Computer-Based Energy Analyst Training

July 01, 2009
July/August 2009
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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There’s nothing quite like sitting in a classroom, or out in the field, learning about HVAC systems, building science, green rating protocols, and other subjects of interest to Home Energy readers. You can interact directly with the instructor and your fellow students, use test equipment in a real-world setting, and get your certification exam results immediately. However, in this day and age of increasing travel and training costs, carbon footprint awareness, and modern computer technology, there are some very reasonable alternatives to live classroom learning (see “Going Green with Online Education,” p.12).

Steve Mann is a HERS rater, Green Point rater, LEED AP, Certified Energy Analyst, serial remodeler, and long-time software engineer.
Saturn Resource Management’s principals, John Krigger and Chris Dorsi, have been teaching and writing about energy efficiency for more than 20 years. They are the authors of a definitive series of books, on subjects ranging from weatherization to HVAC system analysis, for both homeowners and professionals. They also offer a series of online courses, including an Energy Auditor course that prepares you to take either the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) HERS examination or the Building Performance Institute (BPI) Building Analyst examination. This course is offered at specific times of the year and follows a carefully defined schedule.

Saturn Online’s Energy Auditor Course

The Energy Auditor course, which costs $595 plus textbooks, spans a total of eight weeks. At the end of that time, you take a final exam and receive a completion certificate. If you want RESNET or BPI certification, you need to take those exams as well, for a separate fee. You can do that through Saturn or another third-party exam provider.

Each week consists of one or more reading assignments from the class texts: Saturn’s Residential Energy and the Saturn Energy Auditor Field Guide. In addition, you have to work through a series of lessons and take a weekly quiz. The lessons are nicely broken up into various media types: videotaped whiteboard lectures, slides with dubbed audio, field-based videos, and text-based calculation-oriented lessons with miniquizzes. The video segments vary in length from 5 to about 20 minutes. The dubbed slide shows are self-paced. The combination of different media types and multiple presenters helps hold your interest over the eight-week course. All materials are Web browser based, so they should work with most computers.

The course segments cover essential building science topics: basic building science; building assessment skills; air leakage diagnostics; heating and cooling systems; building enclosure; durable healthy homes; and water heating and baseload. The topics are drawn directly from the printed Saturn publications. In addition to these core topics, there are optional materials related to RESNET and BPI certification and doing a HERS rating using REM:Rate. The final exam consists of 100 questions that must be answered in one two-hour sitting.

The course pacing is tightly controlled. A new topic is activated each week, preventing you from forging ahead if you’re so inclined. You don’t have to finish each section by the end of each week, but it’s easy to fall behind if you don’t—you need at least a few hours a week to thoroughly understand each subject. Saturn also strongly encourages students to participate in an online forum throughout the course, to ask questions and stimulate discussion. All the instructors monitor the forum on an almost real-time basis, and respond to questions quickly and thoroughly. The forum is an effective online replacement for the interaction you have in a real classroom.

Once you complete the course, your final grade is a combination of your grades on the weekly quizzes and the final exam. Saturn guarantees that if you pass its course with a grade of at least 80%, you will pass the BPI Building Analyst or RESNET HERS exam. If not, you can take the course a second time at no additional cost.

Saturn has clearly invested a lot of time and resources to develop its online course work, at least the Energy Auditor class (I didn’t try any of Saturn’s other courses). The class is well conceived, the curriculum and course content are generally professionally done, and I believe the class can prepare someone to pass the certification exams. The video segments are occasionally amateurish, but they convey the information effectively. Likewise, some of the audio recording is less than professional, but I didn’t feel as though I missed any critical information.

Like all training materials, Saturn’s course content could be improved. For instance, it includes a 20-minute video on doing a house takeoff. Quite a few minutes of that video are devoted to watching the energy auditor draw floor plans and elevations, clearly tracing over existing plans, with no accompanying audio. That’s wasted content. In other segments, some explanations are either too fast or not thorough enough to really teach the materials. This is particularly true of the descriptions of some of the testing protocols.

There is one problem with this type of online learning—it doesn’t really prepare you for working in the field. You can explain a blower door test a dozen times to someone, but they won’t really get it until they actually hook up a blower door. Similarly, you can describe different types of insulation and installation quality, but you have to see it in real buildings to fully understand. Saturn is very clear that field training is a critical component of becoming a successful energy auditor or HERS rater.

Saturn offers access to the online course materials for two months beyond the regular course schedule, which allows plenty of time for review prior to taking the certification exams. If that’s not enough time, Saturn also offers students a resources only course, for a nominal fee of $45 for three months of access.

ACCA CD-ROM-Based HVAC Training

Professionals working in various energy-related fields, such as home energy auditing, home performance contracting, and HERS rating, usually have to grapple with HVAC-related problems. What better way to broaden your knowledge of residential HVAC systems than to turn to ACCA? It literally wrote the books on what is considered the state of the art in residential HVAC design and installation—Manuals D (duct sizing), J (load calculations), S (equipment selection), and T (air distribution).

Among ACCA’s vast collection of training materials, it offers a CD-ROM-based training course called HVAC Essentials Residential Bundle for $718.20 ($538.20 member price). The course consists of two sets of CD-ROMS: Understanding Manual J: Heat Loss and Heat Gain in the Real World (four CD-ROMs); and Understanding Manual D: Air Flow and Duct Design in the Real World (five CD-ROMs).

Unlike the Saturn training, with its many media and many different presenters, each ACCA CD-ROM contains from 35 to 85 minutes of slide-based material with narration by industry veteran Jack Rise. It’s best to view each CD-ROM in a single sitting. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget where you were unless you leave the CD-ROM running, and it’s easy to forget the previous material. The series is described as progressive, meaning that you need to learn the material in the order in which it is presented.

Understanding Manual J is actually based on ACCA Manual J, Abridged Edition (MJAE), a subset of the full Manual J calculations that is suitable only for fairly simple one-zone houses. That’s not necessarily a problem. Mr. Rise makes it very clear throughout the Manual J presentations that he’s not trying to teach you how to do Manual J calculations—they’re too complicated. He’s only trying to explain Manual J fundamental concepts so that you can competently use software to do Manual J calculations. If there’s one lesson you should take away from this CD-ROM set it’s this—Get A Computer.

The only problem with using MJAE to present Manual J concepts is that in several cases Mr. Rise discusses MJAE tables, some of which differ from their Manual J equivalents. If you have the full Manual J (which I recommend over MJAE), those sections aren’t as clear as they could be if you try to refer to the tables while viewing the presentations. ACCA should either modify the material to match the full Manual J or include a copy of MJAE with the CD-ROMs.

Overall, the Manual J content is as thorough as it can be in roughly five hours of presentation. The four main topics are limitations, heat movement and measuring, design conditions and fenestration, and opaque surfaces and duct systems. Audio and visual quality is uniformly good. Some material is clearly not introductory—you need to know something about HVAC systems in order to understand it.

Understanding Manual D also has a slight content mismatch. When you start each CD-ROM, it’s clearly stated that you should have a good understanding of Manual J, Manual T, and Manual S. The ACCA marketing materials make no mention of Manual T or Manual S. If you go right from Understanding Manual J to Understanding Manual D, you might have trouble following all the content.

Like the Manual J material, the Manual D material doesn’t cover everything you need to know about the subject, but it does cover most of the basics. The main topics are air flow basics, choosing a blower, Manual T, system design, and testing and balancing. The section on air flow basics is full of good design principles. The section on choosing a blower spends at least 40 minutes talking about fittings and equivalent length—way too much time. The Manual T section is a good introduction to room air movement, but there is little discussion of selecting register grilles for proper air distribution. Understanding Manual D really comes together in the system design CD. Mr. Rise walks you through a complete system design from start to finish, with just the right amount of detail. The final CD, on testing and balancing, is kind of a throwaway. It contains no discussion of duct testing and almost nothing on balancing.

The best part of the HVAC Essentials Residential Bundle is Jack Rise. He’s got more than 30 years of experience as an HVAC contractor, distributor, and HVAC manufacturer employee. In addition to covering the required material, he includes lots of stories and anecdotal information about the real world of HVAC design and installation. It’s the kind of information you can only get from a grizzled veteran. He delivers it all with excellent pacing, good humor, and a New Jersey accent (he pronounces “duct” as “duck”—what’s not to like about that?).

Just like Saturn Online, this ACCA curriculum could use some tweaking. I’ve already mentioned the mismatches between the content and the course description. In addition, the excellent Manual D system design example uses hard circular ducts and a reducing extended plenum design. Neither is typical for residential systems in my part of the country. Despite these minor complaints, the CD-ROM bundle is an excellent resource for HVAC designers just starting out, HERS raters, home energy auditors, home performance contractors, and anyone else who is interested in learning about forced-air residential systems. An additional bonus is that you can print out the presentation slides, and you can go back and review any of the CD-ROMs in case you need a refresher. You should supplement the course with a thorough reading of ACCA Manuals D, J, S, and T.

Saturn Online’s Energy Auditor course and ACCA’s HVAC Essentials Residential Bundle are both valuable resources. Combined with appropriate field training, they can help get you up to speed on various critical building science principles. They complement each other nicely, too, making for a well-rounded energy efficiency expert education.  

>> For more information:
To learn about Saturn Online training and publications, visit www.srmi.biz.
For more on ACCA’s CD-ROM training, visit
www.acca.org/hvacessentials.
About Jack Rise, visit
www.hvactechnicaltraining.com.
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