The Changing Role of a Rater
In the fall of 1995, I was the assistant project manager for Channen Construction, overseeing construction of the new Arizona Science Center for the city of Phoenix, when my friend Howard Bashford called to talk to me about a grant he’d just been awarded by EPA. Howard had been my professor and college advisor in the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University. The grant from EPA was one of four given nationally to jump-start the new Energy Star Certified Homes program. What I did not know 18 years ago was how much that phone call would change my life. Howard asked me to return to ASU as a graduate assistant to help him launch the Energy Star for Homes program in Arizona, and in January 1996 I left my well-paying job in the commercial construction industry for a job—focused on helping builders to make their homes more energy efficient—paying half the salary. How different our industry was back then!
RESNET Is Born
In 1995, the home energy rating industry was still in its infancy. According to RESNET’s web site, “In April 1995, representatives of the national mortgage industry, the National Association of State Energy Officials, and Energy Rated Homes of America [decided to form] the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). RESNET’s task was to develop national standards for home energy ratings and to create a market for home energy rating systems and energy mortgages.” Back in those earliest days of Energy Star, we were acting as home energy raters without knowing it. With the RESNET standards as we know them today still in development, we relied on limited industry information about energy modeling (using DOE-2 software at first, and then the earliest versions of the Windows-based REM/Rate program) and testing and verification to qualify and certify homes for Energy Star. All it took at that time to certify a home was a Duct Blaster and blower door test and a few cursory inspections of the home’s other components to get information for input into the energy model. With no real rules to follow for how to do a home energy rating, we were truly in the Wild, Wild West in Arizona, making up our own set of rules and standards as we went along, with occasional input from EPA.
When the grant money from EPA ran out in 1999, all of the rating business was moved from ASU to my new company, D.R. Wastchak, LLC. Shortly thereafter, Sam Rashkin with EPA called to tell me that all companies working with the Energy Star for Homes program would need to become RESNET accredited, and all individuals working with the program would need to be certified as home energy raters. Thus began my relationship with RESNET, the formal home energy rating process, and the newly developed RESNET standards—the rules by which homes are evaluated, tested, inspected, and verified for energy efficiency by Energy Star and many other local, state, and national energy efficiency codes and programs.
The New World for Raters
Fast forward to 2013. I have great sympathy for a person new to the home energy-rating field today. At Learning Edge, LLC (a RESNET training provider), we regularly interface with the freshest faces in our industry. They’ve seen the explosion of talk about green building and often have an honorable desire to do something good for the environment. And they’ve decided that becoming a home energy rater is the best path to follow. After a week of drinking from a fire hose that is a typical home energy rating training course, they get my final lecture, which I call “Where do you go from here?” Raters in Arizona, and I suspect in most other places, whose goal is to make a living only as home energy raters, will need to focus on the new-homes arena, where the volume of work is sufficient to make that possible. Those hoping to stitch together enough rating work from the existing-home market will find their cash flow running thin without supplemental work to make up the shortfall each month, especially when they first get started. The supplement job for many of these young raters is as a subcontractor doing energy efficiency repair and upgrade installations—air sealing ducts and the building shell; installing insulation, shade screens, and perhaps CFLs; and even doing full window changeouts or installing new A/C equipment—or as a home energy auditor following BPI’s or RESNET’s audit standards for existing homes.
Most of the audit and repair work is done through state Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES) programs or federal Weatherization Assistance programs (WAPs) administered by municipalities and state agencies. While WAP programs are available in most, if not all, states, HPwES is not. The injection of money into the WAP programs by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which began in 2009 and ended in 2012, was a significant boon for the residential energy efficiency industry nationally. However, many audit and rating companies in Phoenix were sustained through the recession by shifting their focus to audit and repair work for the HPwES program, started in Phoenix in 2010, which is funded by the two major electric utilities.
The new-homes market provides work for home energy raters through a number of well-established energy efficiency programs, including Energy Star for Homes, DOE’s Challenge Home (see “DOE’s Challenge Home,” p. 6), the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes, Masco’s Environments for Living, and the federal government’s 45L New Homes Tax Credit program (see “Energy Efficiency Programs”). Each of these programs relies on the RESNET HERS index in some form or fashion, and many builders go out of their way to promote the HERS index scores of their homes in their marketing as a way of distinguishing themselves from other builders in the same program. However, some builders who don’t want to participate in a formal energy efficiency program are simply using the HERS index as a stand-alone tool for marketing their homes (see “The HERS Index,” p. 38). For a certified HERS Rater additional opportunities beyond new-homes programs exist, if the work relies on a rater’s set of skills in building science, duct testing, and envelope testing; and on his or her knowledge about energy-efficient products, systems, and equipment.
Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs) have been around since the 1980s and in fact were the driving force behind the creation of Energy Rated Homes of America (later to be officially merged into RESNET when it was incorporated in 2002 as a 501(c)(3) organization). EEMs seem always to be identified with existing homes, perhaps because that’s where they are most often used, at least in my experience. However, EEMs are also a tool that raters can use to help home buyers finance new homes. The most significant hurdle that EEMs face, for new- and existing-home purchases and refinancing, is the fact that mortgage companies, especially underwriters, don’t understand them. The key to success for raters who want to build a portion (probably not much more than a portion) of their business around EEMs is to find a mortgage company and underwriter that will support the EEM process. Then the raters should invest the time necessary to educate the lenders on what their role and responsibilities are. Finally, raters who find and educate lenders should use the same company and underwriter for as many EEM transactions as possible, to keep the process efficient and profitable.
Realtors can help raters to promote and promulgate EEMs in the marketplace. Like mortgage underwriters, Realtors should be educated on the EEM process so they can identify good candidates among their home buyers, and can set the buyer’s and seller’s expectations so the EEM process is a positive experience for both parties. Even if Realtors are not excited about integrating EEMs into their transaction process, HERS raters can educate them about the many benefits of including a home energy rating in a home sale.
The HERS Index
The HERS index, sometimes referred to as the HERS score, is similar to the miles per gallon sticker on an automobile, giving consumers a simple metric by which to compare the energy efficiency of one home to that of another. The HERS index scale has two particularly important demarcations. The first is the reference home, which scores 100 on the scale. This is the baseline against which a home is deemed more or less efficient. The score is expressed in terms of a percentage. For example, a home that scores 115 is 15% less efficient, using 15% more energy, than the reference home. Conversely, a home that scores 65 on the scale is 35% more efficient, using 35% less energy, than the reference home. The second point of reference is the HERS 0 (zero). A home that scores 0 on the scale produces as much energy (on-site) as it consumes. For additional reference, the HERS scale typically includes an existing-home label, ranging from 130 to 140. This represents the HERS score of the typical existing home as determined by DOE.
How Do Realtors Benefit from Home Energy Ratings?
Including home energy ratings in the home sale process allows Realtors to promote the energy efficiency features of a house beyond simply listing them in a brochure. This makes for a far more compelling promotion. The HERS index that comes from a home energy rating quantifies the overall benefit of the home’s features with a numerical score and predicted dollars and cents that can be saved. Thoughtful Realtors will use the home energy rating to promote the home’s existing level of energy efficiency (which can also be shown by a history of utility bills). HERS Raters can help Realtors create a scenario for that home showing how it would perform if it were more efficient (for example, if it had better windows or upgraded appliances and lighting). They can also show homeowners what to expect if the insulation in the attic were removed!
Raters should work with the Realtor community to make certain that the local multiple listing service (MLS) includes line items for stating a home’s HERS index score and the energy efficiency features that make that score possible. According to RESNET, many MLS organizations have already taken this step. In that case, raters simply need to make certain that Realtors are aware of the home energy ratings, and encourage them to start taking advantage of those ratings.
Finally, after many years of work, the Appraisal Institute’s Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum is starting to gain traction in many places. The Green Addendum documents all of the green and energy-efficient features in a home in a single form that can be used by appraisers to give as much credit as possible for the features. Among those features is the home’s HERS index score. Raters who educate appraisers about the Green Addendum and show them how using it can make their appraisals more accurate and comprehensive can grow their home energy rating business by simultaneously highlighting the HERS index line item in the Addendum.
The adoption of testing requirements in the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) has provided significant opportunities for HERS raters to apply their skills. Requirements for blower door testing were added in 2009, and requirements for duct testing were added in 2012. Unlike the voluntary programs mentioned thus far, codes are required for a home to receive a certificate of occupancy. For those municipalities that have adopted either the 2009 or the 2012 IECC, you can be sure that many home builders and remodeling contractors are seeking the help of someone skilled enough to run the necessary tests.
There is a lot of work to be done. While it is up to the local code official to determine who is allowed to do the testing for IECC compliance, many municipalities in Arizona are requiring that the testing be completed by RESNET-certified raters and rating field inspectors. The primary reasons for this restriction: RESNET has long-established rules and guidelines for the home energy rating industry, has a pool of individuals with training that is specific to the IECC requirements, and has a set of similar testing procedures utilized by different testing companies that create uniform and reliable results for all homes. Of particular interest for the home energy rating industry is the recent proposal by the Leading Builders of America, the Institute for Market Transformation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council for an Energy Rating index (ERI) score as one compliance option for meeting the 2015 IECC. In Atlantic City on October 7, 2013, the International Code Council (ICC) voted to approve the ERI. This new development provides Home Energy Raters with yet another opportunity to grow their business because calculating and confirming the HERS Index, RESNET’s ERI, requires more than just doing duct and envelope leakage testing.
Not only have the work opportunities for HERS raters increased significantly in recent years, but the rater’s job has become much more sophisticated. Gone are the days when a Duct Blaster and blower door test and a few visual inspections were enough to certify an Energy Star home. Two versions of Energy Star later (3.0 is the latest version of the program), raters must now complete two comprehensive checklists of items to confirm the proper installation of a home’s thermal enclosure and HVAC systems; must confirm that a third checklist has been completed properly by the A/C contractor; and must confirm that a fourth checklist, documenting proper water management, has been completed by the builder. As I say to the students in my Energy Star Version 3.0 Rater Training course (which provides the minimum training required for all raters and rating field inspectors), the HERS rater is truly the captain of the team when it comes to building a home that meets the Energy Star 3.0 requirements. The HERS rater is the only party responsible for overseeing all of the elements required for a home to be labeled as Energy Star. More to the point, whereas the Energy Star requirements are a relatively small part of the builder’s and trade contractors’ focus when building a home, the Energy Star program is the only reason that most raters are participating in the building process, which allows them to focus exclusively on Energy Star compliance.
Energy Efficiency Programs
Energy Star for Homes. Energy Star for Homes was started in 1996 by EPA to recognize new homes built to a minimum set of energy efficiency criteria. EPA introduced version 2.0 of the Energy Star program in 2006 and version 3.0 in 2010. Version 3.1, currently in development, will increase the baseline energy efficiency from the IECC 2009 to the IECC 2012, in states that adopt the IECC 2012. EPA has been mum on what version 4.0 might look like and when it will be launched. However, don’t expect it any time real soon. When it is being worked on, as in the past, EPA will be gathering input from major stakeholders. For more information, visit www.energystar.gov/homes.
Challenge Home. In 2012, DOE revamped the old Builders Challenge program and renamed it Challenge Home. Challenge Home requires participating homes to be, at the minimum, EPA Energy Star for Homes and Indoor airPLUS compliant. In addition, Challenge Homes must meet minimum envelope, lighting, appliance, duct system, and water efficiency requirements; as well as be renewable ready for PV solar, and solar water heating. For more information, see “DOE’s Challenge Home,” p. 6, or visit www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/challenge.
LEED for Homes. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) started the LEED program in 2000, focusing primarily on commercial buildings. It was not until 2006 that USGBC launched a pilot program for new homes. LEED for Homes takes a holistic approach to the design, construction, and operation of a home, considering not only energy efficiency, but also water efficiency, materials selection and environmental responsibility, healthy indoor environments, and the sustainability of the building location and site. It also seeks to educate homeowners about proper operation of their LEED-certified home. USGBC will be launching version 4.0 of LEED for Homes in late 2014. For more information, visit www.usgbc.org/homes.
Environments for Living. In 2001, Advanced Energy created the Environments for Living (EFL) program for Masco Contractor Services, based on program characteristics similar to those it used to create the original Engineered for Life program for US GreenFiber. Prior to Energy Star version 3.0, LEED for Homes, and the more robust energy efficiency requirements of the IECC 2012, the EFL program was truly pushing builders to implement the most important aspects of building science that maximize energy efficiency, comfort, health, and durability. Standing behind these program objectives, EFL has long touted an energy use and comfort guarantee. For more information, visit www.environmentsforliving.com.
45L New Homes Tax Credit. After many years of lobbying, the energy efficiency industry was finally able to persuade Congress to pass the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, which established, among other things, a federal tax credit for builders of energy-efficient new homes. The original credit required that a home be 50% more efficient relative to the 2004 supplements to the 2003 IECC, considering only the building shell and HVAC systems (not water heating). The credit has been extended several times since it was passed, most recently in January 2013. The latest extension grandfathered in all homes built after January 1, 2012, and extended the credit forward to December 31, 2013. Unlike previous extensions, this one changed the reference home to the IECC 2006. Although this change may seem harmless, the impact on windows, in particular, has prevented many, many homes from qualifying for the credit. For more information, visit www.resnet.us/professional/taxcredits/faq_builders.
On the RESNET front, gone are the days when once a rating provider was accredited by RESNET and raters were certified by a provider, the providers and the raters had very few responsibilities for reporting and rarely had someone oversee their work. RESNET now requires new raters to pass an online exam and, once certified, to maintain their certification by completing 18 hours of professional development every three years. To become HERS raters starting in January 2014, all new rater candidates must receive training on combustion safety testing and inspections and be required to pass a test covering that material.
Starting in 2006, RESNET required each rating provider to have a quality assurance designee on staff; and each provider was required to conduct a quality assurance file review of a minimum of 10% of all ratings, and a quality assurance field review of a minimum of 1% of all ratings by that provider. That same year, RESNET began direct oversight of the quality assurance process by conducting on-site visits to a number of rating providers. These new measures have introduced greater complexity into the administrative aspects of the rating process, but with the added benefit of bringing greater credibility to the home energy rating industry. Lastly, in 2012, RESNET brought online a new database, the RESNET Ratings and Rater Registry. Every rating must be submitted to the registry to receive a RESNET Registry ID number, and all certified raters must be entered into the registry so they can be associated with each rating they complete.
It goes without saying that the home energy rating industry has changed quite a bit since I started in the business. More and more, HERS raters are seen as an integral part of the process for determining and verifying the energy efficiency of single-family and multifamily residential buildings. Their expertise is also relied upon in energy efficiency programs, in real estate sales and appraisal documentation, and in mortgage financing. Finally, they play an important role in the mandatory building code compliance process. Along the way, raters have been called upon to provide combustion safety testing, indoor air quality evaluation, water conservation evaluation, and various other green-rater services. This means more business for raters and rating organizations. At the same time, raters who want to take advantage of these opportunities are required to know more, and to have more skills in the home energy rating industry and other specialty areas than they once did. Even the minimum requirements to become a basic HERS rater have increased greatly.
My journey, begun 18 years ago with Energy Star for Homes at ASU, has been filled with learning and growing as the home energy rating industry has matured and developed. I welcome those new to the field, but with a healthy appreciation for the amount of learning before them. My parting words of advice are to remember the old adage: The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
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