The New International Energy Conservation Code

There’s a great deal of chatter about reducing regulation. Recently, barbs have been thrown specifically at government requirements for CFLs and low-flow toilets. The anti-regulation proponents insist that Americans should make efficiency choices on an individual basis, and if they want to use wasteful practice, well, that’s their right.

But one entirely unique benefit of government regulation is that it can work at scale, at large scale, in fact. For instance, encouraging someone to use CFLs may get some converts who want to save the $40 per year per bulb. Requiring every home to replace old bulbs with CFLs is meaningful, with implications to our national security and energy independence.

Accordingly, with the power to implement regulation that has the force of law on a national scale, the U.S. Department of Energy established worthy goals to improve the energy efficiency of residential building through the 2012 implementation of the (proposed) International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code. The DOE’s immediate goal is 30 percent incremental savings compared to the 2006 IECC.

Admirable? You bet. Possible to achieve without regulations that have the force of law? No. That’s why these regulations should be welcomed.

The proposed changes in the IECC have some eye-popping requirements, especially for insulation and new window specs. For example, above-grade wall insulation in Zone 3 (e.g., San Francisco) would move from R-13 to R-20. Achieving this will require additional costs, and a change in wall-framing techniques. A 2x4 stud wall with 31/2 in. of insulation achieves around R-15 — not quite enough for the new IECC. If you didn’t step up to 2x6 framing, you’d have to beef up your 2x4 walls with XPS rigid foam to meet the new spec, and that takes training and quality control of the seam sealing around the foam. Most builders will likely move to 2x6 stud walls because they can achieve R-20 fairly easily.

Basement wall insulation in Zone 3 would move from no insulation requirement to R-5, and in Zones 5-8 (e.g., Chicago) from R-13 to R-19. Floor insulation in Zones 7 and 8 would move from R-30 to R-38. Ceiling insulation requirements would move from R-30 to R-38 in Zone 3, and from R-38 to R-49 in Zone 5.

For lighting, you don’t have to use CFLs, but 50 percent of the lighting would have to be as efficient as CFLs. For ducts, sealing leakage limits would be verified by required testing if the ducts pass through unconditioned space.

The proposed IECC would also demand aggressive window standards. In Zone 1 (e.g., Miami), the U-factor would move from U-1.2 to U-0.50. For Zone 4 (e.g., Albuquerque), the U-factor would move from U-0.40 to 0.35. The U-factor expresses the rate of heat loss. The lower the U-factor, the better the window is at insulating. In areas where you spend most of your energy dollars on heating, the U-factor is the rating that should be considered first.

Solar Heat Gain Coefficient measures the fraction of solar energy admitted by a window and tells you how well the product blocks heat caused by sunlight. The lower the SHGC, the less solar heat the window transmits into the living space. SHGC is measured on a scale of zero to one; available values typically range from 0.25 to 0.80. In areas where you spend most of your energy dollars on cooling, the SHGC is the rating that should be considered first. With the proposed IECC changes, in Zones 1, 2, and 3 (e.g., Miami, Houston and San Francisco), the required SHGC would move from 0.40 to 0.30.

There no doubt will be complaints about the added cost of compliance (time, materials, training) and inspections, and how these costs will eventually be passed on to the home buyer. But honestly, even if costs are passed on to buyers, don’t we all benefit from the regulation?