Wanted: energy auditors

Posted Sept. 03, 2008, at 10:27 p.m.

Training programs offered by the state for people interested in entering the burgeoning home energy-efficiency business are filling up almost as fast as they are announced.

But despite increased interest in the field, the demand for certified “energy auditors” continues to outpace available professionals. As a result, some homeowners hoping to tighten up their abodes could end up waiting weeks or months for professional help, auditors said.

For the past several years, the Maine State Housing Authority has offered training and certification programs for people wishing to learn how to inspect houses for energy-efficiency.

“We used to do this twice a year and we struggled to fill the classes,” said Jo-Ann Choate, energy programs manager at Maine State Housing Authority. “Now we have two [sessions] a month and have been since July.”

Energy auditors typically use infrared cameras and specially designed high-powered fans known as “blower doors” to detect cool spots, underinsulated areas and drafty nooks and crannies. The auditors will recommend fixes, and in some cases, return afterward to see how they worked.

In Maine, auditors are certified by either the Maine State Housing Authority or through the national Building Performance Institute.

Choate said the two training sessions scheduled for later this month are at capacity, and the two sessions planned for October are already about half-full. The 80-hour sessions cost $550 and are spread out over two consecutive weeks. Participants must pass a certification exam at the conclusion.

Later this month, the authority also is offering a new certification program for installers and contractors who want to learn the latest recommendations to maximize a building’s energy-efficiency. And several organizations, including the United Technologies Center in Bangor, are planning to offer certification programs, Choate said.

Those already working in the field say Maine badly needs an influx of qualified auditors and contractors.

In fact, one Rockland energy auditor is taking it upon himself to offer a 14-week certification course to help his and other energy-efficiency companies weather what he calls the impending “hurricane of home heating.”

“I’m doing this out of necessity,” said Richard Riegel Burbank of Evergreen Home Performance. “I can’t hire anyone trained to where I need them.”

Burbank called the state’s programs a “fantastic start” but said his programs — a preparation course for the Building Performance Institute exam — will be more comprehensive.

The energy-efficiency technician and energy auditor programs, which begin this month and cost $4,500 to $4,800, encompass 120 hours of classroom instruction during the evenings and weekend field training.

Burbank said part of the demand for audits is being driven by Maine State Housing Authority energy-efficiency loan programs, which require an audit. He compared the situation to the state handing out discounted tickets to a show that’s already sold out.

But finding an available auditor isn’t the only challenge facing homeowners.

“I feel the real shortage is finding good, quality contractors to do the work,” said Charlie Holly, who runs Kennebec Home Performance in Waterville.

Holly, who said he is scheduling audits for October, said he has struggled to find contractors who have the knowledge and tools to properly seal leaks in the attic floor before laying insulation and “dense packing” wall cavities.

Michael Bush, director of home performance for Penquis, agreed. Bush said he worries that some homeowners may be paying big money for insulation without fixing the drafty walls and attics that allow cold air in and hot air out.

Penquis has a four- to eight-week waiting list for energy inspections. The agency also offers free audits to select homeowners participating in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“For folks that are waiting, it’s a tough situation,” Bush said. “But I think it’s important for people to know that if they are not air sealing [the attic], they should be. And if they want to do it correctly, they really should use a blower door.”

Maine’s certified energy auditors and technicians are located largely in southern and central Maine. That would seem to create an even bigger crunch for homeowners living in far northern Maine, where the winters are always colder and longer.

But Jim Baillargeon, senior manager for energy and housing services at Aroostook County Action Program, said his agency is only averaging about one job a week. While that is up from the two a year ACAP used to do, it’s still less than the staff can handle.

Baillargeon said his agency plans to start advertising the service. But he also speculated that many Aroostook residents are either unable or hesitant to spend a few hundred dollars on an audit, even though a professional will likely identify problem areas overlooked by many do-it-yourselfers.

“The can-do attitude in Aroostook is very strong,” Baillargeon said.

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