CHICAGO - It is of utmost importance that contractors stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in their trade given the economic uncertainty the country continues to face and changes in technologies and products the plumbing and HVAC industry is experiencing. What better way to gain knowledge and be on the cutting-edge of your trade by continuing your education through a variety of “green” programs offered by colleges, organizations and associations? There is a plethora of skills and knowledge one can gain regarding renewable energy and water conservation by taking courses geared towards the licensed contractor wanting to expand his knowledge and skill set.

Plumbing contractors wanting to advance their knowledge about conserving water should consider Green Plumbers USA, a training and accreditation program for plumbers, inspectors and other building officials wanting to learn about the environment and public health.

“In the first year of training, we trained about 1,500 people and in the last three years we are up to about 9,000 trained individuals,” says Jonathan Cruz, executive vice president of sales & marketing at Green Plumbers USA. “And we have licensed green plumbing companies in at least 38 states. We have trained someone in about every state. We are seeing a huge influx in training because these companies need green plumbers on staff.”

Just recently the rights to training have been licensed to the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, according to Cruz, however, the brand and commercialization of the program is still owned by Green Plumbers USA Inc.

“What this means is that Green Plumbers USA feels it is best suited if industry bodies (such as IAPMO) administer training and we focus on the business side of things making sure our members education translates into jobs,” says Cruz. “Once a plumber becomes a trained Green Plumber they are entitled to go through our Licensed Green Plumber application process.”

When asked why it is important for plumbers to be up-to-date on green technology, Cruz tells CONTRACTOR that it is the future.

“In order for the industry to thrive plumbers must learn to be green in their practices and even more importantly learn how to see a return on investment in applying these practices to their business,” says Cruz. “It’s not just about green technology. It is also about standard endorsed product and quality installation and service. It is about sustainable (viable, profitable, long-term) business. Green Plumbers is about helping reinvent and re-invigorate the plumbing industry. We are proponents of educating the customer, helping the earth, and creating sustainable and profitable businesses through sustainable practices. Over the next few years there will emerge new products and services available to the consumer; Green Plumbers will be business leaders in this emerging market.”

What is a Green Plumber?

According to Cruz, the Green Plumber is trained in customer relations and sustainable practices and is generally involved and committed in his local community. And John Smith, Big John the Toilet Guy, is the perfect example of that.

Smith took a series of classes to become a Green Plumber and also took a series of classes to become an instructor, so he could teach his staff.

“Becoming a certified instructor is a benefit offered to principals at companies that decided to become a licensed Green Plumbing company,” says Cruz when asked about Smith becoming an instructor. “Even though online classes are available, some people actually want to be able to teach their techs since they had such a good experience taking the classes.”

“We are building a relationship with the customers when we go into their home and show them how we can do things, the program has helped me build relationships with customers,” explains Smith. “It has also changed the way the customers look at us. Usually people dread seeing the plumber, but now we are held in high regards in the community.”

Smith has done public service work, such as installing high-efficiency dual-flush toilets for the Ronald McDonald House. “They [Ronald McDonald House] asked us to become a member of the board of directors, so we elevated our status of being a plumber in the community,” explains Smith. “We did other ongoing projects at the humane society and children’s museum. We would have never taken that path unless we went to the Green Plumbing program. It opened our eyes to other things besides the dollar, but it got us to look at the environment, existing customers, how we can help them, and turn it into a relationship.”

Besides applying the knowledge he gained from the program to his business, he also took what he learned to heart and has become an advocate of water conservation.

“When I got home from the course I measured the flow on my showerhead,” says Smith.

“I found out that it was putting out five gallons a minute, and that’s the first change I made. I didn’t conserve water, I didn’t even think twice, so this really impacted me quite a bit.”

When asked why it is important for contractors to stay on the cutting edge of green technology, Smith tells CONTRACTOR that it’s a necessity.

“We are going to run out of water sooner than what people think,” says Smith. “We can make a big impact. This is no longer a fad. People thought this may go away, but businesses are getting bigger. You want to get on board early. It’s also a way for the plumber to change their image. If a plumber can show they are showing an interest in the community, then they will look at a plumber as a total different type of business person.”

Green Plumbers USA offers a two-prong approach to becoming a Green Plumber.

“We recommend the principal contractor goes to a physical workshop, and we understand that the technicians have limited time because of scheduling issues, so we offer online courses,” explains Cruz. “They can take them at their leisure, so they can take 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there. The online courses have been available for about two years now.

“What we do is promote the principal contractor to go through the educational process, when they are done with the classes they can decide to take their company to the next level and license the company, then the company it is eligible for all the Green Plumber benefits.”

In conjunction with WaterSmart Innovations Conference this October, Green Plumbers USA is offering all five classes in four days in Las Vegas for $500. Additional information about Green Plumbers USA is available at: http://www.greenplumbersusa.com/.

SEI’s solar training program

A renewable energy program contractors can take to learn about solar is the Renewable Energy Education Program (REEP) offered by Solar Energy International (SEI). The course consists of hands-on workshops and online courses in solar PV, wind, micro-hydro, solar hot water and natural home building. Information on SEI’s upcoming courses is available at: http://www.solarenergy.org/workshop-schedule.

“Our solar thermal and our solar electric programs receive a good amount of mechanical, plumbing and HVAC contractors as participants,” says Kathryn Swartz, renewable energy education program team leader of SEI. “Our Solar Hot Water Design and Installation training, which is between three to five days in length, averages about 50% of participants in these trades, especially plumbing. The learning curve is significantly less for people with these backgrounds and allows them to expand their business offerings to clients.”

SEI’s Photovoltaic Program consists of a variety of courses, from solar electric design and installation, which can be taken in person or online, to solar business and technical sales, offered online or in-person, plus, week-long lab courses.

“The PV classes are offered online, and there are exercises and quizzes that students need to take in order to apply what they learn in the online course,” says Swartz. “We know online courses are not enough, so we encourage them to do the whole program, which is 260 hours. This includes three 60 hour online classes, and two one-week courses that are hands-on intensive. One is grid based and one is battery based. Everyone is coming from all over the U.S. to take these courses.”

Students in the Solar Thermal Program and Solar Electric Program, which are Interstate Renewable Energy Council and Institute for Sustainable Power Quality Accredited Training programs, receive continuing education credits when course work is completed.

“This accreditation is the industry standard in the field of renewable energy education,” explains Swartz. “Because of this, these classes count for North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners educational and continuing education hours.”

SEI is also responsible for training community college and university instructors in 15 states. SEI was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to be one of only nine trainer-of-trainers through the DOE’s Solar Instructor Training Network. According to Swartz, SEI trains college and university instructors, licenses curriculum, and provides on-going support for both photovoltaics and solar heating and cooling.

“We thus far worked with over 25 colleges through this program, in addition to licensing our PV and SHW curricula to community colleges and universities across the U.S.,” says Swartz.

According to Swartz, some of the colleges SEI has worked with include Central Arizona College, Coolidge, Ariz., Pueblo Community College, Pueblo, Colo.; Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell, Mont.; the College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas; and Pima Community College, Phoenix.

Renewable energy technology certificates

At Central Arizona College, a solar energy certificate is offered. The certificate consists of nine classes and an internship.

According to the college’s website, the photovoltaic program is taught online and hands-on, offering photovoltaic energy and system installation training; safety basics; stand-alone PV system sizing, grid-tied system sizing, National Electric Code (NEC) compliant wire sizing; grounding of PV systems, site analysis and array mounting; plus PV system commissioning, troubleshooting, maintenance and performance evaluation.

At Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich., licensed contractors, as well as students working towards becoming a licensed trade professional, can enroll in the renewable energy technology program to learn about a variety of renewable energy concepts and theories and also gain hand on skills that they can apply in the field.

The certificate can be paired with an associate degree. The program in which students receive a certificate after completing 16 credit hours is made up of three required courses: Introduction to Energy, Introduction to Sustainability, and Renewable Energy Concepts. Elective courses the student can choose from range from wind and solar energy to geothermal and photovoltaic design and installation.

“Macomb Community College wanted to offer the theory of renewable energy along with the technical side of it too,” explains Lisa Richter, Macomb professor and renewable energy program advisor. “Three core classes are the foundation, and then you can pick what pathway you are more geared towards.”

The courses, Principles of Wind Energy, Principles of Solar Energy and Principles of Geothermal Energy are hybrid classes in which students learn online, which includes online lectures and exams about renewable energy theories.

The reminder of these courses is taught hands-on and will be held at Macomb’s new Renewable Energy Lab, which will open this fall.

“We have an actual wind spire on campus that generates electricity, we also have trainers students can use to simulate the installation of all equipment necessary to put in two wind turbines, inverters, everything they would need,” explains Richter. “The same thing goes for the solar class, and we have geothermal heat pumps, so students can see how those work.”

There is no online component to the Photovoltaic Design and Installation course.

“This class is 100% in person and taught by a solar installer,” explains Richter. “The instructor will give students the opportunity to do a ground, roof and pull mount. Students will install a full solar array package from start to finish in all three of these applications.”

When asked if there has been an increase in enrollment for this certificate, Richter tells CONTRACTOR that the courses fill up fast and there has been a significant increase in interest.

“More and more people are signing up for it,” says Richter. “There was a 275% increase in enrollment between the first full year and second full year the certificate was offered. We didn’t know how successful this would be when it first started since it’s a certificate versus a full fledged associate’s degree.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for people that already have a skill set like plumbing and HVAC, they can build on this skill set,” adds Richter. “We are seeing incredible growth in the geothermal area too. Mark Mohamad, who is teaching the Principles of Geothermal Energy course, said he is getting an influx of contractors looking for these skills because some local municipalities are starting to want to incorporate this. For example, Wyandotte, Mich., is looking to have geothermal systems in every household. And they are starting with commercial and municipal buildings. So he feels this is something that’s catching on. We also have students that are looking to expand their own small business, such as mechanical contractors, wanting to offer renewable energy to their customers.”

Click here to read the article City of Wyandotte, Mich., creates a geothermal utility.

Richter points out that the certificate gives students a leg up on renewable energy technologies.

“We did a needs study to be able to do this program and we also had an advisory board made up of professionals from the industry do a survey asking them anticipated growth of new hires,” says Richter. “While it may not be thousands of new hires, they are looking to hire more people in this [Metro-Detroit] area.”

The Renewable Energy Lab will open this fall semester at the south campus in Warren, Mich. Additional information about the renewable energy technology program is available at: http://www.macomb.edu/Current+Students/Educational+Offerings/Associate+Degrees/Program+Descriptions/RenewEnergyTech.htm.

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