This article was originally published in the March/April 1996 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1996

in energy

When Codes Meet Ratings

Will a banker or home builder gladly pay for a homeowner's next residential energy code compliance certificate? In some states where home energy ratings are popular, the answer may be yes.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 requires states to consider adopting the 1992 version of the Council of American Building Officials' Model Energy Code (CABO MEC-see Making Sense of the Model Energy Code, p. 21), and many states are busy trying to upgrade or adopt more stringent energy codes. They are also looking for cost-effective implementation options.

A recent Alliance to Save Energy survey found that at least half of the states have out-of-date or no residential energy building codes. At least 12 states received a failing grade of F from the Alliance based on their code stringency and/or compliance efforts (see Alliance Says State Building Codes Don't Make the Grade, HE May/June '95, p. 10). Complexity, cost of enforcement, lack of trained code officials, and resistance to regulation on the part of builders all contribute to the difficulties of adoption and enforcement, according to Mike DeWein, code specialist at the Building Codes Assistance Project in Washington, D.C. Worse yet, a national survey determined that in those areas where codes are enforced, the average on-site inspection is only 12 minutes long. Quality control is often up to the installer, who can maximize profits by spending less time on-site. There is no way to check the quality of installation once the gypsum board is in place.

While states and local governments are often stymied in their efforts at code enforcement, they have had recent success promoting home energy efficiency rating systems (HERS). At least 15 states now have active energy rating programs, and at least as many others are considering them. The Alliance estimates that 50,000 home energy ratings of primarily new homes were conducted by utilities, states, and others in 1994. This renewed interest in ratings is fueled by the Department of Energy's development of uniform national rating guidelines, increased utility competition, and the development of new energy financing products by secondary lenders and federal agencies.

So what do home energy ratings have to do with code compliance? Faced with strong home builder resistance to their stringent state energy code, Alaska energy officials elected to use the state's home energy rating program as an option for determining code compliance. Now most Alaskan builders opt for an energy rating since (1) it is tied to incentive energy financing, (2) it can be financed as part of the closing costs, and (3) it can be incorporated into the real estate multiple-listing system as a consumer marketing tool. The consumer, lender, and real estate agent all understand the star-based energy rating system, so the value of efficient homes is now being fully recognized in the appraisal and resale processes.

Vermont, Nevada, Indiana, Florida, and the city of Chicago are also examining the use of home energy ratings for code compliance. Since the energy code can be clearly marked on the rating scale, it can document code compliance through a performance-based approach allowed by most energy codes. More importantly, using a rating instead of a prescriptive or component-based compliance path enables government officials to use market forces to encourage higher levels of efficiency that go far beyond the minimum set by the code. Energy raters are often better trained and have more time to conduct an inspection than code inspectors, which increases the level of quality control. Finally, the rating often includes a blower door test, which is rarely required by an energy code.

Simply stated, state and local governments that use skilled energy raters can benefit from the market forces of a rating to go beyond minimum code requirements. This is particularly advantageous when no code inspection infrastructure exists. Some state code inspection departments may resist having their job done by the private sector, but as government budgets shrink, energy ratings are a practical alternative.

For more information about the Alliance survey or the use of energy ratings as an alternative compliance tool, contact Malcolm Verdict at (202)857-0666 or Mike DeWein, Building Codes Assistance Project, at (202)429-9607.

-Malcolm Verdict

Malcolm Verdict is director of research at the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C., and past chairman of the national Home Energy Rating Systems Council.


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