City colleges training energy auditors of the future

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • November 04, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

When the first class of students in a new program at Wright College completes its weekend courses in December, there will be nine more people in the Chicago area with one of the certifications needed to do home energy audits.

That’s a small number, but in the rapidly growing field of energy audits, it could help make the reviews more commonplace.

Right now there are just a handful of people in Chicago who have one of the certifications required to fully check out a home’s appliances, walls, doors, windows and more, says Dave Inman, the project manager of Wright’s environmental technology program.

The weekly certification class at Wright is much more involved than just checking to see if windows close all the way. Students learn how to use infrared detectors and special fans to seal a home and check it for air leaks.

“It’s a fairly high-brow and high-level type of an audit that occurs out of this,” Inman says.

The audits, a full review of the energy efficiency of a home, can cost homeowners several hundred dollars, even up to $1,000. But the industry is small and it can take time to track down one of the few certified auditors in Chicago.

Will Decker, a Skokie home inspector, says the energy audit certification Wright’s students are getting is only as good as the organization that comes up with the standards.

Because the field of energy audits is so new, there are several national trade organizations that have come up with similar but competing standards.

“I wouldn’t put so much stock in the certification itself because it really has not been established yet by anybody,” Decker says.

He added that the standards Wright is teaching, which were created by a national real estate organization, are fairly good and it’s a certification he’s considering getting for himself.

“All the certification means is that some private association or group has put together a set of criteria for how to do energy audits,” he says.

Wright College is one of four community colleges in the state splitting a $490,000 grant from the Illinois Sustainable Education Project. Wright’s share of the one-year grant is $80,000, with the money going toward classes and workshops on sustainable construction, as well as at least a couple of related projects on campus.

The one-year grant is a pilot project that officials would like to see grow to cover every community college in the state in the next four years. The idea is that residents could go to any community college for standardized courses that would prepare them to work in rapidly emerging “green” fields.

Inman’s thinking is that once more people get the certification to do energy audits, the demand for the reviews will grow, helping to expand a nascent industry in sustainability.

“It’s starting to build momentum I think, but we’re still at the ground floor of it,” Inman says.

Wright started offering several construction-related green classes last year, attracting about 70 students. The programs are ones Inman would like to expand.

But until home inspectors have a single standard to turn to for energy audits, Decker says, simply offering the classes won’t be enough.

It’s ultimately up to homeowners to take a close look at anyone they’re hiring to do energy audits, and not just whether that person has a certification.

“It always boils down to, as with anything like this, the public’s due diligence, and how well the public checks on things,” Decker says.

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.