Saluting the Unsung Heroes of Home Energy Performance

Not only do energy advisors help builders produce better homes, they provide local governments with the critical third-party verification that makes the BC Energy Step Code tick.

BC Energy Step Code
Jul 1, 2018 · 7 min read
Certified energy advisor Cristi Sacht, of Elemental Energy Advisors, demonstrates a blower door test for a group of homebuilders in Campbell River. The red fan behind her is depressurizing the building, making air leaks easier to detect. (Photo: Courtesy City of Campbell River.)

With 28 local governments now either consulting builders on the BC Energy Step Code or already referencing it in policy, a group of professionals who’ve long worked in the background are stepping to centre stage.

They’re energy advisors. Think of these independent consultants as the largely-unsung heroes of home energy efficiency, helping guide the province’s market transformation to net-zero energy-ready buildings by providing critical third-party advice, verification, and oversight.

Energy advisors coach builders on how they can make smarter choices to improve the energy performance of a proposed project. They also deliver the “proof on paper” that a local government needs to confirm that the completed home will meet the requirements of a given step of the BC Energy Step Code.

We spoke with Luke Dolan, director of the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Association of Consulting Energy Advisors, the industry’s new trade association. He’s based in Vancouver.

What is an energy advisor?

Luke Dolan is director of the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Association of Consulting Energy Advisors, and owner of Capital Home Energy Advisors.

We’re independent consultants who’ve been registered to deliver Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide Rating System, which is the national standard for measuring building energy-efficiency performance. We help builders cost-effectively deliver better, more energy efficient homes.

Setting aside the BC Energy Step Code for a minute, why would a builder want to work with an energy advisor, and what would he or she offer?

By working with an energy advisor, a builder can build a better home, and offer more energy-efficient product to their customers. We test and certify a home to prove to homeowners that their house has been through an energy-certification process. It offers the end customer an added layer of reassurance that the home is efficient, which offers the builder a competitive advantage.

When do you enter into the home-building process?

We come in very early, at the plans stage, and again when the house is partially built, and then again at the very end just before occupancy. We’ll take construction drawings from a builder or architect, and gather details — on house geometries, orientation, types of windows and doors, mechanicals. We help builders and designers optimize solutions that meet energy requirements and also fit with the design goals and budget of the project. We use a standard energy-simulation program called HOT2000, and from that we can generate a number of different outputs, one of which is an EnerGuide rating. It’s how we measure efficiency.

Why does air tightness figure so prominently in home energy efficiency?

A home’s air tightness impacts its durability and energy efficiency. We don’t want drafty, leaky houses because we’ll be losing heat through the leaks. A home with holes in the envelope could also be vulnerable to moisture damage inside the walls. And last but not least, it’s comfort. An airtight house is a very comfortable house to live in.

How do you measure it?

We use a contraption called a blower door fan. It’s basically a big fan, we set it up inside an exterior door frame, and we turn on the fan and using a pressure gauge, we partly depressurize the house. We suck a lot of the air out of it. We’re simulating a 30–40 km wind on all sides of the house.

Which accomplishes what, exactly?

A few of the tools of the energy advisor trade.

It creates a vacuum inside the home. And as we pull air out of the home, we’re pulling replacement air in from all the leakage points around the house, cracks around window frames, and any framing, and around doors, and so on. Our instruments measure, very precisely, how much air is coming in, which is another way of saying, how much heat will be going out.

How does that translate into something you can measure, and compare one home against another?

We’re measuring how many times, in one hour, that all of the heated volume of air in the house will escape as a result of air leaks. We’ll run this test twice — the first time pre-drywall, when the air barrier is on, we do a mid construction test. We’ll use that test to identify problem areas, so the builder has a chance to improve things. The second time is upon completion. If the home fails then, it can be complicated and expensive to fix.

What’s a good rating?

To meet the requirements of Step 3, Part 9 of the BC Energy Step Code, you’d need to get your home down to 2.5 air changes per hour. To meet Step 5, you need to get it down to 1 air change per hour.

How do you engage with a builder who has perhaps not previously worked with an energy advisor, and who now needs to reach, say, Step 3 of the BC Energy Step Code?

If need be, we’ll bring builders up to speed on the standard, then we’ll ask them how they are planning on constructing the building, what are the mechanical systems they’re thinking of using, what are the specs on the windows. In many cases, the builder will say, “Whatever the minimum code is, that’s what we do.” So we’ll take the plans and put together an energy model and come back to them, and let them know what level that plan would achieve, and what they could do to get to Step 3. There would be a lot of back and forth, he or she might have to do some costing work. Eventually, we will land on a design that is going to work.

When it comes to meeting the requirements of Step 3, what’s the low-hanging fruit?

Air tightness, hands down. Having a robust air barrier is going to be one of the biggest things he can do. They have to hit 2.5 air changes per hour to meet Step 3, and that’s going to be tough for some, because the average new home in Metro Vancouver is closer to 5 or 5.5 air changes per hour. Beyond that, they shouldn’t have to do too much out of the ordinary — they might be putting more insulation here and there, and choosing a more efficient heating system.

Are there enough of you out there to meet the need?

After depressurizing a home, energy advisors use thermography cameras, like this one, to detect air leaks. This particular camera reveals an unfortunate oversight. At some point during construction of this new home, someone overlooked sealant beneath this door sill.

The Energy Step Code Council did a study last year on that question. They concluded that, if every local government in the province adopted the BC Energy Step Code at once, then 60 percent of those jurisdictions would be able to meet the capacity with energy advisors. So yeah, if every jurisdiction came in at once, the industry would be overloaded. But that’s not happening. In the major development areas, like the interior and the Lower Mainland, we are still tripping over each other a bit. There is plenty of capacity. But as more jurisdictions come on stream, companies will be ramping up recruiting and training.

How would a builder find an energy advisor?

The best way would be through our association, the Canadian Association of Consulting Energy Advisors. We provide one more layer of vetting, we have a process and bylaw and standards and practices that energy advisors have to sign on to. They need a clearance letter from a service organization and they demonstrate that they hold the necessary insurance.

What is a service organization?

They serve as the interface to Natural Resources Canada on energy advisors. Energy advisors will submit their files through a service organization, and they will do a quality check and send it off to Natural Resources Canada. The service organizations also manage the energy advisors, they make sure they keep their insurance up to date, and they train and register energy advisors.

What kind of backgrounds do energy advisors have and how can someone become one?

Many of us are former building contractors, engineers, architects, or home inspectors. If someone wanted to find out more about the work, and the needed training and certification, I’d encourage them to approach an energy advisor or a service organization. [Natural Resources Canada offers a searchable directory here.]

Why do you do this work?

I was in construction for 25 or 30 years, and I was getting fed up with the waste and inefficiencies in the business. Fundamentally, it’s gotta change. I’m also passionate about protecting the environment. I got into this, really, because it is one way to make a difference. Energy advisors are helping build more efficient, comfortable, and durable homes. In the end, we’re helping the industry build a better product. It strengthens the industry, while reducing the impact on our planet. It is very rewarding.

For more, visit the “Energy Advisors” section of the BC Energy Step Code website.

Glave Communications produced this post on behalf of the Training and Communications Subcommittee of the Energy Step Code Council, with resource support from BC Hydro. In an effort to increase awareness and understanding of the BC Energy Step Code, the Energy Step Code Council is sharing information on how and why builders and communities are using the new standard. Local governments may use the BC Energy Step Code, if they wish, to incentivize or require a level of energy efficiency in new construction that goes above and beyond the requirements of the BC Building Code.

BC Energy Step Code

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Sharing stories of how and why builders and communities are putting British Columbia’s energy-performance building standard to work.

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