The “Red Tape Reduction” Shouldn’t Be Used to Change Residential Energy Codes

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Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s “Red Tape Reduction” initiative has been created with the intent to make it easier for businesses to operate in the commonwealth by eliminating a variety of “unnecessary” rules, regulations, and fees.  That all sounds great to me as a small business owner, however, the local Kentucky Builder’s Association is trying to include changing the residential energy code as part of this initiative, which is not in the best interest of the people purchasing new homes.  The majority of the KBA’s requests pertaining to building codes do have substance to them and we support many of those proposed changes, but the energy code changes are not among them.

The Importance of Building Energy Codes

Buildings and homes need to be safe for the occupants, granted, but they also need to be energy-efficient, comfortable, and healthy to live in.  This is why building codes are required for everything from ensuring structural integrity through correct framing, to proper installation of electric, plumbing, and HVAC systems.  Insulation and air-sealing is also required and specified by R-value and U-factors for windows & doors.

Today, the performance of the house or building can also be tested and verified to meet a certain standard of efficiency, which adds another quality-assurance level of detail to the home building process.  Typically a duct-leakage test is done whenever ductwork is located in attics, crawlspaces, or in floors over garages (outside living space).  An air-leakage test is also done on the house with a “blower-door” system, which tells us how leaky or tight the building is compared to other houses of similar size.  These have been common tests in the building industry for over ten years now, but Kentucky and Indiana’s residential energy codes have only required it since 2012.

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) was established to provide energy-efficiency requirements and standards for the building industry.  In late 2012, Kentucky adopted the 2009 IECC energy code with amendments for residential buildings. The most recent version of the IECC is the 2015, with a 2018 version due out soon. Not only is Kentucky’s current residential energy code outdated, it is still not being properly enforced, if at all in some areas. Same goes for Indiana.

The Current Energy Code Situation in Kentucky & Indiana

Although the new energy code standard has been in place for over four years, it is still not being properly adhered to by most contractors and enforced by inspectors in Kentucky and Indiana.  Contractors will do as much as the inspectors require them to do, as that will be interpreted as “required by code”, regardless of how the actual code is written.  This means that many new homes are being built and retrofitted in such a way that can contribute to future problems with occupant discomfort, energy waste, and even indoor air quality problems, and it’s all avoidable if the code were simply enforced properly.

Energy Codes Aren’t “Red Tape”

While some local regulations on small business owners are excessive, sometimes trivial, and can be too complex, building energy codes are none of these things and shouldn’t be seen as red tape. The initiative to try to remove air-leakage and duct-leakage standards, which include blower-door testing and duct-leakage testing as a part of the energy code, is entirely misguided and wrong.

For example, you wouldn’t want to buy a new car with a leaky gas tank, right?  So why would you buy a new house where the warm or cold air in the ductwork leaks to outdoors?  The best way to verify that the ductwork is tight is to TEST IT.  Same with the house -  you wouldn’t buy a winter coat with giant holes in it that is paper-thin to keep you warm, so why would you buy a brand new house that you didn’t know was reasonably air-tight and will keep you comfortable year-round, without causing moisture or air-quality problems down the road?  

The main argument we hear for why these two elements should be removed is that, “new homes built today are too tight, which causes moisture problems that lead to mold and mildew.”  Well guess what?  A leaky house in the summer time also adds more humidity inside the home, making it less comfortable, and also increases air-conditioning expenses and even brings in more dust and allergens from outdoors!  Winter time problems in a leaky, poorly-insulated house will also cause water pipes to freeze and potentially burst, not to mention higher heating expenses!

So is it really that new homes are “too tight”, or are most builders just not paying attention to the other things that matter, like installing kitchen and bath exhaust vents that actually work?  In addition to kitchen and bath fans, some of the other issues we see with moisture in new homes are related to poor flashing around windows, doors, and roof-wall intersections, improper grading around the foundation walls, vapor barriers installed incorrectly, and HVAC equipment that is too big for the house it’s installed in.   

Having been in the home performance industry for over 15 years, and having tested over 3,000 houses during that time, we have not seen any evidence that the majority of new homes in Kentucky (or Indiana) are being built too tight.  Instead, we have continued to see framing problems that cause excessive air leakage, foundation walls that are not insulated, “knee walls” that face attic space aren’t insulated properly, and ductwork that isn’t sealed, among many other issues.  

These are the issues that reduce energy efficiency, cause comfort problems, higher energy bills, and also contribute to moisture problems and poor indoor air quality. If there was any actual data to back up the claims of houses being “too tight” and why this alleged red tape should be removed, then it might be a valid consideration.  However, most people in the building industry who make these claims have experienced moisture issues that are related to poor exterior grading, a lack of proper ventilation, and/or over-sized HVAC equipment, yet they choose to blame the house being “too tight” as the main cause, without evidence!

By removing any of these requirements in the energy code, Kentucky would be doing a disservice to its residents. Energy codes are not red tape and instead of focusing on removing critical elements that can make our buildings more comfortable and energy-efficient, we need to focus on enforcing the existing code properly and consistently across all counties and cities, and educating builders and industry professionals on the true sources of these problems.

Building Performance Has Your Best Interests in Mind

When you hire the team at Building Performance, you can rest assured that your home will meet the current residential energy code, and if you want to build a high-performance home beyond code, we can certainly help you do that too!

Contact us today to learn more about how we enforce the residential energy code and make sure your new home or building will be comfortable, healthy, and efficient long after it is built!

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