Ever wonder whether today’s focus on energy-efficiency led to or resulted in this focus in the codes? The Department of Energy (DOE)’s recent webinar, “DOE’s Involvement in Residential Energy Codes,” answered this and other questions.

Todd Taylor, senior research engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), began the presentation with a brief history lesson, pointing out that from the 1980s through roughly 2006, “Minimum codes truly were minimum.” Since then, he said, DOE has been pushing to improve the codes further.

While it’s often said that the codes represent the minimum requirements for a building, Taylor pointed to a misconception. He showed onscreen a generic graph that showed an average distribution of builders that followed a certain unregulated practice, with the curve to the left showing builders who constructed “better” homes versus those to the right who constructed “worse” homes.

While a code might be instituted that set the legal minimum further on the right side of the graph—the code isn’t actually promoting worse buildings. It’s screening out the absolute worst of the bunch. It’s then generally up to voluntary guidelines to motivate builders, owners or designers to follow practices that will lead to constructing the best possible buildings.

DOE’s heaviest involvement in the codes began in the early 2000s, Taylor continued, as evidenced by a significant change in the 2006 IECC, which changed the format of the codes, with the design of making it more enforceable and easier with which to comply. With the 2009 code—which has been adopted by about 13 states at present—DOE worked from two goals that it has set for itself. Those goals are for 30-percent improvement in homes’ energy efficiency in the 2012 IECC (a goal Taylor believes has been met) and 50-percent improvement in the 2015 IECC (both relative to 2006 codes).

Taylor pointed to three primary reasons that have made these energy changes, in general, such a focus for the codes since 2006: the increase of public interest, political will and DOE’s growing pull at ICC (as Taylor points out, DOE remains simply a participant in the code process but has become a more influential one).

Building professionals might say that’s all good and well, but ensuring that states adopt the codes and that officials enforce them remains a challenge.

“On the implementation side, as a result of Congressional action recently,” Taylor said during his presentation, “DOE is trying to assist the states in achieving … 90-percent compliance with the 2009 IECC demonstrated by the year 2017 …”

As updated codes are adopted, code officials will be burdened with increasingly complex nuances. “In the past [code officials] haven’t had time and expertise to deal with older codes; likewise for the builders,” Taylor pointed out, adding codes now are even more complex, and lead to even more need for expertise in the build-design process.

However, Taylor said the number-one question he gets about energy codes process, “especially as people learn of the very aggressive 30 and 50 percent goals is: Why doesn’t DOE simply use its beyond-code experiences to design a new residential energy code?”

He answered that a “straightforward application of what everyone’s learned through the years” doesn’t necessarily fit a codes application. Taylor further explained that DOE is only able to achieve its 30/50 goal by tightening requirements for certain products, such as fenestration, and not others, such as appliances that fall under the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act. He added that DOE’s goals are defined differently from other voluntary programs in that it refers to end uses.

In some ways, though, the codes are beginning to work together. Referring to the 2012 IECC specifically, Taylor pointed out, “In the past the International Residential Code (IRC) has always had a separate energy chapter … that wasn’t necessarily coordinated with IECC’s energy requirements. That’s been a problem from DOE’s viewpoint for some time since it adopts an ambiguity,” he said. “As of 2012 the IRC has eliminated its chapter in favor of a reference on the IECC. That’s a pretty big deal.”

Taylor noted that the 2012 IECC is scheduled for publication this April, but is currently under appeal. “[I have] no idea how that will influence the publication date,” he said.

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