RESNET Quality Assurance
According to a former NASA engineer, in the several years prior to the Challenger space shuttle accident, quality assurance—then known as quality control—at NASA had been cut by more than 50%.The effect of the lack of quality assurance at NASA was not apparent for years.Although no one’s life, per se, depends on the quality and consistency of HERS ratings in the United States, a lack of rater oversight, over time, will undermine people’s confidence in the home energy rating process, and eventually in the home energy rating industry.The rating industry has a lot at stake in ensuring the integrity of its raters and their ratings.
The recent Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) standards amendments include provisions for quality assurance (QA) that are intended to make home energy ratings reliable and consistent across the country, and therefore more likely to hold and keep the public’s confidence. The heart of the new standards is the establishment of a QA designee who will supervise raters and rating providers. The designee is responsible for maintaining QA records, reviewing the work of raters during their probationary period, and monitoring certified raters.The designee reviews at least five rater candidates’ ratings within 12 months of the time they complete their training.At least 10% of a certified rater’s ratings are to be reviewed each year, and at least 1% of a certified rater’s ratings are to be monitored in the field each year. The amended QA standards took effect in January 2005.
Inevitably, as the rating industry matures and becomes more mainstream, there will be rating providers whose standards will have to become more stringent. But in many cases, the opposite is true. Paul Rimelspach, an accredited HERS rater, trainer, and provider and principal of Energy Designed Homes in London, Ohio, says that the new RESNET QA procedures have made his job somewhat easier. Energy Designed Homes has been providing rating services for new homes since 1996. In 2004 alone they provided ratings for more than 700 new homes. Rimelspach, the QA designee for his company, estimates that they have done close to 4,000 ratings altogether. “I’m used to auditing more than 1% of the ratings that I process.As far as reviewing ratings files, I’m used to reviewing 50%—reviewing only 10% has lessened my workload.” RESNET requires that raters earn 12 continuing education credits every three years. Rimelspach has required 24 credits every three years from the raters that he supervises in his business.
“The energy rating industry has the potential to bring about the market transformation that we’ve all been looking for,” Rimelspach says. But he does have some concerns. One concern is that the business structure hasn’t yet gotten enough attention, and that it could be too open to abuse.“My raters are all independent third-party auditors.They are not builders, nor are they subcontractors for builders.When one party is responsible for several aspects of a business, and there is a lot of money involved, it’s easy to blur the lines between builders, contractors, and raters. We must maintain the integrity of our product. National standards mean little if we cannot guarantee the impartiality of our raters. It will give the chicken little comfort to know that the fox is a gourmet chef.”Another challenge facing Rimelspach is costs.As the rating industry grows, so do the costs to train, test, and certify raters, rating providers, and trainers. “I’m a businessman,” says Rimelspach, “but I worry about the smaller businesses just starting out that may be less experienced with the business side of things. It can cost up to several thousand dollars for training, accreditation, and insurance just to set up a business.”
E-Star Colorado’s Megan Edmunds also sees great value in the RESNET QA procedures. “The RESNET QA procedures offer real value to programs like Energy Star Homes by providing an infrastructure for quality assurance.To me, this is the meat of the program. Just having the infrastructure in place means that it is a matter of degree to create a new program, and not a matter of creating something from the whole cloth.”
E-Star Colorado is a HERS provider and an accredited HERS trainer.There are 35–40 accredited,independent HERS raters who work with the program, which serves the whole state. E-Star Colorado uses a proprietary RESNETaccredited software program, called the Rating Management System (RMS). RMS is based on the DOE-2 engine.“We have a high volume of ratings to process, and our software makes the centralized processing of ratings really easy,” says Edmunds.
Jim Meyers is the QA designee for E-Star Colorado. In one way, the changes in the QA procedures have made his job easier, and in another way, a bit more challenging. Using their software program, E-Star Colorado has been reviewing 30%- 40% of ratings files each year, much more than the 10% required by the new QA procedures. The challenge comes in performing the field evaluations of certified raters.“Colorado is a big state, and some of our ratings take place in the far southwest corner of the state,” says Edmunds. Getting there for field evaluations can be very timeconsuming. Another challenge is the added costs for rater certification.“We had to raise our annual certification fee, and I worry that we will lose some of our raters because of it,” says Edmunds.
Yet another program that already has high QA procedures in place sees great benefit in the new RESNET procedures.“ We have already been exceeding the RESNET standards, but it’s blowing some people’s minds,” says Buddy Justice of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR),Technology Assessment Division, which administers Energy Rated Homes of Louisiana. He means that in a good way—as in, Some raters and rating providers find the new QA procedures a bit more of a challenge, which is what the standards were designed to do.
The Louisiana program performed about 4,500 energy ratings in 2003, as well as 600 audits. In 2004, they rated 3,100 homes. Every single rating, performed by independent raters—who pay only a small yearly fee to a software licensor and nothing for ratings reviews or field audits—is reviewed.“We give a rebate, so we have to verify every house,” says Justice. He estimates that they perform field audits on 6%–10% of each rater’s ratings, depending on how many an individual rater does each year. Some raters do one rating and others do more than 200.
The Louisiana HERS provider is a stickler about certain home performance features that may escape such scrutiny in other programs.“We always check for mastic on ducts.A house can have a HERS score of 86, but not have mastic on the ducts—we won’t pass it,” says Justice. The Louisiana program technicians even bring instruments to check that window ratings are accurate.
Justice and two of his colleagues in the DNR, James Davidson and Jerry Heinberg, are still in the process of becoming accredited to serve as QA designees. Once this happens, they hope to be able to use thermal imaging to verify insulation installation. Through the RESNET QA procedures, raters, under the auspices of an auditor, can perform open-wall insulation checks. After the walls are closed, raters have to use the lowest possible insulation value, Grade III, in their HERS calculations (see “Insulation Inspections for Home Energy Ratings,” HE Jan/Feb ’05, p. 20). “It’s just too much for us to be at every openwall inspection, as well as do the number of audits we do,” says Justice. So far, thermal imaging is not an option, but it would give raters another way to reward superior insulation installation.
“We expect to do about 2,000 ratings this year—a big drop from last year,” says Justice. Some builders have been less interested in home performance than in a rebate. “The vast majority of spec builders were doing just the minimum amount needed to pass the house and get a rebate.We don’t give rebates to spec builders any more;we only give rebates for custom homes and the existing homes that participate in our program. But we’re working on a way to bring the spec builders back into the fold.”
Brian Smith of ICF Consulting has been the manager for the TXU Electric Delivery-sponsored Energy Star Homes Program in north central Texas for more than three years.TXU Electric Delivery doesn’t offer ratings directly, but has established a HERS rater infrastructure in order to ensure that homes meet Energy Star performance guidelines. According to Smith, the program “has fueled the growth of a competitive market- based HERS industry that now includes 13 rating providers. These rating providers have certified more than 34,000 Energy Star-qualified homes.”
In order to verify that RESNET standards were being followed,TXU Electric Delivery sent out requests for proposals from rating providers that are currently not participating in the TXU Electric Delivery program. Energy Smiths from Colorado was selected through a competitive process as the program’s QA designee. More than 280 Energy Starqualified homes in north central Texas were tested as part of the QA process. In addition,TXU Electric Delivery worked closely with rating providers to establish the Texas Home Energy Raters Organization (Texas HERO) about two years ago, to serve as the trade association for the increasing number of rater companies within the state. “Texas HERO serves a valuable role by providing oversight and guidance to rating providers on QA procedures and working with TXU Electric Delivery to establish regional industry standards and best practices,” says Smith.
So far TXU Electric Delivery has covered the costs associated with QA for the regional Energy Star program. But that could change as rating providers implement the new RESNET QA standards. “Texas HERO is also exploring opportunities for small rating providers to pool resources for cost sharing of QA expenses,” says Smith. “Making QA that is affordable to all rating providers, while not compromising the integrity of results, in order to maintain a fair and competitive home energy rating market is a priority of the TXU Electric Delivery program.”
From Colorado to Ohio to Texas to Louisiana, the new RESNET QA procedures seem to be doing exactly what they were intended to do—bring about consistent and accurate HERS ratings of homes nationwide and uphold a high standard for raters. Like all things human, the procedures aren’t yet perfected. But the rating industry is certainly moving in the right direction on the way to fulfilling its promise of widely recognized high professional standards, profitable businesses, and more comfortable and energy-efficient homes.
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