Monday, August 3, 2009

Home Performance with Energy Star

Energy Star Products/Appliances, Energy Star New Homes and the latest Home Performance with Energy Star are Federal government programs that are usually implemented by the State governments. While the focus on these programs is to encourage the conservation of energy the true reason for these programs is rarely understood by most people.

For example, prior to the introduction of Energy Star Products/Appliances compact fluorescent light bulbs were very hard to find, as well as window/door weather stripping. At that time several years ago energy efficient appliances were mainly water heaters, heating and cooling systems. Refrigerators soon followed but the other numerous appliances found in our homes that could be more energy efficient were more or less ignored by manufacturers and retailers. Many look at this and say that this government program induced the manufacturers to make these products and retailers to put them on their shelves. In a sense that may be true but this program intentionally created consumer awareness and that created a demand and it is that demand that induced the manufacturers and retailers to react as they did.

With Energy Star New Homes which came about far before the large increases in fuel prices the introduction of this program induced builders and developers to compete by offering products in their new homes that were energy efficient, such heating/cooling systems, insulation and appliances. Energy Star Homes was introduced in the late 1990's and became recognized soon after the turn of the century. The Department of Energy collects a lot of data and one such collection is the energy efficiency of newly built homes. If one was to look at that data in the early 2000's of a particular area where Energy Star Homes program existed you would see that the average new home was at least 15% more efficient when compared to statistics of the same area prior to the introduction of the program. At first glance one would assume the energy efficiency of Energy Star Homes caused the increase and they would be wrong. Further examination of that data would show that the average efficiency of an Energy Star Home was 30% more efficient that the average home being built at that time. However, Energy Star Homes that were being built during that time period represented less than 3% of the number of homes being built. Clearly the 30% more efficient Energy Star homes could not account for the overall 15% increase in homes being built during that time period. What is clear here is that the Energy Star New Homes created consumer awareness and that caused the developers and builders to react as they did.

The newest of the Energy Star programs is the Home Performance. Its intention is similar to the other two programs and that is to create consumer awareness and that in turn would create demand. The appliance program successfully made products available and brought down the costs of those products to consumers through awareness and economy of scale. The same is true for new homes. The home performance program is designed to address the existing home retrofit or renovation market. The first aspect of this program deals with “Health and Safety”. Conservation may have its merits however the credo for all professions apply, “Do no harm”. Since moisture is the number one pollutant found in homes today and air exchange is a major factor in the extraction of moisture from our homes, “Air Sealing” reduces the amount of air exchange to conserve energy. The implication here is that making our homes too tight will produce unhealthy indoor environments. The truth though is the vast majority of homes today far exceed the minimum ventilation guide and in most cases more than double it. This program addresses this issue by measuring the home first to determine if air sealing is warranted and then air sealing. Afterwards the house is measured again to verify that minimum ventilation have not been violated.

There are several prerequisites for air sealing to be done in a home that pertain to moisture. Such as clothes dryer and bathroom exhausts must exit the home and work properly, indoor pools and spas must be physically separated from the main house, no plumbing leaks and water problems in the basement, even a roof leak would prohibit air sealing under this program. If found the occupants of the dwelling is made aware of any findings that prohibit air sealing and if they address the findings air sealing can proceed.

This program takes this a step further, especially since it is a consumer awareness program. Gas pipes are checked for leaks, ambient Carbon Monoxide measured both with combustion appliances off and then on, combustion appliances tested for efficiency and draft, combustion appliances zones tested for pressure, as well as flues. These tests are not new. What this program attempts to do is make the consumer aware of these tests and make them part of the regular service contracts to these appliances. These tests do not take long to do and fairly easy for a professional to do while servicing the appliances. These findings can also prohibit air sealing until addressed by the occupants. All this may sound like a lot but in reality it is not for a professional. Regardless if you are going to air seal your home or not this program does a lot for maintaining if not improving the indoor air quality of your home. People are just not aware of the simple measures one can take to accomplish it.

While air sealing is done to conserve energy, this is still a consumer awareness program. It does so by demonstrating to the occupants of these dwelling the increased comfort and reduction of energy bills in their homes from air sealing. But more importantly it illustrates to the occupants the impact on their comfort and energy bills from the electrician, heating/cooling contractor, plumber, cable and others who cut holes in their “Air Boundary” in the course of their jobs. The fact is that it is easier to seal the hole than it is to cut it. Consumers should ask the contractors what they intend to do to seal the holes they create in your home. Because they do not ask contractors that question those holes are never sealed. This is in fact the ultimate goal of this program and that is to make consumers aware and create a demand until it becomes a standard.

Unlike the appliance and new home programs which has had considerable success in raising the standards with products and new homes the home performance program has not. The first argument one might hear is that it is a fairly new program. While we might hear a lot of reasons for its poor performance this Aurthur does not agree with them. The saying “Timing is everything” clearly applies here. The introduction of this program came about during one of the worse economic crisis this country has ever experienced. As a result the administrators of this program reacted or overreacted. They viewed this program as an energy conservation program and an economic stimulus program. It is true that this program will create jobs but when you involve contractors that can manipulate numbers so one can qualify for better incentives or make it an incentive for huge rebates under a different program it diminishes the goal of the program by reducing its objectivity. The “Home Performance with Energy Star” program in New Jersey is in trouble and is highly likely to miss its ultimate objective, which is to raise the standards for all consumers.

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