Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By TUX TURKEL
As fall approaches, Maine government agencies and businesses are struggling to find enough trained people to evaluate and weatherize thousands of energy-wasting homes.
Energy auditor training classes are full, some existing auditors have waiting lists and many insulation contractors are straining to respond to requests, as homeowners tighten their buildings to fight high heating costs this winter.
The crunch comes as state government is discussing wide-scale weatherization plans aimed at cutting dependence on expensive heating oil. Opinions vary, but some in the industry wonder how these ambitions can be met.
Energy auditors use special equipment and training to determine where buildings are leaky, then recommend the most cost-effective measures to slow heat loss. The process can take a few hours and cost from $250 to $600.
Some lenders that make energy improvement loans, including the Maine State Housing Authority, require audits before work can begin. That's increasing demand for this service.
''I have enough phone calls to do 10 audits a week,'' said Ashley Richards, owner of WarmTech Solutions in Yarmouth.
Richards said he has time to do only three audits a week. Evaluations for housing authority loans take longer, he said, because data must be logged into a computer program to make cost-benefit calculations.
WarmTech also insulates buildings and is swamped with calls. Richards said he'd like to hire an auditor with a strong construction background who could answer some of the inquiries, visit homes and write up quotes.
Maine has a couple of programs that train and certify energy auditors.
One is run through the state housing authority. Two years ago, instructors had a hard time filling a class, which costs $550. This year, the agency will hold 10 classes, and the two-week sessions are full through November.
Roughly 100 people will go through the training by year's end, according to Tony Gill, the instructor. Most of the graduates he hears from are working. That's helping to meet demand.
''I think we're starting to gain on it,'' Gill said.
Summer typically is a slow time for auditors. This year, Gill estimated, the wait for an audit in southern Maine already is two months. More people will start calling for help, he reasons, after their first heating bills arrive.
Auditors also are being trained in a two-year-old program called Maine Home Performance, run through the Public Utilities Commission. Forty or so people have been certified, although perhaps only two dozen are practicing, according to Tom Boothby, the program's building analyst. A dozen are signed up for the next session in November.
PLENTY OF BUSINESS OUT THERE
Certified auditors learn about heat-loss principles, air quality and how to use diagnostic equipment, such as special fans that depressurize buildings to reveal air leaks. At a meeting this month of a special legislative energy task force, some participants discussed lowering the levels of training, to get more auditors into the field faster.
Boothby doesn't agree with that approach. Tightening a house without proper techniques can create moisture, indoor air pollution and combustion safety problems.
''I don't think it's a great idea to water down the skills,'' he said.
Those concerns are shared by Richard Riegel Burbank, owner of Evergreen Home Performance LLC in Rockland. He's offering a 14-week course starting in mid-September, to train auditors and technicians who can become certified by the same national assurance program that covers Maine Home Performance.
Burbanks figures there's plenty of business out there. He posted a waiting list form for audits on his company's Web site. At least 60 people are in line and some may wait for months.
''When I saw what was happening, I figured I needed to train more people,'' he said.
Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation. The state's energy agency estimates that 80 percent of Maine's 477,000 homes could benefit from weatherization.
Even if the state gains a critical mass of auditors, it seems to be lacking enough trained work crews to seal air leaks and insulate all the buildings that need help.
''We're incredibly busy,'' said Charles Huntington, owner of I&S Inc. in Newcastle. ''There's definitely a panic level out there.''
Business has tripled in the past two years, Huntington said. He has an eight-person crew and would hire more if he could find skilled workers.
WEATHERIZATION TAKES TIME, SKILL
Huntington and others point out that new understandings of building science make insulation a more complicated job than ever.
Thermal testing shows the importance of sealing around chimney, pipe and wire openings, to cut air flow through the attic, for instance, instead of just rolling or blowing insulation.
Air sealing takes time and skill, which is why Huntington doubts the state can ramp up an effective weatherization effort without better training.
''The sad thing would be to have a whole bunch of people doing shoddy jobs,'' he said. ''That may do more harm than good in the long run.''
Some insulators now use infrared cameras during cold weather to scan for heat loss in walls and foundations. Bob Swan, co-owner of The Heat Doctor in Portland, said he does follow-up scans to check his work.
''In the Portland area,'' he said, ''you'd be amazed at the number of homes with zero insulation.''
To bring more weatherization crews on line and teach advanced skills, the state housing authority is organizing a pilot course for insulators in September. At WarmTech Solutions, Richards is working with the state labor department on an on-the-job training proposal for insulators.
''There's no standard operating procedure in Maine for people who do insulation work and that's a problem,'' he said.
Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or