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Energy laws and your building project

by Steve McKee on September 26, 2004

Title 24. That was its clunky legislative name, and that’s how it continues to be known on building permits and at job sites throughout California. It’s the energy efficiency compliance law California has had in effect since the energy crunches of the 1970’s. Any building project in the state is going to comply with it. Documents showing this compliance need to be submitted when applying for a building permit or the permit will be denied.

Title 24 requires that all new construction and additions meet certain minimum standards for energy efficiency. In houses, it’s done by looking at the project’s combination of insulation thickness, quantities of windows, energy efficiency of those windows, efficiency rating of the furnace, and so on, and making sure the combination of those things will result in a certain level of energy efficiency. It also calls for mandatory features in the house’s construction such as caulking or foaming shut holes in framing where wires pass through the 2x4s that would otherwise create drafts, as well as the use of dual paned windows, furnaces that are at least 80% efficient, thermostats that can be “setback” to allow for different settings for night and day, and, last but not least, mandating the use of fluorescent lighting in kitchens and baths. (Ugh. More about this one later)

Just about everyone wants an energy efficient house. How to do it? Adding extra insulation is usually okay with most home owners. Cutting back on windows in a design, on the other hand, is disliked by almost one and all. There are alternatives to losing the windows. Other tactics are brought to bear first.

The usual manner of addressing Title 24 in the design process goes something like this: The home design proceeds through the various meetings and design evolutions without much thought spent on the Title 24/energy aspects, which is just as it should be. Maybe if a client is calling for massive window walls throughout the house we discuss why we may need to limit such a thing. (Besides, you can capture views just fine with some well placed moderately-large windows instead of having to overwhelm with a large expanse of glass which will also limit wall space for art and make sun control more difficult. But I digress.) For the most part we are designing to meet livability needs, not California energy regulations.

Then, with the design done, the architect will begin creating a series of “working drawings” that show the design in much more detail with notes, dimensions, cross-sectional views, roof plans, framing plans, foundation plans, etcetera. During this time the design is evaluated for energy compliance, usually by sending the almost finished drawings out to a Title 24 consultant (I use Gary Cady here in Benicia) who runs square footage numbers on insulation and windows, looks at efficiency ratings and all the other relevant items and enters these into a computer program that compares the proposed design to an imaginary house of similar size that has the required energy minimums mandated by the state of California.

The proposed design needs to come in with more points than the imaginary house in order to be accepted by local building officials. The only truly commendable thing about all these not fun rules and limits is that we actually have a bit of latitude to bend these rules by manipulating insulation or window quality, just as long as we arrive at our energy point value in the end. This is how we can get the extra windows that are important to some homeowners — we beef up other aspects of the energy efficiency.

If the computer tells us we are not in compliance, we begin by changing the easy things first. We increase the attic insulation from R-30 (10” thick) to R-38 (12” thick.) Wall insulation can go from R-13 to R-15 within the same available wall thickness. A favorite tactic is to increase the quality of the windows specified. Another very effective change is to use a higher efficiency furnace. These 90% efficient furnaces (the usual is 80% efficient) are a big ticket item adding a couple thousand dollars to the cost of the system. These gas furnaces are so good at extracting the energy (i.e. heat) from the gas that their exhaust is much less hot than the usual furnace exhaust and can even vent out a side wall in a plastic pipe instead of up through the roof in a metal flue. They pay for themselves after about the third or fourth year.

Only very rarely do we cut back on window sizes. In fact, I can’t even remember a job when we resorted to doing that.

By the way, you can pretty much forget about using any sort of electric heat source, such as base boards or other electric resistance heating. The resulting point penalty in the Title 24 calculations is murder. Think gas instead. With gas, you can even use a gas-only fireplace (you know, the kind with the fake logs) as an accepted heat source for your addition. It just needs to have at least an 80% efficiency rating to qualify.

By the way, if you’re remodeling an older house that has drafty windows and little insulation, it’s going to be very easy to get the addition to your house to comply with Title 24 regulations. This sounds wrong, doesn’t it? It turns out you get a lot of brownie points for even slightly improving a bad house. Ironically, we have a much easier time getting additions on older inefficient homes to pass than we do with additions to modern well insulated homes. Go figure.

Now, about those not-very-beloved fluorescent light fixtures mandated in kitchens and bathrooms: (Excuse me a second while I climb onto this here soap box.) The vast number of new houses and remodels created in California during the last 25 years have all benefited from these energy requirements. The planet enjoys less resource depletion. Homeowners enjoy lower bills. It’s win-win for the most part. Title 24 is not without its flaws, though. In my opinion the requirement to use fluorescent lighting in kitchens and bathrooms is well intentioned but ineffective. (The logic here is that the rooms that require the brightest lighting should have the most efficient type of light fixtures.) This rule has really just resulted in many houses with even more lights in kitchens and bathrooms than they would have otherwise had — the fluorescent fixtures required by law, and then the incandescent fixtures most homeowners actually want to live with. This was not the intention and it’s not saving energy.

Here is a great idea I’ve carried around for a while: Change the law to allow homeowners to eliminate the fluorescent light requirement if they instead install an attic exhaust fan that is thermostatically activated. (When your attic reaches 90 degrees or so an exhaust fan would come on that draws in cooler outside air. It’s in the evenings that these fans really earn their keep by allowing your house to get rid of that mass of heated air in your attic.) People who have these fans tend to speak very fondly of them. This would lower energy demands throughout the state in a big way during summer months.

So that’s Title 24 in a nutshell. Not so mysterious, if you know the basics.

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