How to spend millions on a dubious DOE program

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The problem with BPI getting all this money from DOE to create standards and certification programs for a national energy efficiency and weatherization program is that they don’t have the knowledge and capacity to do that.

Has it really been almost a year since the last time that I wrote about the Building Performance Institute? That was in my As I See It blog post from last August, “D.C. energy efficiency world gets murkier” (http://bit.ly/K3CqXk.) I hate to tell you, the BPI/Department of Energy/weatherization program debacle has not gotten any better. Allow me to refresh your memory.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have picked a certifying body to test and certify workers for the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and home energy upgrade industry.

It is not an organization that should have won the contract. Instead, DOE and NREL picked the Building Performance Institute, Malta, N.Y., a group whose expertise seems to revolve around winning federal contracts.

DOE and NREL made this award despite the call by an industry coalition of 22 organizations to start the selection process over in a transparent manner.

There’s no doubt this program will be huge. Thousands of workers will be trained and certified to perform what may turn out to be billions of dollars in work. If workers are going to be trained to perform gas fitting or change out plumbing fixtures, it might be a nice idea to ask the people who know how to do it.

Pretty much everybody in the industry opposes this — PHCC-NA, ACCA, IAPMO, ICC, RSES. In a startling moment of clarity, even the homebuilders were on our side on this one.

The problem with BPI getting all this money from DOE to create standards and certification programs for a national energy efficiency and weatherization program is that they don’t have the knowledge and capacity to do that. They’re a bunch of people who come from that whole Eastern Corridor energy conservation milieu. It’s as if they said, “Hey, kids, let’s put on an energy efficiency program,” and just like the kids in the neighborhood, they invited all of their friends. The problem is that all of their friends are academics or guys from the national labs, not anybody who knows how to turn a wrench. If the toilet’s not flushing, do you want a plumber or a college professor?

On its website BPI lists the following as “standards:”

·      Air Conditioning & Heat Pump Professional

·      BPI-104: Envelope Professional

·      BPI-2400-S Standard Qualification of Whole House Energy Savings Estimates

·      Building Analyst professional

·      Heating Professional

·      Manufactured Housing Professional

·      Multifamily Building Analyst Professional

·      Multifamily Energy Efficient Building Operator

·      Multifamily Hydronic Heating Professional

In the U.S. there are industry-developed ANSI-certified national consensus standards. ASHRAE 90.1 is a perfect example. Then there are “standards” developed by individual companies or groups to serve their membership’s needs. One way to do that is to have a pre-written “standard” that’s reviewed by a rubberstamp committee that avoids that whole, messy consensus process with public reviews and revisions and votes and more revisions that typically takes two years to move through the process. BPI’s approach is to jump in, make a claim, and sell the heck out of it until it is (they hope) an accepted fact and a household name. This approach is fast and easy and does not require much thought or industry input. Unfortunately, it is also likely to result in meaningless standards fraught with errors and another embarrassingly inept program. 

It has long been the opinion of many within the HVAC industry that BPI “standards” related to HVAC industry did not adequately address the rigorous approaches necessary to assure that equipment was designed and installed properly. Many within the energy auditing industry feel that the BPI energy auditing related standards ignored mainstream guidelines and standards. Many in the insulation industry have felt that the BPI standards have given short shrift to windows, doors and insulation requirements. 

Now BPI is attempting to develop ANSI-recognized standards. In 2010 BPI announced: Malta, NY, July 13, 2010 The Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI), a nationally recognized standards development and contractor credentialing organization is pleased to announce that it received approval today from the American National Standards Institute Inc. (ANSI) as an accredited developer of American National Standards.”

That’s good, right? This was seen by many as a step in the right direction and good for the related industries in which BPI is offering training and certification based on its “standards.” Except it didn’t work. BPI’s first attempt to have its flagship “standard” BPI-1100-T-2010 (formerly BPI-101): Home Energy Auditing Standard recognized as an ANSI standard apparently died in 2011. The public comment period ended on March 14, 2011, and BPI-1100-T-2010 must have been sucked into a black hole in Malta, N.Y., because it has vanished never to be seen again.

But, hey, they have ANSI status, so it was time to double down.

Encouraged by the success of proclaiming ANSI status without any ANSI-approved standards, BPI began announcing the development of other ANSI standards. These include:

·      BPI-2400-S-2011 Standardized Qualification of Whole House Energy Savings

·      BPI-102 Standard for Air Resistance of Thermal Insulation Used in Retrofit Cavity Applications - Material Specification

·      BPI-103 Standard Test Method for Thermal Insulation Materials Used in Air Retarder Applications

Other BPI “standards” are in the pipeline being developed by BPI committees:

·      Standard for Quality Inspections

·      Standard for Air Distribution Systems Energy Performance Applications

·      Standard for Envelope Insulation Applications

·      Standard for Envelope Air Leakage Control Applications

·      Standard for Home Performance-related Data Collection, Transfer and Qualification of Whole House Savings Estimates

·      Standard for BPI Building Analyst

·      Standard for Basic Building Analysis

BPI seems determined to continue ignoring the need for industry consensus or input when it comes to standards development. Worse yet, BPI appears to be comfortable in ignoring preexisting, competing, and conflicting related industry recognized standards developed through recognized standards process by groups such as ACCA; ASHRAE; ASTM International; National Fire Protection Association; Residential Energy Services Network (mortgage industry recognized), and SMACNA.

Then BPI issued a press release at the beginning of this year talking about how they’re going to have to raise their prices because they’re hot stuff:

“The Building Performance Institutehas established itself as the leading standards provider for the building industry. Consumers, industry, institutions all look to BPI standards to verify the legitimacy of building practices.”

That’s pretty funny. You have to hand it to them for having a sense of humor. The leading standards provider for the building industry? Really? Somebody phone ICC.

Then they try to bolster their legitimacy by sidling up to ANSI.

“The American National Standards Institute Inc. also develops standards called American National Standards. Coming from an accredited institute, ANSI’s vote of confidence in BPI increases the legitimacy of BPI’s building performance standards. ANSI’s accreditation of BPI also goes to show that BPI has built a trusted reputation among stakeholders in the building industry, whose members trust BPI to set the bar high for building performance. Now that BPI’s building standards have received ANSI accreditation, its standard development program is a more trusted measure of energy-efficiency and overall performance in buildings.”

That’s quite the imprimatur. Dominus vobiscum. And may perpetual light shine upon you. Since they’re so great, they have to raise their prices.

“While ANSI accreditation lends greater integrity to BPI’s process of defining building performance standards, it will also most likely up the cost of BPI certification for building professionals. If you have not yet registered for a BPI certification course, then please do so immediately before BPI courses become more expensive in 2012. BPI will announce a series of changes pertaining to its ANSI accreditation that go into effect as of February 2012. These include changes to the BPI certification process, including potential price increases for BPI courses that prepare students to take the BPI exam.”http://www.bpicertification.com/bpi-certification-made-more-legitimate-thanks-to-ansi-accreditation.html.

As long as we’re on the subject of certification, check out this one.

On April 19, BPI issued a press release with the headline, “Criminal background check removed from pilot certification prerequisite criteria; criminal background check remains employer responsibility.  

“MALTA, N.Y. — Responding to industry feedback regarding criminal background check requirements for four new Home Energy Professional certifications to be piloted this June, the Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI) today removed these requirements from prerequisite criteria.”

According to BPI, they received comments from contractors who said they didn’t want to feel constrained by the criminal background check requirement. Ostensibly, the rationale is to let rehabilitated non-violent offenders get work. That’s a worthy goal but it may not be such a great idea to let them into Aunt Tilly’s house.

Here’s another weird story about certification that came from CONTRACTOR’s own Carol Fey. Now keep in mind that Carol Fey has spent her life in this industry. An author of multiple training books, such as Quick & Basic Hydronic Controls and Quick & Basic Electricity, she used to be a trainer for Honeywell. She goes to Antarctica and tears down and rebuilds their furnaces and boilers. Let me tell you, Carol Fey has got it goin’ on. But she barely passed the BPI certification test.

“The class I attended was mostly about the building envelope — insulation, sealing, and using a blower door to test for tightness,” Carol told me. “There was very little in the class about HVAC … Our on-site, hands-on instruction was only a half day. The rest of the week was classroom lecture. This isn't a good way to teach hands-on skills to on-site workers.”

Carol, by the way, knows this well from her own training classes. Hand a service tech a gas valve and he starts rolling it around in his hands because techs are visual and tactile.

“As for HVAC, the on-site instruction was in a hydronics house,” Carol continued. “The hands-on test was in a forced-air house. That's teaching about apples and testing about oranges.

“They required buying three sizeable books. It's easy for me to do that kind of reading, but impossible for many of the hands-on guys in the class.

“I barely passed the test, even though I fully participated every day and read all of the books. Many of the test questions were on material I had never heard of. The test included some puzzling questions such as what is the formula for the area of a circle. That was a ‘gimme’ for me, but neither the formula nor any application for it were covered in class. One instructor said that the purpose is to fail people to keep the industry pure, or to make people pay to take it all again. One man was in tears during the test.”

My vote is that the purpose is to get people to pay to take it all over again.

Carol said she attended a local industry meeting where one of the leaders said that he suspects that the reason that BPI certification is required is to make it easier for big contractors to get utility-driven work. For a one-man shop to get certified, he has to shut his business down for a week to go to school. A big company just keeps someone on staff who is certified — the on-site workers don't have to be, it was claimed. This may not be accurate, Carol noted, but something about it rings true.

Take note of that point about utility programs. The more conspiratorially minded people in Washington tell me that the grand plan is to require all who work in the public sector or for utility sponsored programs to become BPI certified members. Fey reports that last year she worked with an organization that was formed specifically to require the utility to use some of the millions set aside for energy conservation. The programs they came up were confusing and hard to use.

Then again, pairing “grand plan” and “Washington” seems oxymoronic. There is, however, a ton of money being thrown at these programs.

It seems there is an almost unlimited DOE budget for developing and administering “energy efficiency programs” and, unfortunately, up until this time they all only seem to recognize BPI as the final solution to all of the nation’s energy woes. In fact, DOE is up to its neck in developing requirements and testing materials for BPI. The following DOE sponsored agencies/subcontractors are developing the actual “certification” tests and the related questions along with the work specifications based on the “BPI standards” so they can be handed over to BPI to administer.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (DOE funding $97.7 million, http://www.cfo.doe.gov/budget/10budget/Content/Highlights/FY2010Highlights.pdf)

is working on Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades and Specifications for Single, Multifamily and Manufactured Housing. AEA Technology PLC (DOE funding up to $45.7 million, http://www.reuters.com/finance/stocks/AAT.L/key-developments/article/1827977) is working on Workforce Specifications for Home Energy Upgrades, Multifamily Housing and Workforce Specifications for Home Energy Upgrades Manufactured Housing.

Why not require a meaningless certification for unrecognized standards? It seems like DOE’s new program will save mid-level management government contractor jobs and assures that a new and improved “energy saving training” program will need to be developed down the road.

BPI has no certified contractors in Alaska, Hawaii or 24 additional states. The two states where it is mandated that you have to pay BPI to work on state or utility sponsored programs amazingly enough have hundreds of BPI-certified contractors.  In fact, after New York with 393 and New Jersey with 129, the state with the most BPI-certified contractors is California with 15. How can 15 contractors serve a state the size of California?

Of the 615 BPI-certified contractors listed on their website as of February 6, 2012, over 84% are in New York and New Jersey. In fact, if you remove the states with five or fewer BPI-certified contractors from the BPI listings, only seven of the 50 states remain. Surely if BPI had developed a successful national program, they would have certified contractors distributed a little more evenly across the nation.

Real certifications based on real standards and real training take time to develop. Further, they demand a continuous, committed effort to master and maintain the skills and company infrastructures necessary to make them worthwhile. Can DOE be awakened and see the folly in the latest plan?

You might want to ask your own local Congressman or Senator how long they will allow DOE to continue flushing money down the BPI drain by falsely advertising an expensive, localized program as a national energy savings plan. DOE may not care how the term “national program” is defined, but the rest of us should.

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Robert Mader

Bob Mader is the editor of CONTRACTOR magazine, Green Mechanical Contractor magazine, and Radiant Living magazine. He has been writing about plumbing, mechanical, green building and HVACR topics for...
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