New homes and buildings built in Pennsylvania will soon use less energy and have substantially lower utility bills, thanks to a huge leap in the efficiency of the Pennsylvania statewide building energy code announced last week.
Building energy codes and Pennsylvania’s leap
Building codes help local municipalities and states protect the health and safety of their occupants by setting regulations for things like fire protection and earthquake resilience. The building energy code—which is separate from the fire or structural codes, but often adopted simultaneously—regulates a building’s energy efficiency by specifying minimum levels of insulation, efficient lighting, air sealing, and other energy-related building components. The model energy code is developed and updated every three years to integrate advances in technology, but it’s up to individual municipalities or states to adopt the updated version.
On May 1, Pennsylvania advanced both its commercial and residential energy codes to the 2015 model International Energy Conservation Code, while incorporating some select improvements from the 2018 model code. This is huge because before last week, Pennsylvania’s energy code had not been updated since 2009.
And the 2015 model residential energy code is about 25 percent more efficient than the 2009 code, which means Pennsylvanians will save big for years to come. In fact, over a 30 year period, the energy bills in a home built to the 2015 code in Pennsylvania will be more than $8,100 lower than in a home built to the 2009 code!
What’s changed in Pennsylvania’s new code?
New homes in Pennsylvania will need to have more insulation than ever before, which will keep occupants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Homes will be required to have tighter ductwork, better windows, and more efficient lighting than the 2009 code, all of which adds up to lower utility bills and more comfort. The code also adds additional flexibility for builders by including the Energy Rating Index (ERI) compliance path.
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 (meaning its annual energy use is offset by things like energy efficiency and solar energy) and 100 is equivalent a home compliant with the 2006 version of the IECC. Homebuilders choosing this path to show they meet the energy code 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.
What about the cost?
Updating the energy code is wildly cost-effective, both for Pennsylvania and nationwide. A Pennsylvania-specific analysis done by the U.S. Department of Energy found that on average, Pennsylvanians in homes built to the 2015 energy code will save more than $550 in energy costs in the first year alone, as compared to homes built to the 2009 code. That’s massive, and those are savings that persist year over year, keeping money in homeowners’ pockets. Even when accounting for the increased costs for builders to install efficiency measures, cash flows are positive for homeowners right away, and any upfront cost will be recouped through energy savings in about 3 years.
Commercial buildings will save too. DOE’s analysis found that construction costs for commercial buildings in Pennsylvania will actually be reduced for some building types, thanks to the need for fewer lighting fixtures and the use of smaller HVAC units due to lower heating and cooling loads. The simple payback in many cases is immediate, meaning buildings meeting the new code may cost less to build AND less to operate. Talk about a win-win!
Builders in Pennsylvania will be required to start following the new codes on October 1.
Other states should follow the lead
In adopting new energy codes, Pennsylvania has broken from a pack of several other states that follow the 2009 model codes, showing leadership as Ohio, Indiana, and New Hampshire (among others) continue to lag behind. Residents and businesses in these states aren’t getting the benefits of the updated energy-saving code, though their savings potential is just as impressive: over a 30 year period after updating to the 2015 code, Ohioans would save nearly $6,400, Hoosiers would save $5,800, and homeowners in New Hampshire would save a whopping $9,800 on their energy bills! Failing to update the energy code means that every house built in the meantime will waste energy and money.
Making sure a home or business is well-insulated and energy efficient is never cheaper or easier than when it’s being built, and the savings to consumers speak for themselves. As Pennsylvania has shown, it’s never too late to start saving money—other states should step up, too.