Tips for Evaluating and Selecting Energy-Efficiency Contractor

A conversation with Melinda McKnight, Executive Vice President, Energy Conservation Services

By   |     |  Clean Power Guide  |  Home Improvement

New York is committed to getting millions of buildings off fossil fuels in the next couple of decades. This will require lots and lots of people doing the hands-on work of improving insulation and air sealing as the first step. What should a customer know about the training of a good energy-efficiency contractor? Melinda McKnight and her husband Bill have been in the business most of their careers, and she shares these thoughts.

—Melissa Everett 

What are the essential skills for an energy auditor, someone who assesses homes for energy-efficiency and recommends upgrades?

The foundation is what’s known as building science—how the building works as a system. That includes transfer of heat and moisture, how to measure air leakage, how to look at the building structure and consider where any leakage might be. There are tests for fan pressure, duct pressure, leakage, and combustion analysis for fossil fueled appliances. In certain conditions, condensation can be created if insulation is applied incorrectly, so it’s necessary to understand how to minimize that risk.

A useful skill, too, is infrared photography, which detects heat leakage. An infrared camera graphically shows temperature differences between the building and its surroundings.

What about skills for a weatherization technician, the person who actually installs the insulation and air-sealing materials? 

The most important skill is attention to detail, and some understanding of building science basics. The technician needs the eyes to see where problems are likely to occur. If you give an employee prescriptive measures to be done across the board, there will be some exceptions; the best technician has to see what’s in every part of an attic, even what’s below the insulation.

People considering working in this field should consider that they are sometimes going to be uncomfortable doing this work. Every building is different, every week is different. One attic and crawl space might be tight and uncomfortable, the next week might be in a full standup basement. You have to get through each job and know the value of what you are doing. Manual skills can be taught if a person is interested in working with their hands, but the training needs to encompass proper ways of installing a variety of insulation materials and doing it correctly for each specific application.

What’s the training like?

For energy auditor training, the SUNY community colleges and other training centers have blower doors and duct blasters to learn to use. There is no training available in a classroom environment for a weatherization technician. Certification programs of the Building Performance Institute (BPI) provide the basic understanding through self-study and testing. Otherwise at this point it’s all on-the-job training. 

What do you view as the minimal credentials for a good contractor?

The most important credential is BPI accreditation for the overall company. It’s okay to have certified employees, but accreditation demonstrates a companywide commitment to the craft. Certified means you’ve gone through the coursework and understand concepts. An accredited company means you implement systems that support the work. You commit to upholding the standards of the Building Performance Institute. You have internal quality-assurance processes. You’re documenting all the way through, you have checks and balances in your systems. It’s also about how you treat your workers, and thereby how you retain them.

What are some differences between good and excellent energy-efficiency professionals?

There is a judgment that is developed with time. You take the classes, but it’s when the skills are applied that the real learning begins. One of the core skills is attention to detail. Most auditors know how to set up a blower door test, but they don’t necessarily understand the movement of heat and air through interstitial spaces. There are judgments—like whether to include leakage from a basement—that depend on the context.

Another point of judgment: How tight is tight enough for building air flow? New York’s code prescribes very tight new construction, which in turn requires mechanical ventilation, which somewhat increases energy use. For retrofits, we encourage it to be just tight enough to be comfortable and efficient without that mechanical ventilation. 

What are good questions to ask a contractor you are thinking about hiring?

Ask them to describe how they would approach assessing your house, and go with the one who can identify and explain details. Really have a conversation about what you want to achieve and what the options are, what materials choices and parts of the building to focus on. You want a contractor who can participate in a dialogue and coherently describe the different options available and their benefits, and of course who will provide well-documented written estimates.

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