Jason Schneider

Remodelers can disagree — and they do — about whether a particular set of certification credentials proves anyone’s meaningful or measurable expertise in anything, especially a realm as complex as home performance.

“Certifications are as good as the organization that gives them out,” says Paul Lesieur of Silvertree Remodeling, in Minneapolis. “They hand them out like candy at Halloween at some places.” He makes no apologies for his many certifications, including CKBR and CAPS, “but the only one I display is EIEIO,” he says, referring to his just-for-kicks abbreviation for “Excellence in Everything I Offer.”

Yet even Lesieur, whose RemodelCrazy.com website specializes in poking fun at industry conventions, believes there’s a legitimate need for home performance certifications specifically. “As our industry moves forward, science should play a bigger role,” he says. “Building involves physics, math, and art — what a difficult group of sciences to master.”

On this, contrarian Lesieur is in the majority, at least among remodeling pros who know their way through a detailed home energy audit or a deep-energy retrofit. “Many contractors won’t understand the ‘whole house as a system’ until they get home performance training,” says David Rabenau, who performs home energy audits through his St. Louis company, Show Me Home Energy Solutions. “They won’t understand that where you seal a home might impact combustion safety, or perhaps that most insulation has no air barrier characteristics whatsoever, or even that air sealing in a home is needed and why.”

“It’s not like learning how to do framing, where you can pick it up on the job,” says Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute (BPI), a national nonprofit that is considered the best source of training and standards for existing-home retrofits. “There’s a science to this that [remodelers] aren’t necessarily going to have. They need the training and need to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills, and ability to do it right.”

Confusing as All Get-Out

There are building-performance certifications for individuals and for companies; for single-family homes, multifamily housing, and commercial construction; for new construction and existing buildings. BPI and other certifications equip holders to become energy auditors; some only recommend that holders have relationships with local auditors (such as the Green Certified Professional designation from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry).

In addition, while there have long been certifications for home performance auditors bearing infrared cameras and software, new certifications launched just this year target hands-on installers bearing spray foam and caulk.

Making sense of it all is “confusing as all get-out,” says remodeler Sean Lintow of SLS Construction, in Cullman, Ala. Besides sorting out the pros and cons of the various certifications, different training providers (separate from the certifying organizations) have different fees and criteria.

Undeterred, Lintow sees home performance as a growth opportunity. So he is getting certifications from both BPI, which will teach him how to conduct energy audits and do performance work, and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), which will teach him how to model those homes based on their thermal characteristics.

His cost for becoming a RESNET Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater alone will exceed $3,000. That includes $1,375 for 40 hours of classroom training through the Southface Energy Institute, a RESNET-accredited training provider, $900 or so for actual ratings in the presence of a trainer, and the better part of a week in an Atlanta hotel, at $160 a night. He’ll spend thousands more on the equipment for performing home energy audits and verifying the effectiveness of work. This equipment can include a blower door kit, gas combustion analyzer, moisture meter, and infrared camera.

On the bright side, as a BPI- and RESNET-trained expert, Lintow will stand out in his market for knowing how to use specialized energy-efficiency software to analyze homes and improve them to high-performance standards.

Plus, the state of Alabama is picking up some of the training costs.

And, not all home performance certifications are so expensive. RESNET’s new “Qualified EnergySmart Contractor or Builder” program requires only eight hours of classroom training, plus the $50 exam. A new weatherization certification from the Home Builders Institute (HBI) costs $250 or so, according to Elizabeth Odina, federal legislative director at the National Association of Home Builders. This weatherization program will be offered through HBI’s network of community colleges.

Spreading Like Wildfire

Time and money notwithstanding, Lintow is in good company. More than 4,000 individuals have RESNET certifications, says Laurel Elam, program manager. BPI, which entered the fray with weatherization certifications in 1996, issued 4,127 certifications in 2009 alone, ending the year with 8,703 new and renewed certifications of all types. “We’re growing like wildfire,” says BPI CEO Zarker, who estimates that a third of the nation’s 130 million existing homes are candidates for performance retrofits.

Who is getting these certifications? Rabenau, before becoming an energy auditor, was an application engineer. Elam says that building inspectors and trade specialists have been traditional candidates, but that builders and remodelers are increasingly adding “RESNET rater” to their business model.

In fact, as the emphasis shifts to who can actually perform the retrofits, home performance stands out as “a great next step for remodelers,” Zarker says. “They know how to treat the house as a system, and by picking up this training and following the standards they can get the elements of building science that they may not know.”

But Zarker and other insiders acknowledge that it’s not right for every remodeler. “Home performance, any more than custom cabinets, is not a panacea to get you through a depressed housing market,” says Bill Asdal of Asdal Builders, in Chester, N.J. (See sidebar “For One Remodeler, Four Paws Up,” for a look at his experience.) “I would urge deep caution for anybody who invests in a niche product, process, or skill set in the remodeling industry.”

Exercise that caution by writing a business plan specific to home performance, Asdal adds. “If it works on paper, then you can try to execute it.” If it doesn’t, invest those “literally, tens of thousands of dollars” on something else.