings across the United States that contain five or more housing units. These represent more than one-sixth of U.S. homes. Weatherizing these multifamily buildings creates great social and economic benefits. Tenants, owners, and society at large all gain from reduced energy costs, decreased homelessness, lowered greenhouse gas emissions and particulate pollution, improved comfort and health for residents, and better educational outcomes for residents when their homes are weatherized. Still, realizing these benefits has been difficult in many areas of the country. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has typically focused on serving residents of one-to-four-family homes. Few of the nation’s weatherization agencies have the technical know-how to train workers in the complex skills necessary to audit and weatherize multifamily properties (see “Building a Multifamily Home Performance Program—Tales from California,” HE May/June ’11, p. 50).

DistanceLearning1Association for Energy Affordability, Incorporated (AEA) distance learning session in progress. (AEA)

With funding from DOE, the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF), and ExxonMobil, the Association for Energy Affordability, Incorporated (AEA), is enabling weatherization and community action agencies to expand their weatherization expertise and bring the benefits of energy efficiency to tenants and owners often left out of weatherization programs. A pioneer in multifamily energy efficiency and building performance training, AEA is building job skills and readiness among weatherization workers hoping to transition into the growing field of building energy efficiency. (For more on AEA, see “Making Energy Affordable.”)

 

 

“Multifamily buildings constitute some of the most cost-effective opportunities for energy savings, emissions reductions, and increased health and comfort available for the Weatherization Assistance Program dollar,” says the AEA’s executive director, David Hepinstall. Those programs that do serve multifamily buildings may do so only in garden-style apartment buildings (with individual heat and hot-water systems), or they may limit work scopes to the installation of in-unit measures like high-efficiency showerheads and CFLs. Old inefficient central heating and ventilation systems may not be addressed, with substantial energy savings left on the table and health and safety issues left untouched.

With the expansion of WAP funding under ARRA in 2009, AEA faced increased requests from around the country for multifamily technical services and training. Hepinstall, training director Anna Sullivan and media director Ed Wheeler began looking at ways to use video and animations to reach more students. Their mission was to enable more weatherization programs to address the unmet need for multifamily energy efficiency, without dramatically increasing the dollar and carbon costs of travel and time away from work for trainers or trainees.

The Plan

The availability of ExxonMobil funding for innovative national weatherization training projects through the NCAF grant gave AEA’s team the opportunity and impetus to think big. AEA developed a plan for a distance-learning training platform. The system would enable AEA to train veteran and newly hired weatherization workers around the country in the complex work of weatherizing multifamily buildings.

The learning platform Hepinstall’s team envisioned and has now constructed uses high-definition video to enable students to closely observe a wide range of building conditions. It harnesses 3-D animation to demonstrate processes that are difficult to see in real time in actual central building systems, such as the effect of airflow through an improperly sized or maintained rooftop exhaust fan on ventilation in the apartments below. AEA’s media team can make video recordings of system malfunctions, preserving them for use in subsequent classes to illustrate key building science concepts. In the past, this opportunity might have been lost once building upgrades were made. With video or animations, key processes can be accelerated or slowed down, or highlighted using color to make them easier to observe. Some of these training approaches are not new, but the high-definition images, animation, and integration of such tools in a rich, interactive training platform, are an innovation.

The $800,000 award AEA received from the NCAF/ExxonMobil training partnership grant enabled the organization to put its plans into action. AEA first investigated the hardware, bandwidth, and other system design features required to make its interactive training platform possible. The resulting system infrastructure permits AEA trainers and trainees in various locations to interact in a connected classroom, with clear audio and video feeds and real-time responsiveness. Both trainers and trainees at remote sites can contribute based on their knowledge of local practices, climate, and building types, fostering an atmosphere of reciprocity and greater understanding of the applicable science among all participants.

Proprietary videoconferencing systems designed primarily for meetings cannot deliver the full range of development opportunities envisioned for the project. They would limit the ability of other sites to expand on systems they had already acquired, or lock users into expensive pricing structures. AEA carefully built a system based on a few standard pieces that would work well with a variety of off-the-shelf components without sacrificing quality.

A long-term goal of AEA’s distance-learning platform is to enrich and build upon the expertise, facilities, and relationships of participating Weatherization Training Centers, using technology and a shared platform to foster collaborations and enable the training centers to deliver original content to students and to a wider audience as well. Even so, the cost and the time commitment required for remote sites to acquire, install, learn about, and sync the distance-learning technology with AEA’s platform created a challenge. How, realistically, could the equipment and technical costs of developing the distance-learning platform be managed?

The answer came in early 2010, when DOE announced the availability of funds to develop and expand Weatherization Training Centers across the United States. AEA applied for funding to support the equipment and technical assistance costs of connecting participating training centers and weatherization programs with the new distance-learning technology. Partners use the technology to offer multifamily weatherization training courses to trainees in their areas. Subjects will include energy auditing (with sessions on preaudit data collection, heating and ventilation systems, lighting, modeling and savings analysis, work scope generation, and more); construction management; and related topics yet to come. In exchange for helping AEA to meet its program goal by hosting and participating in AEA’s multifamily courses, participating sites gain access to the technology and platform on which those courses are delivered.

Project Partners

AEA recruited a project advisory board comprised of representatives from training centers and leading weatherization agencies involved in weatherizing multifamily buildings to discuss the project and to recommend strategies and methods to expand multifamily weatherization and bring the new distance-learning platform to life (see Table 1). An early train-the-trainer course helped to prepare agencies for the work ahead. Members of the project advisory board made decisions concerning curriculum, technology transfer, partnership issues, and policy. Agencies that already wanted to weatherize more multifamily buildings, such as ACTION Energy in Massachusetts and CEDA in Chicago, were included on the advisory board in order to help the project focus not only on training trainers and workers but also on developing the capacity of weatherization staff to become strong multifamily energy auditors who could mentor others.

 

Table 1: AEA Distance Learning Weatherization Training Partners

Beyond ARRA

A secondary but important goal of AEA’s multifamily distance-learning program is to provide weatherization workers with a set of skills that are transferable to private companies that are installing or managing energy efficiency retrofits, maintaining central heating or HVAC systems, or working in building operations or in multifamily or commercial buildings.

learn more

For more on the NCAF, go to www.ncaf.org.

Learn more about AEA at www.aeanyc.org.

To watch a 2-minute video about AEA's distance learning program, go to www.aeanyc.org/distancelearning.

As stimulus funding dwindles and utility programs and the private sector take on more of the energy efficiency work, employees who understand how to weatherize multifamily buildings will be much better prepared to transition from weatherization into such jobs. In conjunction with Seedco and local One-Stop workforce development staff, AEA has helped local workforce agencies to learn more about the skill sets needed in weatherization. It has also helped them to recognize the career paths that may be open to workers whose ARRA-funded weatherization jobs come to an end. Local workforce developers will be better equipped to assess the skills of job seekers in making referrals to such jobs.

AEA’s initial NCAF/ExxonMobil grant is coming to a close. But this grant helped to leverage funding from AEA’s DOE Weatherization Training Center contract that will enable AEA to continue to train, provide equipment for, and work with an expanded group of partners across the United States. This will ensure that the distance-learning platform AEA has created will provide the weatherization workforce—as well as residents of eligible multifamily buildings—with solutions to weatherization problems over the years to come.
 

Kay Stewart is director of business development and planning with the Association for Energy Affordability.

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