TABB contractor Bob Guss (left), with Jack Webster, TABB director of certification.
LAS VEGAS - Perhaps it's fitting that the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau held its first national conference at Caesars Palace.

Like the famed Roman emperor the resort is named after, the group is looking to conquer - in its case, the growing market for hvacr and building certification.

TABB met Oct. 18-19 in conjunction with the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association's 59th annual convention.

The union-affiliated groups share much in common: a desire to increase market share, foster better communication between labor and management, and to establish themselves as superior to non-union organizations in the marketplace. It was a message repeated often during the event.

"We're here to help you increase your companies and your profitability," said William Freese, owner of International Testing and Balancing. Freese also serves as co-chairman of TABB's International Certification Board.

"There are going to be a lot of innovative things coming our way, and I want us to be on top of it. We have confidence in every one of you," he told attendees. "We are going to give you all of the support, all of the expertise you need."

TABB member contractors, engineers and technicians perform tests to check and certify that a building's hvac system components perform to the architect's or building manager's specifications. Many cities' codes now say hvac systems must be checked by TABB or a similar organization before a certificate of occupancy will be issued. TABB workers may also be called on to help solve a problem relating to poor indoor air quality.

Even though there are other, similar building certification programs, such as the National Environmental Balancing Bureau or the Associated Air Balance Council, a union-backed program is needed, said Roy Ringwood, business manager for California Local 105 of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association and ICB co-chairman. "TABB means value. The certification is not worth the paper it's printed on" if the system tests are not performed properly, Ringwood said.

The SMWIA spends more than $30 million annually on training and education for new and existing TABB workers.

Although testing and balancing work currently makes up a very small part of the U.S. construction market, it is primed for explosive growth, according to two recent studies presented at the conference by construction industry consultants FMI and commissioned by the SMWIA's National Energy Management Institute.

"This is really just the tip of the iceberg," FMI analyst Jay Bowman told attendees.

Many architects and building managers want their hvac systems certified by a respected testing and balancing organization, Bowman said. And because the building commissioning market is so new, he added, union contractors have the chance to capture much of it simply because they have the knowledge and certification programs in place.

The group is in its infancy: TABB was founded in 2000, growing out of a number of regional union certification programs in states such as Illinois. To date, there are only 550 TABB-certified technicians in the U.S. and Canada, a number that program officials hope will soon climb. They told conference attendees to let other contractors know that being TABB certified offers added protection against the cyclical nature of the construction business. TABB-certified contractors often find themselves in demand.

"We're a small (union) local. Out of 500 men, 180 are unemployed. Not one TABB contractor is unemployed," said one conference attendee.

It's those kind of stories that TABB officials hope will encourage more contractors to take the certification test. They acknowledge the test isn't easy: It requites up to 2.5 years of classroom and on-site training, and mandates the purchase of a variety of hvac test instruments. TABB contractors are also required to renew their certification every two years.

TABB is planning another conference in conjunction with SMACNA's annual convention in Washington, D.C. next year. Contractors attending this year's conference gave the program high marks.

"It's been great so far," said Karl Jorgenson, owner of KCO's Inc. in Livingston, Mont. "To see how the industry is progressing and supporting TABB - we're moving in the right direction."

KCO is currently in the process of certifying three of its employees as TABB contractors.

Sue Wing, owner of Wing's Testing and Balancing Co., Branford, Conn., asks a question.

Opportunities, interest attract contractors to TABB work

Many contractors who have obtained TABB certification say they were attracted to the specialty work because it offers good pay, job security and the chance to work in the climate-controlled conditions of an office.

William Niehoff Jr. is one of the owners of Fresh Aire Inc., a TABB firm based in Lemont, Ill., outside Chicago. The $2 million company has performed hvac certification on schools, hospitals and other commercial buildings throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.

A former sheet metal worker with SMWIA Local 73 for 13 years, Niehoff said he decided to concentrate on air balancing and certification after working on a balancing project at a nuclear power plant in Augusta, Ga. "I was really, really fascinated by this work," Niehoff said. "I realized I couldn't be working with the tools any more."

So in 1993, he founded Fresh Aire, and started working with pens and paper instead of press brakes. Within three days, Niehoff said, he had his first job. Today he employs seven other TABB-certified technicians and an office support staff of three.

"It's just so interesting," Niehoff said of his job. "People look at me and say, 'How can you balance air?' They just can't see it."

There are many other perks to becoming a TABB contractor, Niehoff added. TABB contractors don't usually bounce from company to company to find work, and are rarely laid off, he said.

Some TABB contractors say they have never done any other type of work. Brian Smith, 34, owner of Brice Testing & Air Balancing in Roselle, Ill., said he started performing system certifications right out of high school. Smith said the market potential for TABB is outstanding.

"The thing is to publicize it," Smith said