New Mexico’s Energy$mart Academy

This article is part of an ongoing series from the National Association for State Community Services Programs, which is implementing the Weatherization Plus Health initiative on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Each piece highlights best practices and guides at the intersection of energy, housing, and health. Weatherization Plus Health is a vehicle for showcasing the talents of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) network and bolsters the case for more funding for it and for organizations that tackle housing-related health hazards. DOE’s Weatherization Plus Health initiative provides a national framework for increasing partnerships among organizations serving the health, housing, and energy needs of low-income families at the state and local levels. DOE-funded WAP training centers play a crucial role in integrating the work of healthy homes and weatherization practitioners, and the New Mexico Energy$mart Academy (NME$A) is doing just that. NME$A offers an innovative curriculum across multiple platforms to train an emerging workforce in retrofitting our nation’s housing stock and addressing housing-related threats to health and safety. NME$A emphasizes the importance of healthy housing principles not only as a means to improve outcomes for WAP clients but also as a credentialing mechanism to create a more diverse skill set among its weatherization trainees. By adopting a Weatherization Plus Health approach in its training curriculum, NME$A illustrates the innovation and creativity that has defined WAP for more than three decades. For housing-related health concerns, New Mexico is a land of contrasts:
  • Most low-income housing is clustered in urban areas, yet a significant number of units are scattered throughout its rural communities.
  • About half of its housing stock was built before lead paint was banned in 1978, a lower percentage than that in many eastern and Midwestern states, yet high levels of childhood lead poisoning have been reported in the northwestern and southeastern corners of the state.
  • The risk of indoor radon exposure is greatest in the north-central region, although high radon levels are found in residences throughout the state.
  • Despite the state’s arid climate, there is growing concern about mold, reflecting the need to address consumer behavior and dysfunctional heating and ventilation systems that generate and trap moisture within homes.
  • Although the rates of childhood asthma are somewhat lower than the national average, asthma hospitalization and death rates are higher (data from Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 2008).
The New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA), home to the state’s WAP, has responded to the housing and health-related needs of New Mexicans by launching an ambitious program of enhanced standards and training, aided by a $26 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) award from the DOE in 2009 and subsequent grant support for planning, training, and outreach awarded by both the DOE and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to Michael Furze, technical program manager for the WAP at MFA, the state has used this support to:
  • Integrate health and safety guidance (DOE Weatherization Program Notice 11-6) into the New Mexico State Weatherization Plan submitted to the DOE for program year 2011–12, especially related to mechanical ventilation and ASHRAE 62.2 requirements.
  • Develop state-specific WAP technical standards. Energy auditing and weatherization standards are currently being incorporated into MFA’s home rehabilitation program.
  • Update data collection and reporting of performance metrics for consistency statewide.
  • Create new WAP training curricula that include health and safety in support of 11-6 and Lead Safe Weatherization and dust sampling. Also, it has been used to create training to fulfill requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule, which contains requirements for firms performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in pre-1978 homes. This work was done in coordination with NME$A.
In addition, MFA launched NME$A, which opened its doors in 2011 and quickly has become a rising star in WAP’s training network. Santa Fe Community College’s School of Trades and Technology houses NME$A in a LEED-certified building, reflecting the campus’s involvement in sustainability and green jobs training.1 The training center has played a crucial role in transforming how the sate WAP program provides weatherization and healthy homes training. NME$A’s state of the art weatherization training is bolstered by on-site facilities that include props to help trainees visualize the potential health implications of tightening a home. These include:
  • A full-sized Diagnostic Cabin – Equipped with appliances to allow combustion testing and fully operated by iPad, trainees can perform blower door testing and duct blaster testing, among other simulations of typical household weatherization measures, in a controlled environment.
  • The House of Pressure – As a mini version of the diagnostic cabin, the House of Pressure visually demonstrates pressure and air flow dynamics within a residence using pressure diagnostics, giving the instructor the ability to create and control air flow with working scale reproductions of the mechanical air distribution systems found in most homes.
  • A mobile home – Since approximately 60 percent of homes that MFA weatherizes are mobile homes, NME$A brought a model mobile home on site to train students on proper weatherization techniques.
NME$A also takes its training to the field in its state-of-the-art mobile training rig, both for WAP certification and for ongoing quality control and assurance. This focus has increased the skills of WAP practitioners in the state through an ongoing education process that has equipped staff with the expertise to implement the most cost-effective measures in the homes they enter. As a result of NME$A’s achievements, DOE awarded them with a state energy sector training grant, citing NME$A as a center of excellence. This funding will allow NME$A to underwrite the cost of many of its courses in 2012, which are now being offered free of charge to housing professionals and at minimal cost to others. NME$A will also soon be offering a portion of its training online. For NME$A and other WAP training centers across the country, health and safety is a major part of the WAP curriculum. At NME$A, however, health and safety also introduces Healthy Homes training and project development to the network. In January 2012, NME$A became a certified training partner with the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), offering Healthy Homes training courses to the Rocky Mountain region.2 NME$A now offers four classroom-based NCHH courses:
  • Essentials for Healthy Homes Practitioners, a two-day (16-hour) classroom-based course that qualifies students to sit for the Healthy Homes Specialist credential offered by the National Environmental Health Association.
  • Health Opportunities in Energy Audits and Upgrades, focusing on the One Touch strategy to integrate health and safety into weatherization.
  • Green and Healthy Management Strategies for Multifamily Properties.
  • Healthy Homes for Community Health Workers.
“We saw bringing a Healthy Homes curriculum into our program as a great cross pollination between health, housing, and energy efficiency, and a powerful opportunity to bring another sustainability demographic into our field,” said Amanda Evans, NME$A’s director. The state is adapting lessons from the NCHH courses for use in their WAP curriculum. For example, the Essentials for Healthy Homes Practitioners course introduces students to the feeling of breathlessness experienced by clients with asthma through a hands-on demonstration using coffee straws. This is now a staple segment of each WAP course that Evans teaches. NME$A’s Healthy Homes coursework enhances the skill set and credentials of WAP network members in New Mexico and across the region. The Healthy Homes classes also provide a laboratory for potential partnerships to increase Weatherization Plus Health activity on the ground. Marketing the Healthy Homes curriculum to WAP students, NME$A has created a setting where employees from housing authorities, health departments, weatherization programs, and other housing or health-related agencies learn from each other and identify resources in their area. Providing this forum is particularly important for rural parts of the state. NME$A takes their Healthy Homes training on the road to reach some of these rural areas and has already enrolled some WAP practitioners in these off-site courses. Finally, both NME$A and MFA are closely involved in the work of New Mexico’s Healthy Homes strategic planning process, led by the New Mexico Department of Health. A three-year grant from the CDC, awarded in September 2011, supported the convening of dozens of stakeholder groups across the state to focus on coordinated approaches to addressing asthma, lead poisoning, mold, and radon. They’ve also focused on expanding the use of community health workers, or “promotoras,” to conduct client education and assessments as part of home visits.3 As part of the strategic planning process, MFA hopes to roll out a Weatherization Plus Health pilot project this summer with its WAP provider in the southern third of the state. [[{"fid":"651","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"New Mexico Training Academy","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"","field_folder[und]":"823"},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"style":"width: 307px; height: 235px; float: right; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px;","class":"media-element file-default"}}]]Members of two stakeholder groups will send a total of 120 professionals for healthy homes training at NME$A in July 2012, introducing many to weatherization. Promoting the WAP as a vehicle and partner to increase the health and safety of low-income families, NME$A and MFA market the WAP to other committee members across the state, educating them about the health and safety benefits from typical weatherization measures. NME$A’s work in promoting a Weatherization Plus Health approach will produce big dividends for WAP training centers and agencies in the future. Health and safety is woven throughout the WAP curriculum, and is delivered in state-of-the-art facilities and in the field, and will soon be offered online. NME$A’s commitment to quality improvement has already led to better work practices. With the option for additional Healthy Homes training for weatherization personnel, more WAP practitioners in the field will be well equipped to seize the most appropriate health opportunities. NME$A’s contribution to the WAP training network will increase energy efficiency and improve the health and safety of low-income families, all while diversifying the skill sets of the weatherization workforce.