Like a spaceship rocketing into the heavens, the Energy Star for Homes program is about to ignite the rocket's third stage. So far, dealers haven't had to do much besides enjoy the ride. But starting next year, program director Sam Rashkin says, you can expect to be put to work.
That's because Energy Star is releasing Version 3 of the program, a new and stricter set of guidelines for energy efficient home-building that contractors must live up to in order to achieve an Energy Star Rating. V.3 sets higher standards in areas such as air, thermal, and vapor flow. It requires third-party verification for systems such as thermal enclosure, HVAC, and water management. And it seeks to fix specific problem areas such as pressure balancing, thermal bridging, ventilation, humidity, and–especially–insulation.
The new version toughens a standard that only one out of every five homes built in 2009 achieved. It also represents a shift in emphasis regarding what's involved in producing an energy-efficient home. Version 1 of the Energy Star program, launched in 1996, and Version 2, instituted in 2006, stressed more of a plug-and-play approach to energy efficiency. Their emphasis was on using better products, such as higher-efficiency windows and HVAC systems, as well as more insulation. Dealers' major contribution was sourcing the products, and the initial demands on builders' skills didn't go much beyond taking care taping the ducts.
But starting in 2011, Energy Star will pay more attention to how homes are designed and products are installed. Air ducts will have to be located in conditioned space, for instance, and insulators will have no choice but to install the product the correct and thorough way every time. Dealers who provide whole-house designs and/or installed sales will need to take particular note of these changes, and all dealers can be expected to help builders learn how to put up homes better and more consistently.
The changes matter because Energy Star for Homes and its sister program for appliances are by far the best-known and most-followed green programs. Since 1996, more than 1 million Energy Star certified homes have been built in the United States and 2009 alone saw the construction of 100,000 new certified homes. In contrast, 2009 saw just 2,914 homes certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes program, and only 425 new homes and 23 new multifamily projects were certified under the NAHB-championed National Green Building Standard. The recession has contributed to a sharp increase in Energy Star's popularity as builders searched for ways to compete on more than just price, Rashkin says.
V.3's guidelines will encourage distributors to alter the way they do business. For example, heating and cooling distributors will have to provide more efficient equipment that will meet Energy Star standards. LBM dealers will have to market products that will improve air barriers and minimize air leakage from headers. And window distributors will have to aim for windows that better insulate the home.
Insulation distributors will be hit in a different kind of way. They'll be pushed to offer more training to folks who install their products. If not, the installers' work is unlikely to pass Energy Star inspections.
"It becomes more incumbent on the supplier to offer training so the customer and vendors are in a position to be successful," Rashkin says.
Everyone in the industry interested in an Energy Star label will have to focus on three areas: thermal enclosure, HVAC, and water management systems.
The optimal thermal enclosure system will reduce air leakage, improve insulation R-value and installation and improve air barriers. It will reduce thermal bridging and include installing high-performance windows.
Rashkin believes thermal issues will become a big deal because of something that has nothing to do with Energy Star. Infrared cameras that can read a home's heat signature are becoming much more affordable.
As infrared cameras get used more often, Rashkin predicts consumers increasingly will demand that builders and suppliers provide and install better insulation throughout the house, particularly at windows and doors. Using those cameras to check the real performance of homes, combined with better insulation practices, likely will reduce homeowner's energy bills as well as increase a house's resale value.
HVAC systems also must continue improving. The requirements here include installing efficient equipment, right-sizing, optimizing air distribution, using proper refrigerant charge, installing ducts in efficient locations, ensuring proper pressure balancing, and putting in the right ventilation and filtration systems.
V.3 will promote the use of weather-resistant barriers such as adhesive roof membranes versus tar paper to prevent water penetration (especially in winter months) and flashing installed according to the manufacturer's specifications, particularly around windows and doors.
Just as important as making the home weather resistant is installing drainage systems such as drain tile with proper fabric filters, capillary breaks, and a drainage layer that meets Energy Star standards.
There are no current plans for a future version release after 2011, Rashkin thinks that Energy Star for homes has now set a high standard. He says that unless there is a "super tier home, something super, super insulated," Energy Star has reached its goal. However, EPA plans to watch the market to see whether builders choose to go beyond the set standards.