By Bob Brice

Air balancing
Air balancing has become a crucial element in home energy rating and diagnostics.

For years, the energy rating industry and the HVAC industry have been involved in a constant struggle over energy-related issues. However, as president of an energy rating company, I’m happy to report that we’ve learned the value of building good relationships with HVAC contractors.

As our company built its business model, it became increasingly clear to us that breaking down the barriers between HVAC contractors and raters should be a top priority. Early on, HVAC contractors felt that energy raters were “passing judgment” on their work. For example, if a rater tested duct leakage (according to program standards), and it failed, the rater was usually the one who had to bring the bad news to the HVAC contractor. And since the typical rater historically hasn’t been well trained in diagnosing HVAC system problems, contractors felt justified in questioning the rater’s expertise. In a nutshell, “territorial” disputes and qualifications have played a role. However, the problem has been amplified by the faulty testing protocols for HVAC system testing found in current programs.

Why in the world would energy raters get involved in the HVAC industry in the first place? The simple truth is that they are being forced into it. And the pressure continues to build, as the message of “going green” becomes more and more palatable for the average consumer, and demand for energy efficiency reaches new heights.

As a result, the national, state, and utility programs are requiring more out of energy raters than ever before. It looks like the current trend for third party verifiers will do nothing but grow. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, energy raters are here to stay.

The good news is that a properly-trained, well-educated energy rater can be the HVAC contractor’s best friend, if both parties play their cards right.

More recently, energy raters have been building mutually beneficial relationships with major HVAC contractors. Our relationships have progressed to the point that we’re now combining forces, and together we can ensure customers that their quality HVAC systems live up to and exceed their expectations.

Moving Beyond Component Verification
The missing link is the lack of required HVAC system performance testing. It’s generally accepted that you can’t change individual comfort components without effecting other components. Addressing HVAC as a system is still unpopular in the rating industry, largely due to the fact that few current programs require true HVAC system testing. And, raters have generally not been able to effectively measure the performance of a live, operating HVAC system.

Most current programs usually require only basic, component-level verification, and completely omit occupant comfort. In other words, if you purchase high-efficiency equipment and the duct system isn’t too leaky (determined using a flawed testing approach), then the assumption is that the entire system will work to its maximum potential.

In doing “only what is required” to comply with most of these programs, anyone could take an 18- SEER, 5-ton unit that requires 2,000 cfm, and hook it up to a couple of 16-x8-in. trunks, add 10, 6-in. supply runs in the basement, a central return in the floor, and pass with flying colors. Although that sounds pretty sad, welcome to the current required method of HVAC testing. Would you believe a rated home could still achieve a 5-Star+ rating without charging the unit or even connecting power to it?

Energy Tower of Babel
The gap between things that work in laboratory or on paper and the realities of the field isn’t the fault of the energy rater. The energy rater is required only to comply with current program standards. Therefore, a major reason behind the contentious relationship between the building science community and the HVAC industry is that we don’t even speak the same language. We evaluate HVAC quality using completely different approaches. Sadly, if each group follows their current published standards, we may both miss the mark and seriously disagree.

Even though this sounds like a lot of bad news, there are qualified energy raters who can and do offer additional services that surpass current energy rating standards. Well-trained and educated raters are qualified to effectively measure installed HVAC system performance and help contractors identify hidden system defects.

Help from National Comfort Institute
A few years ago, Cenergy went in search of a way to better understand HVAC systems, and in particular the interactions between HVAC and the building. Fortunately our journey led us to the National Comfort Institute (NCI), where we found the answers we were looking for -- and then some. After attending a number of basic and advanced NCI classes, the picture began to come into focus. We began to understand how an HVAC system really works and affects the whole house as a system. We learned how to test both the cooling and combustion sides of a system using all the essential measurements including air flow, pressures, temperatures, and wet bulb readings. We learned how to evaluate delivered Btus of a system in real time. The magic happened when we tied this knowledge to our building testing knowledge. It all fell into place.

Since then, we’ve been in contact with a growing number of top-notch energy raters who have made a similar leap. Many have become true allies to HVAC contractors in their markets. Those who followed a similar path have acquired the skills and test instruments necessary to diagnose and address the multifaceted energy issues in homes or buildings today.

A properly trained rater can partner with a qualified HVAC contractor to diagnose and improve HVAC system performance issues. He or she can help isolate building envelope issues, thermal bypass issues, air infiltration issues, and insulation performance issues as well.

For years, there has been a push by government and utilities to combines these varied skills into an HVAC contracting company. However, very few companies have been successful in consolidating these diverse trades. Thankfully, a qualified independent energy rater can help diagnose the entire building and network you with other qualified trade professionals.

Build a Network of Energy Rater Contacts
The key is to find a rater you can trust and who understands that laboratory conditions don’t exist in the field. The combined efforts of a qualified rater and a qualified HVAC contractor, along with the help of other qualified building professionals, can combine forces to deliver the best performing HVAC systems and buildings in the country. With the push for third-party verification underway, it would be a smart to build a network of likeminded professionals that enhance each other’s competitive advantage.

Current energy programs offer a comprehensive look at the building as a whole. The building envelope is usually adequately addressed and improvements to standards and techniques are made regularly. The greatest inadequacy in most programs is the lack of verified HVAC system performance.

With the appropriate training and certification, and a systems approach to air balancing, testing, and verification, the rater and the HVAC contractor can actually accomplish more as a team.

Find a qualified rater who truly understands HVAC systems and take them to lunch. Open a new dialog based on what you can do for each other. Together, you can build a new business relationship that’s beneficial to both of you.

Bob Brice is the president of Cenergy, an energy rating and consulting company serving the Midwestern U.S. He can be reached by phone at 515/710-9710, or by e-mail at bob@ratedhomes.com