Since 1990, Michael Haynes, a construction teacher at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center (WACTC), has been working on and building energy efficient homes throughout Rhode Island.
On Friday, students from Haynes’ and fellow instructor Brian Vadenboncoeur’s classes learned how to use tools and equipment specifically designed to determine the energy efficiency of a house in West Warwick they’ve been working on since April.
“There was only a foundation when we got here. We started work in April framing the walls and got the majority of the construction work done before school ended in June,” Vadenboncoeur said. “We started back up with the vinyl siding, exterior windows and doors in September. They’re learning sheet rock right now.”
Students have also roofed the house, put on all the trusses and participated in installing foam insulation. Vadenboncoeur said 50 to 60 students have worked on the house between this year and last year.
Haynes said students are testing the house along the way to make sure it’s energy efficient using tools and equipment donated by National Grid. The tools include a thermal imaging camera to measure differences in temperature, indicating where leaks occur both inside and outside the home; a blower door, which tests pressure and air leaks in the home; and a duct blaster, which measures the pressure inside the house and duct work and helps pinpoint any leaks around windows and doors.
Rob Sherwood from Conservation Services Group New England, one of many certified Home Energy Star raters, was on hand to assist students and demonstrate how the tools are used.
Sherwood explained the infrared thermal imaging camera is used to determine voids in the insulation of the home, which can be used with the blower door to see if there are leaks behind the walls.
“Using the camera, we can pinpoint areas of heat leakage that we can seal up. When you see warm outside [the house], you’re losing heat,” Sherwood said. “If you see cold [inside], that’s bad because we want to keep the heat in.”
Haynes said students sealed up the attic with a “peanut butter-like material” called mastic, a water-based product used to prevent air leaks, after leaks were found using the duct blaster.
“This will pass the Energy Star test for air leakage when we’re done,” he said, adding that Energy Star testing is voluntary right now but will eventually become part of the building code. “Building codes are starting to force you to have the houses tested by a third party. Energy Star ratings requirements force you to get the home rated by an outside party.”
Haynes said having someone from one of those third party rating companies, such as Sherwood, come out and work with the students and allow them to get hands-on experience is a great opportunity for them.
“We’re trying to show the kids a new avenue for a job opportunity and they’re getting a good quality education from an outside vendor,” he said. “This allows them to see an energy efficient product that is truly state-of-the-art. We can show the kids how to use the equipment and understand a building system that gives them a good leg up in the job market.”
He said the students are excited about the opportunity because they’re getting to work with something new; “they’re not just swinging a hammer.”
WACTC students weren’t the only ones on the job site Friday learning how to test a home for energy efficiency, as students from the Coventry Career Center were invited to participate.
“We try to work close with other schools and keep them in the loop and involved with our projects,” Haynes said.
He said WACTC students used the opportunity to teach Coventry students what they learned.
Scott Leavitt, a teacher at the Coventry Career Center, said the schools worked together two years ago building a garage next to West Warwick High School.
“We try to combine efforts whenever we can,” he said, adding Coventry is using the opportunity as a teaching tool. “We’re building an addition in Coventry; it’s not a new house, but we’ll be testing that once it’s done. To see that this exists and understand the importance that it’ll be part of a career, they will see it on every house they build. It’ll be another tool in their tool belt.”
Leavitt said every new house that passes the energy efficiency testing process will come with a certificate indicating how energy efficient the home is, which he compared to a miles per gallon certificate on a new car.
Haynes said the Public Utilities Commission would have an Energy Star certification that states the leakage and annual estimated fuel usage of the home, which homeowners can have for the rest of the age of the house.
Leavitt said the tools donated by National Grid are shared among schools, and the ones being used on the West Warwick home are shared between WACTC and Coventry.
“It’s a big deal because I don’t have the money in my budget to purchase them,” he said.
While Haynes said neither the students nor the school receives monetary compensation for the work, he’s thankful for the opportunity to allow students a hands-on experience in the field.
“It takes so long to do a project like this, it would be tough to charge for it,” he said. “But we do receive small donations for tool repairs and replacements. The builder is generous enough to allow us to use the house for a classroom and we get to work with quality materials.”
Justin Gomes, a WACTC student, said he appreciated the opportunity to work with the tools and learn from Sherwood.
“I think it’s wonderful because when I get out of high school, I will have knowledge that a New England Tech grad would have,” he said. “The teachers are great. They work with you and take the time to make sure you understand it. I would recommend this to any kid.”
Gomes said he also enjoyed demonstrating how the blower door works for other students.
“It was cool to teach other students how to use the equipment,” he said. “It made me feel good.”
Haynes said the hope is that students will use the experience to take the energy efficiency skills they’re learning and put them to use sealing up houses in their own communities.
David Pimental, owner of the home and a 1976 graduate of Toll Gate High School, said he couldn’t be happier with the job the students have done.
“I’ve had every inspector come out here and there have been no problems, so they’re doing the job right. This is something to be proud of,” he said, adding the house should be finished in April.
Tony Rita, father of Jimmy Rita, who is Pimental’s cousin and plans to purchase the home when it’s done, said there should be more programs like WACTC and the Coventry Career Center, as well as more support for such programs.
“It’s nice to see the work they’re doing. I saw the house from the ground up and these kids do things right. The instructors are very personal with them,” he said. “They’re very detail-oriented and if it’s not right, they take it apart and do it over. It’s all part of learning.”
Pimental, who is an electrician, had high praise for the WACTC program.
“It’s a good program for kids that don’t have the advantage of going to, or the ability to pay for, college to get hands-on experience in a trade,” said Pimental. “You can read a book all day long, but when you get out in the real world, it’s different. They’re not just cutting wood; there are a lot of things the kids do and see together and it all falls back on the teachers.”