High Tech Facility Trains WAP Workers

The New River Center for Energy Research and Training (NRCERT) has been providing in-depth training on weatherization methodology since 1999. In 2009, NRCERT was awarded an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) grant through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to expand its already successful program in new directions.

Photos courtesy of NRCERT

With the end of the Recovery Act approaching in March 2012 and the uncertainty regarding future DOE funding, NRCERT is looking for innovative ways to sustain its training center and continue educating workers as well as assist those who have finished the program.

Safely and effectively weatherizing a home requires qualified workers. Recognizing this, the Commonwealth of Virginia saw a need in the late 1990s to advance the training of its weatherization workers to ensure quality work went into every home weatherized under DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). In 1999, Bill Beachy, then state director of the Virginia WAP, allocated a modest grant of $50,000 in state funds to develop a WAP training curriculum. With the help of Beachy and other Virginia WAP administrators, as well as nationally recognized trainers and technical experts such as Anthony Cox and John Langford, NRCERT began to train Virginia weatherization workers. Their innovative approach combined classroom work with field training, giving workers not only the fundamentals of building science but also hands-on, real-world experience.

Funding from the state lasted only a few years due to budgetary constraints. By this time, however, DOE had taken notice of their quality program and asked them to join their Hot Climate Initiative, which focuses on hot climate weatherization techniques. NRCERT agreed and began training workers in southern states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee.

When the Recovery Act passed in 2009, it was only natural that Virginia once again looked to NRCERT to train the workers needed to weatherize the state’s Recovery Act goal of more than 9,000 homes in three years. With a $3 million grant from DOE, NRCERT set about creating a new training facility in Christiansburg, Virginia. The 12,500-square-foot facility, which opened in January 2010, boasts new classrooms, model training homes (including a mobile home trailer), a life-size House of Pressure lab to test combustion appliances, a hands-on HVAC lab, and more than 30 professional trainers. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) originally contracted NRCERT to train 690 workers in the first year. NRCERT trained more than 3,000 individuals from Virginia, as well as from numerous other states, including South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Louisiana.

“We were always looking for opportunities to help build capacities in other states,” said Mark Jackson, vice president of NRCERT. “Reaching out for those new opportunities allowed NRCERT to expand rapidly into the center it is today.”

The Recovery Act also provided NRCERT with the opportunity to expand into multifamily weatherization training and technical assistance. Multifamily weatherization, as opposed to the typical single-family housing stock usually associated with weatherization, refers to buildings with more than four residential units. Although many of the techniques for multifamily properties are the same as for single-family dwellings, multifamily weatherization can require additional specialized skills and training.

Photos courtesy of NRCERT

Utilizing their expertise both as trainers and as technicians, NRCERT developed an innovative program that complements its in-class multifamily audit and installation training with hands-on field training. This “show and tell” approach allows trainers to demonstrate real-world problems while simultaneously training a local weatherization provider on how to properly perform an energy audit on a multifamily building. This audit is then used to compile a list of cost-effective measures to be performed on the building by sub-grantees, often using weatherization workers who have been trained at NRCERT.

NRCERT is also applying its proficiency in multifamily weatherization to the private sector. A number of private companies seeking to lower the energy costs of their multifamily units have asked NRCERT to preform audits on their buildings to find cost-saving measures. Private contracts such as these bring revenue into the training facility, allowing it to continue supporting low-income weatherization as well as the workforce that it has helped train.

DOE has also recognized NRCERT’s 10 years of quality training by using it as the model for its national accreditation program. Currently, no national standard certification exists for energy retrofit workers, and training can vary from state to state. DOE is working to create a national certification that is transferable across state lines, allowing workers trained in weatherization to move freely throughout the country. This fulfills an immediate need in Virginia, where workers classified as “energy analysts” must be approved and certified by the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. In the future, a certification from NRCERT would meet that requirement, providing the center with additional trainees to satisfy both the public and private demand for weatherization and energy efficiency services.

Finally, NRCERT is working in conjunction with other organizations, such as the National State Energy Officials, on regional energy alliances to spur private demand for energy retrofit services. Increased private demand could maintain the weatherization workforce trained under the Recovery Act and reduce America’s domestic energy consumption.

The “entrepreneurial spirit” of NRCERT and its hands-on approach to teaching has made it a model WAP training program for the last 10 years. Through local public and private partnerships and coalitions, NRCERT is working toward sustaining the inroads that it has made under the Recovery Act.

“The full name of the Recovery Act is the Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” noted Brett Jackson, Weatherization Program administrator for DHCD. “In Virginia, we are making the investment in training to prepare our workforce for the next generation, green economy through facilities like NRCERT.”

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