Choosing the Right Certification for Your Business
As the home industry continues to shift toward highly energy-efficient homes, the number of certifications available to contractors working on these homes is steadily growing. From basic certifications, such as Building Analyst or Home Energy Survey Professional, to high-level certifications, such as Geothermal Installer or HERS Rater, the complexities are staggering.
Contractors say that it is hard enough to find the time to do the training and testing required for certification, let alone the money to pay for it. Trying to browse web sites to figure out which certification is the one you need and to interpret the industry’s thick rhetoric can be like trying to navigate a complex maze.
To learn more about the certification process and reduce that complex maze to a simple labyrinth, let’s look at the experiences of actual contractors working in Virginia. Each one gives his insights into the time and money invested in the certification process, and says what it has meant to him in terms of his business.
Tim Bryant, owner of Bryant Energy Services in Midlothian, Virginia, does home energy audits and manages green contractors to do energy upgrades. In 2009 (prior to opening his own business), he was developing a residential energy efficiency program for an engineering company and quickly realized that BPI certification was the first qualification required for a private sector contractor to bid on many jobs, especially through the state’s weatherization agencies.
Bryant’s employer gave him a week off work to train and test for BPI certification, paying the $1,200 training fee, plus test costs, plus room and board. Bryant went to Virginia Beach, the closest place the training was offered. Classes in the principles of building science were held Monday through Saturday. The classes were coupled with on-site visits to homes to practice with equipment and do real-time inspections. The two-part full-day examination included an online exam monitored by a proctor and an energy audit field exam. Bryant is now certified as a BPI Building Analyst Professional. He recertified in 2012.
“The only way I could afford to do it was working for a larger company that was financially helping me to get the training under my belt,” says Bryant. “It would have been very hard for me to have done that if I was working for myself—you lose a week’s worth of opportunity to make money.”
Six months later, Bryant went back for another certification, but this time under RESNET. It was another week of classroom and field training and an online exam at a cost of close to $1,000 plus room, board, and testing fees. Once again his employer footed the bill. He is now certified as a RESNET Home Energy Rating Inspector.
As a company owner, Bryant says that his BPI certification has been the better investment so far, since most of his current work is retrofit. “But that answer could change depending on where I get busy in the future,” he says. For many small contractors, the cost and time needed to get certifications is often prohibitive, and like Bryant, they can afford to do so only if they are working for a large firm that will foot the bill. “Building science is a passion of mine, and I would like to hold all the certifications available,” says Bryant. For him the issue now is time and money. “The ones I have give me access to all the work I am doing right now, and I am pretty busy with that. If I can grow the business and hire people to help me create the ability to take the time, then I’ll go back for more certifications.”
Chris Joyner, owner of Air Resolutions in Chester, Virginia, says his company started out ten years ago doing indoor air quality work, and then morphed into whole-house systems to make homes more energy efficient.
In 2004, Joyner went to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a ten-hour-a-day weeklong class for Indoor Environmentalist certification through the Indoor Air Quality Association. The cost was $1,000 plus room and board. In 2006, he got his HERS Rater certification under RESNET in Richmond. With several crews and managers on his staff, and by rescheduling jobs to work around his absence, he was able to get away for the week of 12- to 14-hour-a-day classes, training, and testing. The cost then was about $1,500. “It was intense training, but by far the best course I have taken yet,” says Joyner. “It was very detailed—a little too detailed, maybe—but very good.” In 2010, Joyner went to New Jersey for a week of training and testing for BPI Building Analyst Professional and Envelope Professional certification at a cost of about $2,000 plus room and board.
Why Get a Certification?
- Because it may be required to enable your customers to qualify for energy efficiency rebates or tax credits.
- Because many Energy Efficient and Energy Improvement mortgages require that testing be done by a third-party certified rater.
- Because many HPwES programs with DOE and EPA require specific certifications.
- Because many Weatherization Assistance programs require the technicians doing the work have specific certifications.
- Because some areas require that an energy audit by a certified rater be conducted at point of sale, before the house changes hands. An example is Austin, Texas.
- Because your company can use it as a marketing tool, and to give better service to customers.
Joyner says “hands down” that his BPI certifications have helped him the most. He landed a contract to do the air sealing for the whole school system for Buckingham County, a job he could not have bid on without his BPI certifications. He feels that most certifications not only open doors to new business, but keep you current on industry changes. “With these certifications, you have to keep up with credits to keep your certification current, so it makes you have to focus on the industry and find classes to keep current,” he says. “If it is something that is available and I can find it, I will go take it so I don’t get behind.”
“A HERS Rater to me is as important as a good building inspector. Both of them are looking at my house, but the building science knowledge that anyone working on my house has is really important,” says Mark Waring of Bane-Waring Builders in Henrico, Virginia, who builds new Energy Star homes as well as EarthCraft Virginia-designated homes. In the early 1990s, Waring was one of the first builders to graduate from Energy Efficiency University (EEU), sponsored by the local utility company, Virginia Power. The four all-day classes cost about $600. Then in 2005, Waring took a full-day training course and test through the Virginia Green Building Association to become EarthCraft certified. Both his construction manager and his office manager also have EarthCraft certification. The cost is about $325 for training and testing.
“EEU was one of the most important things that happened to me as a builder to understand and learn about more-advanced building techniques,” says Waring, adding that EEU provided the impetus for him to learn how to build more energy-efficient homes.
Basic RESNET Certifications
- Home Energy Survey Professional (HESP). Assesses both the general energy performance of the home and the level of the commitment to action on the part of the homeowner. Identifies and documents energy features of the home. No performance diagnostics – visuals inspections only.
- Rating Field Inspector (RFI). Collects all information pertaining to inspections, data takeoff, blower door test, and so on, records it, and brings it to the HERS Rater to do the calculations.
- Home Energy Rating Inspector. Inspects and calculates a home’s energy performance using the home energy rating system (HERS).
Waring requires specific certifications from the subcontractors he uses to build his Energy Star and EarthCraft homes. “As I moved into building more energy-efficient and technically advanced homes, some of my subs adapted to it right away,” he says. “To do Energy Star (which is a part of EarthCraft, although that certification itself is not required), there is a long list of startup and main systems overviews that our HVAC guys have to give and then be checked by a HERS Rater. For years I used two different HVAC guys—but one could not get with the program and the other did, so I still work with the one who came on board.”
Jim Satterfield, owner of HVAC by JM, LLC, says he got many of his certifications to work on Bane-Waring’s Energy Star homes. He also works for three other EarthCraft builders. Satterfield has a Master HVAC license; is a member of ACCA, where he is a Quality Assured New Homes Contractor; and has an Air Balancing certification from the National Balancing Institute. He is a member of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, where he is an Accredited Installer of Geothermal Systems, and he is a factory-trained Fusion Technician with Water Furnace Geothermal.
“Getting these certifications is actually expensive and difficult. It’s hard to find the time and the money to do it,” says Satterfield. He says that ACCA certification costs about $1,000 and you have to renew it by taking refresher courses every two years. “We would not have pursued it if it wasn’t for working with Bane-Waring. If I wanted to continue to do his houses, I had to be certified to an Energy Star level. If not for Bane-Waring and all the business I get from them, I would not have done it [ACCA certification].”
Basic BPI Certifications
- Building Analyst. General knowledge and diagnostic skills.
- Residential Building Envelope Whole House Air Leakage Control Installer (RBE-WH-ALC). Safety and comfort issues and how you tighten the building envelope.
- Building Envelope. Diagnostic specific.
- Heating Professional or Air Conditioning and Heat Pump certification.
Four certifications are in the pilot stage. They are Energy Auditor, Quality Control Inspector, Retrofit Installer, and Crew Leader.
Brad Lowe has worked as an EarthCraft Technical Advisor on Waring’s houses. In the case of EarthCraft, a Technical Assistant is assigned to work with the builder, and a HERS rating is required. Lowe holds a Green Rater certification under LEED that he got in 2009. He used online study guides before taking the test, paying about $200 for the exam, the third-party testing center, and administrative costs. In 2011, he got his RESNET HERS certification, with the weeklong training and test paid for by his employer, EarthCraft Virginia. He recently finished the advanced RESNET Quality Assurance Designee certification, because EarthCraft is a provider organization that works between contractors and RESNET, and he needed the QAD to work in that capacity. He says that qualifications to get the QAD certification are similar to HERS qualifications, except that you must already be a HERS Rater and complete a specific number of HERS ratings before you can sit for the test. In 2011, Brad also got an Energy Star 3.0 certification through EarthCraft. It involved a two-day training class administered by EarthCraft and a written exam. As his employer, EarthCraft also paid for this.
As the LEED for Homes Associate for EarthCraft Virginia, Lowe says that his LEED Green Rater certification is what he currently uses the most. But he also fills in when needed as a HERS Rater on projects, so that certification is also helpful. “Currently the Green Associate certification [a specialty certification beyond the LEED Homes Associate certification] covers my day-to-day work, and so it is the most beneficial right now. But the Quality Assurance Designee is going to be a growing one for me,” he says, explaining that currently QAD work is handled by a contractor outside EarthCraft, but that with his new certification, it will be brought in-house. “And for me, a lot of these certifications help me with all the continuing education that I need to do these projects.”
North American Technician Excellence offers heat pump, gas, oil, and A/C certifications. In order to take the tests, you must be a journeyman with one year of installation experience and two years as a service technician. Everyone has to pass the standard core test, which consists of 50 questions and takes one and a half hours. If you pass the standard core test, you can take one or more of the specialties tests—gas, oil, HVAC, refrigeration, etc. in order to be certified in each of these four specialties. These are proctor-timed tests and take two and a half hours each. Prices are up to $200 per test.
Waring’s insulation contractor also needs building science knowledge. Thomas Sprouse, owner of Creative Conservation, which supplies and installs Waring’s insulation, is EarthCraft certified, a certified LEED Green Associate, and Air Barrier Association certified, and he has a staff member who is certified as a RESNET Home Energy Survey Professional (HESP). He and all his staff are also certified through all their foam manufacturers, having taken each manufacturer’s general program in the building science and safety of foam materials and installation.
“To me, more important than anything is that your installers have some general building science knowledge,” says Sprouse, explaining that they need to know how the sealing and insulating they are doing affect the entire house system. “One of the best things that come out of these certifications is the safety aspect,” he says.
Sprouse also says that in the past three years he has seen a big push in the industry for BPI, RESNET, and CPI certifications. CPI is the Center for Performance Institute, which regulates safety in the spray foam insulation industry. “They were saying to us that we had to have these certifications and made us believe that if we did not have them we would not be deemed experts in the field, and there were some jobs we could not do. They all cost a lot of money, and the industry made you feel like you had to have every certification that came available—Mold Remediation, RESNET, Air Barrier, etcetera. I have lots of certifications, but how many do I really need? The safety side is really good, and certainly some customers are impressed that we have these certifications. But they get confused, because they don’t really know what they mean. Stressing the health and safety and tightening the building envelope and the practices is a good thing. I think that certifications designed for field applicators are more important than me having one sitting here in the office.”
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