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Unplugged: DOE Approves Codes for Residential Buildings

(Updated 7/20)

This week, the Department of Energy announced new energy efficiency standards for all low-rise residential buildings (like houses, row-houses and small apartments) and commercial buildings. This means all states will need to review and make a determination about their residential building codes by July 2013.  DOE also committed to update the baseline standards for federal buildings that reference these codes.

This is no small matter. DOE last reviewed model energy codes more than a decade ago. During that time, the building industry achieved major improvements in energy-efficient design and construction. These improvements are demonstrated in the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code for residential buildings, and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) / American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) / Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) Standards 90.1–2007 and 2010 for commercial buildings. But, many Americans are still waiting for their states to update their building codes to capture the significant energy savings available.

After DOE failed to review and consider updating its determination based on revisions of the IECC and ASHRAE model codes, as required by federal law, Earthjustice sent a letter on behalf of the Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Friends of the Earth to advocate for the legally required updates and for other energy efficiency improvements for buildings at the federal level.

Under the leadership of Sec. Steven Chu, DOE has now taken action.

On Tuesday, DOE found that the 2009 IECC would create a 14-percent improvement in energy efficiency for residential buildings compared to the 2006 code, and an even larger jump from the 2000 version. DOE also found that ASHRAE 90.1 2007 would improve energy efficiency for commercial buildings by 4.6 percent. In a related preliminary determination on commercial buildings, DOE proposes to find that ASHRAE 90.1 2010 would provide an 18.5 percent improvement in energy efficiency.

Some examples of improvements included in the new model codes are upgrades to ensure that half of all lamps are “high” efficacy (such as by using compact fluorescent lights or CFLs), changes to prevent energy leakage from the building envelope, and other significant heating, cooling and lighting updates.

The next step rests with the states. Each state will now be required to hold a public hearing to review their energy codes in the next two years, and either revise to meet these new requirements or explain why it would be better not to save energy in their state. DOE will make all state determinations publicly available on its website.

When a state is considering whether to save energy, the choice should be clear. That’s especially true when upgrading building codes will save money, keep growing the market for innovative construction and energy-efficient design, and improving residential and commercial buildings for generations to come.

Comments on DOE’s preliminary determination for the ASHRAE 90.1 2010 Standard will be accepted through Aug. 19. Click on this Federal Register Notice for details on how to submit comments and support DOE’s effort to bring energy efficiency savings to buildings nationwide.

Watch for the results of DOE’s actions to come to your state, and start measuring the energy saved, brick by brick, and CFL by CFL.