Understanding Building Energy Codes and Standards
Building energy codes and standards have become a common part of the construction industry. They affect residential, commercial, and federal buildings in different ways. New policies are constantly developing, and the federal government is rapidly pushing for their adoption. Since they are hundreds of pages long, it can take time to understand the fundamentals.
Simply put, energy codes and standards set minimum requirements for designing and constructing new or retrofit builds. They provide environmental and economic benefits by reducing energy output and environmental pollutants. There are various levels of codes and standards, all of which we’ll look at today.
Let’s look at energy codes first. They specify how buildings must perform or be constructed and are written in mandatory, enforceable language. The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is a model that makes allowances for different climate zones. That said, the IECC is a “model” because building codes are regulated explicitly by legislation on a state-by-state basis. Many states change their versions of the IECC to reflect their regional building practices before adoption. Currently, most states have either very old (approximately 2009 or earlier) or no IECC regulations in effect. Only about 15 states have adopted IECC 2015 or higher. Delinquent states get away with this by adopting energy standards instead, which are much more loosely written and enforced.
NATIONAL ENERGY STANDARDS
Energy standards describe how buildings should be constructed to save energy. Nationally recognized energy-efficiency organizations are in charge of their creation and upkeep. Unlike energy codes, these are not written in mandatory language. Most are used as national recommendations instead. State and local governments frequently use these energy standards as the technical basis while developing their energy codes.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) made the most famous energy standards nationwide. The ASHRAE standards are broad and cover regulations such as indoor air quality, energy-efficient building design, and energy efficiency in existing buildings. Though the numeric system is sporadic, there are 87 active standards. You’ll find that many states have adopted at least some form of the ASHRAE 90.1, which outlines the energy standard for sites and buildings except for low-rise residential buildings.
Like the IECC, ASHRAE standards get revised and re-published every three years. The Department of Energy (DOE) evaluates whether new measures are worthwhile before implementation. Citizens may personally introduce measures for consideration to a committee as well. The most recent version of the ASHRAE standards is open to the public. There is a free online database that only requires an account if you’re curious. A great starting point is Standards 90.1, 90.2, and 62.1. Standards 90.1 and 90.2 collectively define general energy standards for sites and buildings of all kinds, and Standard 62.1 provides minimum ventilation and indoor air quality rates acceptable to human occupants.
CODE DEVELOPMENT BY STATE GOVERNMENTS
Some states have chosen to forgo adoption and create specific energy standards/codes instead. A well-known example is the California Building Energy Efficiency Standards, informally known as California Title 24. Title 24 was designed to reduce wasteful and unnecessary energy consumption in newly constructed and existing buildings. The most recent version (effective January of 2023) encourages efficient electric heat pumps, establishes electric-ready requirements for new homes, expands solar photovoltaic and battery storage standards, strengthens ventilation standards, and more.
The list of states with individually constructed energy guidelines is shorter than you’d think. The other three outliers are New York, Washington, and Vermont. New York uses the Energy Conservation Construction Code (ECCCNYS). The Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) heads the development of the Washington State Energy Code (WSEC). And Vermont has the Commercial Buildings Energy Standards (CBES). Each one shares multiple similarities with Title 24 and is a quick Google search away.
VOLUNTARY ENERGY EFFICIENCY PROGRAMS
A variety of voluntary energy-efficient programs is available to residential and commercial buildings. Energy Star is a government-backed symbol for energy efficiency. Since its inception in 1992, the company has helped families and businesses save billions. Its most convenient tool is a list of energy-efficient products for consumers. By replacing ineffective products with Energy Star-certified ones, residents can lower electrical bills or claim energy-saving rebates while helping push for a green future. There is also a counterpart list for businesses.
Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) is a fantastic tool for the commercial market developed by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. The globally-recognized rating system provides a framework for healthy, efficient, carbon and cost-saving green buildings. A LEED team will evaluate a location at the owner’s request. The building is given points based on a multi-point grading system and becomes certified if it reaches the minimum requirement. There is a required one-time registration fee and a certification fee dependent on the rating system used. The certification system goes from green to platinum, with bragging rights going to the higher tiers. Updates are now done electronically instead of every five years.
The system has evaluated thousands of buildings worldwide, though only Canada has a different version. Some cities, like Phoenix or Sacramento, require LEED certification, while others provide energy-saving rewards. The greater purpose of LEED is to reduce carbon footprints while simultaneously improving health/quality of life. As a result, owners can expect higher resale value and improved employee retention.
California homeowners can also participate in the upgrade process through the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Program. The HERS rating process, in most states, is voluntary. Title 24 mandates HERS testing for new and existing residential and non-residential buildings in California, specifically during the installation of a new system or during construction. It is also handy when buying or selling a home. It will help owners identify and fix issues, recognize areas for improvement, and compare the overall energy efficiency of their homes. A rater performs verification and diagnostic testing on the necessary features. One thing to note is that if the system fails, the California Energy Commission requires the contractor for the residence to fix it themselves. If this occurs years after construction, it can be a hassle. Make sure to prepare before reaching out.
ENERGY CODES/STANDARDS IN THE MODERN AGE
As stated before, energy codes and standards have become more important in the modern age. In recent years the federal government has become increasingly involved in the green initiative. Throughout 2022, the Biden-Harris administration took over 100 actions to strengthen energy efficiency standards and increase energy savings for families nationwide. Some of the highlights of these actions include better standards for common household appliances and updated building standards.
Another impressive move by the federal government comes with new building energy code requirements for federal buildings. The DOE released the proposed rules in March 2022, which will go into effect in April 2023. Under the new regulations, all new buildings and major retrofits constructed by the federal government must comply with the 2021 IECC and 2019 ASHRAE Standard 90.1. The 2021 IECC includes new provisions that increase efficiency, provide clarification, and improve the useability of the code. The 2019 ASHRAE Standard 90.1 improvements include new and updated equipment efficiency requirement tables and a clear compliance path for renewable energy treatment. The basis of the new federal rules is to ensure that the federal government leads by example in energy efficiency while saving taxpayers money. According to the DOE, this measure will save $4.2 million in operating costs within the first year of implementation.
With so many new standards in effect, residential, commercial, and industrial buildings need to start focusing on energy savings. A relatively simple way to do this is by implementing lighting control systems. There are many different products for this process, such as dimmers or sensors.