Editorial: The New Energy Star Homes Standards: A Rater's Perspective

May 01, 2006
May/June 2006
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2006 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        Every year on July 4, I’ve found myself listening to a reading of the Declaration of Independence on National Public Radio. Perhaps because I am advancing in age, the part about people being “disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable,” rather than change the things “to which they are accustomed” has taken on a deeper meaning for me.
        I am not fond of change. Nevertheless I have made the transition to the new guidelines for Energy Star-certified homes. This may seem a bit early, since homes enrolled in utility programs before December 31, 2005, and homes permitted before July 1, 2006, can receive the Energy Star Homes label under the old rules until the end of this year. But to maintain a consistent message to builders, I’ve chosen to break with the old regime already.
        One can see now that a change was inevitable. The old rating scores were based on reference homes meeting the 1993 Model Energy Code. Homes consuming equivalent amounts of space-heating,water-heating, and spacecooling energy (after adjusting for size, location, and heating fuel) scored an 80. In 1995, the EPA pegged the minimum qualifying home in its new Energy Star Homes program to a HERS score of 86. But the Model Energy Code was superseded by the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) in 2000. As state and local authorities adopted the IECC and enhancements to the code were made, the connection between a HERS score of 86 and standard practices became more tenuous.
        An argument for change was also made based on advances in the industry. We have seen builders building better homes over the past 11 years. New technologies, education, and competition moved the industry ahead. If Energy Star homes were to remain a few steps beyond the run of the mill, an adjustment had to be made.
        But knowing that change is inevitable doesn’t make it easy. The most apparent difference to builders and numbers-conscious home buyers will be the move away from the 86 standard. Never again will someone jokingly link the Energy Star Homes standard and Maxwell Smart.
        The enhanced HERS score is not comparable to the old HERS score. It includes additional credit items for builders who choose to think beyond efficiencies in space heating,water heating, and space cooling. Efficient lighting, appliances, and ceiling fans can provide better HERS scores for the same envelope and mechanicals.
        To qualify for Energy Star, a home must achieve an enhanced HERS score of 83 in climate zones 1–5, which includes Illinois, where I provide ratings, and an enhanced HERS score of 84 in the more intense space-heating climate zones 6–8.
        Since the changes in the qualifying scores for the Energy Star Homes label will require a good bit of client reeducation, the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) has had the good sense to piggyback onto the score change a needed rationalization of the system. It has always been a bit crazy to associate 80 with basic code compliance and to have each 1-point rise in the score be equivalent to a 5% improvement in efficiency. RESNET director Steve Baden and company saw the introduction of a new system as an excellent time to switch to something easier to explain. From now on we will speak of a HERS index rather than a score. The HERS index will peg 100 as basic IECC code compliance level and 0 as a net zero-energy home.That way, each 1-point drop in the index implies a 1% improvement in energy efficiency. To qualify for the Energy Star Homes program, builders will need a HERS index of 85 or less in climate zones 1–5 and 80 or less in climate zones 6–8.
        But this is not the biggest change in the program for raters. We will see a big change in the way we inspect the envelope. Instead of just measuring and blower door testing,we will be spending a good bit of time inspecting with a thermal bypass checklist. This list has up to 16 areas that must be inspected (some homes will not have items like fireplace walls or porch roofs) to verify that they meet prescriptive requirements. There are no tradeoffs here. Builders will need to meet the requirements or forgo the Energy Star Homes designation. Raters will not be able to enter projects just minutes before the houses sell. They will need to inspect when walls are open and the checklist items are visible.
        This brings up a change that has been happening for several years—a change in the way raters relate to builders and to projects. A few years ago, raters worked separately from the builder and the construction team. Now we seem to work with the builder as the project moves along. Instead of waiting until the home is complete and then giving the builder a pass-fail grade,we identify opportunities for improvement before walls are closed up or ducts are buried away
        I think this change in the relationships of raters to builders and raters to construction projects will be the more significant and beneficial result of the move to a new Energy Star Homes standard. It will provide a very positive way for builders to continue to raise their standards, connect with home performance professionals, and meet the national need for greater energy efficiency.

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