Efficiency Wins Big in Atlantic City, Homeowners Will Benefit

When you leave Atlantic City with more than you came with, you can count yourself lucky.  This past week public officials at the International Code Council’s (ICC) Public Action Hearings held in Atlantic City voted on close to 100 proposed revisions to the residential building energy code. These officials not only rejected numerous attempts to decrease the efficiency of the code, but also approved the addition of a new method for meeting the code that will save homeowners money, improve code compliance, and pave the way for future energy efficiency improvements.

The code in question is the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) which is a model energy code that states and localities can adopt to ensure that new homes and major renovations don’t needlessly waste energy that costs their owners money and creates pollution.

The process to update the code occurs every three years and is not for the weary. Anyone can submit proposals to modify the code and these proposals are considered one by one over the course of two public hearings that each last multiple days and often run into the wee hours of the night. Each proposal is heard, testified for and against, and then voted on to decide which proposals make it into the final updated code.  

New Energy Rating Index Path a Major Win

One of the biggest successful changes to the code this cycle was a proposal known as RE-188 that was put forth by NRDC, the Institute for Market Transformation and Britt Makela Group. RE-188 adds a new compliance pathway to the code that a builder can choose as an alternative to the current prescriptive and performance paths. This new path would allow the builder to comply by getting a third-party inspection of the home to assess its efficiency using an energy rating index (ERI), such as the RESNET HERS index. The ERI is a measure of the home’s efficiency on a 0 to 100 scale where 0 is equivalent to a net zero energy home and 100 is equivalent a home compliant with the 2006 version of the IECC. Homebuilders choosing this path would have to meet or exceed a specific ERI score, in addition to meeting minimum envelope requirements and other mandatory measures, such as insulating hot water pipes.

Jurisdictions in states across the country from Arkansas to Massachusetts have already begun to add these alternate ratings-based compliance pathways to the IECC when they adopt it at the local level, making the time ripe to add an ERI path to the base IECC. The ERI path offers several benefits. From a builder’s perspective, it offers flexibility in how to achieve the energy-savings target. This means that Builder X may choose to meet the target through better windows and air sealing, while Builder Y may choose to meet it through better attic insulation and improved equipment, as long as they both meet the same ultimate level of total energy savings and comply with a set of mandatory requirements. This flexibility will both promote achieving energy savings at the lowest possible cost, as well as drive down the price of energy efficiency over time as manufacturers and vendors find ways to provide energy savings for less money, enabling even greater cost-effective efficiency over time.

Furthermore, the energy rating index is certified by a third party, reducing the burden on code officials and increasing code compliance which adds to overall energy and cost savings. Finally, many builders will likely highlight their excellent energy ratings to the home buyer as a marketing tool, promoting competition and likely incentivizing some builders to build beyond code.

The addition of this new energy rating index path is a major win, especially considering that over the last two code update cycles – 2009 and 2012 – energy efficiency advocates had already made major headway in improving the level of energy savings in the code, achieving a total of approximately 30 percent energy savings compared to the 2006 edition of the code. The savings achieved in over the last two cycles will deliver significant, cost-effective energy savings to home dwellers for years to come.

Successfully Fighting Off Attacks on Efficiency

These savings were under attack this time around, with many proposals aimed at rolling back the energy efficiency gains that had been achieved in 2009 and 2012. For the most part, these attacks were held off and the savings were maintained in this latest set of hearings.

Most significantly, one rollback proposal, known as RE-166, was defeated. It would have created a giant loophole in the code by allowing builders to “trade off” building envelope measures for installing higher than minimum efficiency equipment. The issue with this tradeoff is that many builders today are already installing high efficiency equipment and code compliant envelopes. RE-166 would have given them an efficiency credit for installing this equipment that they could use to reduce insulation or window efficiency below the minimums required by code. This would have been a major loophole and defeating it is a big win for consumers and efficiency.

Other Proposals to Advance Efficiency

In addition to our ERI proposal, NRDC also put forth several other proposals to modify the IECC, including proposals to reduce the waste of hot water and expand the applicability of the code to historic buildings. While NRDC’s specific historic building proposal didn’t pass, a similar proposal passed that requires historic buildings to comply with the energy code unless a report is filed demonstrating that compliance with the code would interfere with the historic nature of the building (previously these buildings had a blanket exemption).

With everything that was on the table in Atlantic City, all in all the result was a major success. Thanks to the public officials who voted to maintain the efficiency of the code, new homeowners won’t be gambling on their utility bills and instead will realize energy savings for years to come while reducing harmful pollution.