Everything You Need to Know About the Energy Code

Energy Codes are becoming increasingly more complex as alternative compliance paths are developed, higher performance products are introduced into the market, and advanced testing and data collection practices are implemented.
Oct 17, 2016 11:00 AM ET

How do building professionals navigate the evolving code landscape, and how do homeowners even know what questions to ask to ensure that their homes are efficient, resilient, safe, and healthy?

There is a growing awareness about the importance of codes—particularly energy codes—as climate change shifts from a theory to a harsh reality.  Codes have the ability not only to substantially decrease the amount of natural resources that our buildings consume, but also to enhance the resiliency, efficiency, durability, and safety of said structures.

Green Builder Media is dedicated to helping building professionals and homeowners stay abreast of changing codes.  To that end, we recently launched Code Watcher, a new website and publication that brings together some of the industry’s brightest minds and most astute code experts to explain code developments.

We’re also hosting a series of webinars to help builders and homeowners understand the nuances of codes.  Our first webinar in the series took place yesterday with code expert Jim Meyers from the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), an organization dedicated to advancing energy efficiency.

Meyers began the webinar by explaining that the energy code was created in the 1970’s in the face of the oil embargo, which brought a discussion about energy efficiency and conservation to the international stage.  In response, Congress developed the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) national standard for commercial buildings, which spawned modern day commercial and residential energy codes.

Between the 1970’s and 2006, there were only small, incremental changes in energy efficiency in buildings.  However, in 2009, the game changed—there was a marked 15% improvement in energy savings from 2006 to 2009 due to a ratcheted energy code, and then another 15% improvement from 2009 to 2012.  After that, it seems we took a step backwards, achieving only a 1% improvement from the 2012 code to 2015 version. 

Meyers speculates that the plateau is a result of the desire from building professionals—builders and code officials—to “catch up” to current codes, with the goal of driving increased adoption, compliance, and enforcement of codes from the last two cycles.

Fortunately, cost effectiveness studies, which measure upfront costs against long-term savings from energy efficiency, clearly show that energy efficient homes yield fast and meaningful returns.  For example, a homeowner in Nevada will reap, on average, $1,500 in life-cycle cost savings if their home is built to the 2009 code, and $5,500 if built to the 2012 code. 

The message is clear: reduction in energy use translates into a positive cash flow.

As Meyers points out, the market is not static, and codes will continue to evolve in order to appropriately account for advancements in products, technologies, materials, and building science.  Some of this knowledge is adopted from local, regional, and national green building programs that have years of proof points as new approaches are tried, tested, and transformed into best practices.

Today, some of the biggest changes in codes have to do with compliance paths, or ways that builders can meet or even exceed code.  There used to be two main compliance paths (Prescriptive and Performance).  Now, in many jurisdictions, there are four.

These four compliance paths include (ranging from most to least restrictive) Prescriptive (which requires strict adherence to specific performance numbers), U Factor Alternative (which permits the U-Factor of high performance wall assemblies to be considered as an alternative to R-Values), Performance (in which an energy rater inputs information into sophisticated software, allowing for some tradeoffs, although not in mechanical systems or appliances), and the Energy Rating Index, or ERI (which provides the most flexibility in terms of available trade-offs, including mechanical systems and appliances, and is similar to the HERS index, in which a lower score indicates greater energy efficiency.)

Since the ERI compliance path is relatively new, it will surely be a topic of discussion—and perhaps heated debate—at next week’s code hearings in Kansas City.

Meyers suggests that, regardless of your preferred compliance path, there are eight must-know requirements in the energy code:

  • Air barriers and insulation
  • Ceilings
  • Duct leakage
  • Envelope air leakage
  • Foundations
  • Walls
  • Windows
  • Lighting

As our knowledge of the built environment evolves, so too will the energy code.  Building industry professionals are working on developing the 2018 code, which will surely incorporate improved insights into building science, installation practices, and high-performance products.

In the future, Meyers predicts that building codes will advance incrementally—he forecasts that, in the next few code cycles, we likely won’t see the large 15% energy savings increases that we saw in 2009 and 2012.  However, the verdict is still out as states like California and New York set aggressive targets to reach net zero in the not too distant future.

For more information about changing codes, be sure to subscribe to our weekly Code Watcher e-newsletter at www.codewatcher.us, and check out the archived version of our webinar with Jim Meyers

Please also join us for our next code related webinar with Eric Makela from Cadmus Group on October 26 at 2:00 ET, during which Eric will discuss the ERI compliance path as well as titillating take aways from next week’s code hearings in Kansas City.

Do you have insights about the evolving energy code?  Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com.

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