Certified Energy Advisors: Meet the newest member of your team

New requirements require new skills. Sometimes, they lead to whole new niche industries.

That's the case with the role of Certified Energy Advisors (CEAs) in B.C. As the Building Code has increased its emphasis on energy efficiency, demand for CEAs' expertise has also been on the rise. With the next code update likely to include blower door tests and/or energy performance standards, it's time to start thinking about working with a CEA if you haven't already built a relationship.

But who are these folks, and how do they operate? And how do you pick one to work with?

What is a CEA?

CEAs are experts in home energy efficiency. They're certified by Natural Resources Canada to deliver the EnerGuide Rating Service for new homes, or the EcoEnergy program for existing homes (they may be licensed for both programs). They are trained to use NRCAN's energy simulation software ("HOT2000") and to perform blower door air leakage testing. (Watch a video about blower door testing.) They must update their training annually.

Most CEAs are independent contractors, but all operate through a licensed Service Organization, responsible for quality control and oversight of the CEA. There are three such organizations in B.C.: City Green, Canadian Homebuilders Association of B.C., and DW Energy Advisors. Builders and homeowners rarely connect directly with the service organization, unless there is an issue with the CEA's work. Working with a CEA is the required pathway to getting an EnerGuide rating label for your home.

That describes the nuts and bolts of the CEA's function. But like any industry, when you talk to the folks who work in it, there's much more going on.

Standard training, varied backgrounds

"We're an industry in transition," says Wendy Smith, CEA and principal of Victoria-based Performance Energy Advisors. Smith started her building career in the 70s as a draftsperson, then worked as a facility manager for a major building, where she undertook a wide variety of energy-efficiency initiatives. Shifting direction, she became a CEA in 2003 and started to focus on homes.

"All CEAs don't have the same background and skills," says Smith, noting that most people she knows in the role right now have come from engineering, architecture, or other building-related backgrounds and have developed energy advising skills through years of related practice. "Some people are strong on air sealing; others have really great mechanical skills, others are great envelope specialists. So we don't bring the same thing to the marketplace, because we don't all start from the same spot." In her company, Smith is focusing on high service standards and long-term relationships, shifting towards engaging builders at the pre-build phase, and encouraging pre-drywall air leakage testing to identify areas for efficiency upgrades.

Smith is also working to educate designers about energy efficiency. "We want to push towards more holistic view of the house, so we're not just dealing with a house that's partially built, or a set of plans, but actually step back and place the right house on the right piece of property with the right parameters so that we maximize it."

"I've seen the CEA role changing," says Don Taylor, a CEA for five years and principal of DW Energy Advisors based in the Lower Mainland. "At the beginning, builders just wanted their EnerGuide number. However they built the house, we just rated it. Now with the new building code coming and BC Hydro's $1,500 incentive setting a target of EG 80, there's quite a bit more consulting and work with their designs than before." Taylor offers thermography as one of his services. "The blower door test really just gives two numbers; they don't mean a lot to a lot of people," he says. "But take a thermal image of that wall, and you can see the studs in the wall, where the insulation is missing, where the vapour barrier is leaking. It gives a good picture."

An expanding role

Smith sees a continual expansion of the role of CEAs. "These programs succeed or fail based on getting people a [EnerGuide] label in a reasonable time. If a builder wants to show their client that label, or if they need it to go and apply for a grant, it needs to happen in a reasonable amount of time. So the basics need to happen: we need to be good at both the technical and the administrative.

"We need to provide good solid building information when the builder needs it in the way that they need it – interaction on site to train tradespeople to show them pathways for air leakage or explain a better way to insulate. I think that's going to be required of us in the future and some of us are doing it now. And making sure we don't lose track of what incentives are out there – that's what pays us today, so we'd better know about them. From there, we can start to expand, use tools like LEED, Passivhaus, BuiltGreen, which are good add on tools for highlighting excellence in building."

Given the changes in the industry, both CEAs recommend that builders start sooner than later on improving their energy efficiency skills. "It takes about a half hour to do a basic blower door test, so it's not too hard to do," says Taylor. "But I think the builders are always in a bit of a panic. I hear it all the time – 'What if we fail?'"

"It's a very interesting and kind of disturbing time for a lot of home builders," comments Smith. "I think there's a certain level of anxiety out there, and sometimes they see us as the bearers of bad news. I've had a couple builders be very aggressive with me and I have to remind them that this is not my agenda; I'm just telling them how to do it."

There's an upside of working in a field that's starting to catch on. Taylor chuckles that he's finally able to make conversation at dinner parties.

"I don't know where it's coming from – maybe from more focus on rebates, or the fact that the EnerGuide label is on everything now. Before, people didn't have a clue. I wouldn't even talk to them about it because their eyes would glaze over. Now, more and more people hear what I do and they say, oh yeah, I do want to talk to you."

A few tips for working with a CEA

  1. Start now. It's a reasonable bet that if the new code requires blower door testing, existing CEAs will see their workloads increase quickly. Establishing a relationship with a CEA now, and learning the process around testing, will help you keep things moving once demand for his or her services gets steep.
  2. Engage your CEA early in your process. Talking to a CEA when you're in the pre-build phase may save you time and effort down the road. Doing a pre-drywall test or using thermography on at least one home will provide you tips for improvement before it's too late to make a difference.
  3. Work with someone who knows your local incentives. There are various rebates and programs offered by different levels of government and other organizations, such as BC Hydro. Make sure your CEA is on top of all the grants and rebates that might be relevant to you.
  4. Ask your CEA about onsite education. Many can work with your tradespeople to ensure basics like air sealing are done effectively right from the start.
  5. Treat your CEA like any other professional service provider you hire. Ask for competitive pricing and timely delivery of their service.

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