George Pfister, a 53-year-old former sheet metal worker from Terre Haute, Ind., has found success performing energy audits through a federal program administered by the state’s housing authority. Image courtesy of George Pfister.

Memories of 2008’s $4 a gallon gasoline and record heating bills are leading more consumers, businesses and building owners to consider the services of an energy auditing professional.

And sheet metal and HVAC contractors are uniquely positioned to provide - and profit from - the service, according to many of those involved in training the next generation of auditors.

Auditing, sometimes called an energy assessment, involves inspecting a structure to determine how efficiently it uses energy, determining where improvements could be made and recommending how best to ensure occupant comfort and safety while saving energy.

Typical tests done as part of an audit include those using blower doors and heat-seeking infrared cameras. Results are often analyzed by computer.

Although interest in such services is a recent development, Daniel Andrews, training coordinator for Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 in St. Louis, says energy auditing is nothing new. Andrews said he was one of the first to take an energy assessment class in 1987 when it was offered by the union-affiliated National Energy Management Institute. The courses were intensive and 40 hours long, he recalled.

An unidentified student in the International Training Institute’s energy auditing course records the cubic feet per minute airflow of an outlet.

Waning interest

But even by that time, the popularity of such programs was starting to wane. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as U.S. fuel and energy prices spiked, many people and businesses were looking for ways save on utility bills - a service the HVAC industry was happy to provide. But when energy prices collapsed, the popularity of auditing went with them.

Now, over 20 years later, energy auditing is making a comeback in the sheet metal industry.

Andrews said this has a lot to do with programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building rating system, and the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Star certification.

Others involved in energy auditing training include the Building Performance Institute and many local and state construction associations.

The St. Louis union local held two energy auditing training courses late last year. The training is a perfect fit for technicians who are already involved in testing, adjusting and balancing work, Andrews said. TAB and energy auditing are very similar, and build on the same concepts of energy performance.

The courses are also ideal for technicians and workers from other industries looking for new jobs and training opportunities, he added.

In the case of Local 36, the auditing program is funded by a U.S. Labor Department grant to retrain underemployed workers in “green” jobs.

Darrell Garrison (left), instructor with the International Training Institute, conducts a certification exam in energy auditing for students at the Sheet Metal Workers union Local 33 training center in Cleveland.

Retraining funding

The money is not only retraining individuals in St. Louis, but in Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, N.M. The training is provided by the International Training Institute.

Darrell Garrison, a trainer with the ITI, has been traveling to those cities to teach energy auditing to technicians and unemployed individuals. The cities chosen for the training were those hit hardest by the economic downturn, union officials said.

About 150 individuals have passed the first portion of the energy auditing course for HVAC equipment, Garrison said. The people in the class come from a variety of industry backgrounds, including architecture, HVAC service and TAB work.

“Some are tin knockers who have never picked up a meter,” he said.

The course covers three different areas. The first covers how to perform an EUI, or energy utilization index. This is the simplest part of the course, which Garrison says helps contractors get a “foot in the door” with prospective customers. The EUI service can be offered to clients as part of an existing maintenance agreement.

Garrison explained that a technician or a service manager requests a year’s worth of utility bills from a customer.  These numbers are entered into an Energy Star website, which creates a building profile. The profile will show building owners how their structure compares with others in the area.

The next part of the course covers the physical investigation of the mechanical systems. Technicians learn how to check the HVAC system to make sure that it is performing up to its designed specifications. Garrison said that the building inspections also cover more than just the HVAC equipment: It also includes inspecting the building’s exterior “envelope,” lighting systems, and any other areas where energy is used or could be wasted.

The final part of the energy auditing course is learning how to fix those areas where energy can be saved or improved.

Unlike 25 years ago, Garrison believes that energy auditing is here to stay.

“We are dealing with an existing infrastructure and the (energy) grid that we have,” he said, adding that it is less than ideal for handling the country’s energy needs. “We have to be more energy efficient.” 

Instructor Bob Dak (right) instructs an unidentified student on using a stroboscope.

A new start

George Pfister would likely agree. Energy auditing is turning into a successful second career for the 53-year-old after he was laid off from his job as a sheet metal worker (See “Panel discussions,” August 2010).

He has found work performing evaluations of the energy efficiency of government-subsidized low-income housing in his home state of Indiana.

The Terre Haute, Ind., resident had run a small side business involved in auditing work since the late 1990s, but it had been largely dormant since the mortgage crisis hit the Midwest about five years ago.

Through his contacts at the Indiana Builders Association, a state group that supports affordable, energy-efficient housing, Pfister heard about weatherization auditor certification classes offered by the state’s housing authority. With money from the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed by Congress in early 2009, the U.S. government was making a big push to make the nation’s low-income housing greener.

“(The U.S. government) has perfected the energy audit,” Pfister said. “They’ve taken on the health and safety aspect of it. They saw that we were creating venting problems by tightening up the houses.”

For the nation’s subsidized housing stock, this is nothing new. After the energy crises of the early 1970s, building codes around the country started requiring that new or substantially renovated homes and public structures were designed to waste less energy by sealing cracks and windows and using higher efficiency HVAC equipment.

John Nesta, coordinator for union Local 33 in Cleveland, supervises the energy auditing certification exam.

Health push

And while the regulations had the desired effect of saving energy, a downside was natural ventilation was reduced and complaints of conditions such as sick-building syndrome started to become common.

That’s why a big part of his job is interviewing occupants to screen for health problems that could be building related, Pfister said.

Evaluating a property can take several hours. The process begins with visual inspection of the homes interior and exterior.

“The initial contact is to look around the house for any mold or mildew problems,” he said.

Carbon monoxide detectors are used and the home’s water heater, stove and furnace are checked, along with visual inspections and venting tests with instruments.

After more than a year of evaluating homes in southwestern Indiana, Pfister said he has seen some bad conditions.

“Some of the homes we go into, we can’t even proceed,” he said, adding he doesn’t know how the occupants can live in such places.

More common problems he encounters include water heaters installed too close to furnaces, which creates negative air pressure.

The auditors compile a list of needed work, which is performed by outside contractors.

“Once the work is performed we go back out and perform the whole gamut of tests again … to ensure that the work was done properly,” he said.

While the hours are often long and work is not always easy, it’s something Pfister said he enjoys.

“I’ve always worked with homeowners coming up through the ranks in sheet metal work,” he added. “It’s something I’m familiar with.”

An added benefit is Pfister said he is earning more today than he did in two decades as a sheet metal worker. The pay and work has been steady enough that he was able to afford a two-week vacation in Alaska in July 2010.

“The (money) was well over what I ever earned as a sheet metal worker,” he said. “The Department of Energy pays well, so far.”

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