Efficiency advocates testify on the importance of greater efficiency standards in VA’s building code

This post originally appeared on the Virginia Multifamily Energy Efficiency Coalition website (May 16, 2017) and is reposted here with permission. 

The Board of the Department of Housing and Community Development held a public hearing on Monday, May 15th to hear public comments on the proposed changes to the statewide building code. A large group gathered before the board, including several MFEEC members, to present their comments on the energy efficiency regulation changes that would bring Virginia’s Building Code up to date with the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Those who convened included home builders, energy efficiency advocates, consumer advocates, energy auditors, and HERS raters.

Nearly everyone who convened in support of increased energy efficiency in the building code highlighted the importance of blower door and duct blaster testing, opining that the visual inspection option for duct and building envelope tightness testing should to be done away with. Their message was simple: you cannot, with confidence, visually see an air leak in a building or its duct systems.

Mike Hogan, of Edge Energy commented that of all the homes that he tests, 60 percent fail the blower door test the first time. According to Katie Henderson of Efficient Homes, ducts tested after drywall has been installed fail by a shocking 96 percent, (when they are first tested after construction is complete). Others made the case that testing to make sure leakage standards are met is not only cost-effective for energy usage, but can also guard against costly repairs sometimes needed a few years into the building’s life that can result from moisture problems caused by duct leakage and condensation in walls. On a simpler level, ducts that fail mechanical testing after drywall has already been installed require a great deal of effort to fix.

While highlighting the number of tightness tests that fail on the first time, Benjamin Knopf of Think Little Energy made sure to emphasize to the Board that there are also many builders they work with who routinely achieve building tightness of .5 air changes per hour or less than 1% duct leakage, stressing that these standards are readily achievable with the right training and building practices, a conclusion supported by their handout (05161700) on the results of homes they’ve tested since 2015.

Zack Miller testified on behalf of the MFEEC and the Virginia Housing Alliance sharing data from Virginia Tech’s Center for Housing Research that shows that Low Income Housing Tax Credit affordable apartments in Virginia built to the EarthCraft building standard consumed 40 percent less energy than code built construction and saved the average tenant almost $600 a year in utility costs. He also shared the results of a UNC Center for Community Capital Study that found a 32% lower risk for mortgage default in Energy Star homes to stress the benefits of efficient construction to both renters and homeowners.

A comment brought forward by Casey Murphy of Pearl Certification, was that leaky ducts inside a home can pull contaminants from the attic into the air system, negatively impacting the overall health and safety of the building’s occupants. Protecting the health, safety and welfare of the Commonwealth’s residents is written into the code as many providing testimony emphasized to the Board members.

Dana Wiggins of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a consumer advocate, said that for low-income households, concerns are always centered around monthly costs for the end-users. For low-income home-owners, or soon to be home-owners, energy costs matter, and consumers need to know if they will be able to afford to maintain the home. High or unpredictable energy costs can put those homeowners at risk for keeping their homes.

Chelsea Harnish, Executive Director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council spoke in support of the proposal being considered by the energy sub-workgroup that would drop many of the proposed amendments on mandatory blower door testing, R-49 attic insulation and other measures included in the 2015 IECC and instead adopt an optional compliance pathway for builders to comply with the 2018 Energy Rating Index (ERI) if they choose. Under the proposed compromise, all newly built homes regardless of compliance pathway would be required to pass mandatory duck leakage testing at 4% for ducts outside of conditioned space. This testing could be be certified by the HVAC contractor that installed the system. Chelsea noted in her support for this proposal that 2018 ERI pathway sets the maximum allowable score at 62 instead of 54 as prescribed by the 2015 IECC, which would be more flexible and achievable for homebuilders in the state.

Mike Toalson representing the Homebuilders Association of Virginia spoke about the importance of the industry on Virginia’s economy and argued that the Board should not adopt code changes that could depress homebuilding while speaking for his support of the ERI compromise proposal. Some efficiency advocates mentioned support for the compromise, while many others who testified urged the board to adopt the 2015 IECC in full, without amendments.

A big thanks to our members Chelsea Harnish, Andrew Grigsby, Katie Henderson, Dana Wiggins, and Zack Miller for speaking in favor of increased energy efficiency in Virginia’s uniform state building code!

Written public comment will be accepted by the Department of Housing and Community Development through May 21st here. The new iteration of the code will be adopted by the BHCD sometime this fall and after it is approved by the governor’s office, it will go into effect next year.