Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The Arkansas Energy Office will schedule a public hearing this month on amendments and supplements to the state energy code for residential construction that were revised, at the request of the legislature, in association with the Arkansas Homebuilders Association.
Thus, said one energy contractor, the state has "outsourced the code to the homebuilders," considerably weakening its conservation measures.
The state energy office revised the code after legislators on the Joint Interim Committee on Energy heard objections from contractors and directed the office to rework the code to suit them. Contractors were especially unhappy with the code's requirement that new homes be rated for energy use, much like an Energy Star rating that goes on appliances; that the state's climate zones be divided into two to reflect colder conditions and greater insulation needs in Northwest Arkansas, and mandatory duct testing to insure against leakage.
State Rep. Bruce Cozart, a contractor himself and a member of the energy committee, said in an interview last week that the code would have been "cost prohibitive" and the committee "was looking at getting [code] a bit more friendly for homebuilders."
However, the weakened code could get the state in trouble with the federal government. Arkansas has received $137.3 million in federal stimulus dollars to promote energy-saving measures. The dollars have gone to the Arkansas Department of Economic Development, cities and counties, industry, schools and utilities to weatherize homes, provide rebates for appliances, assist in wind energy manufacturing, retrofit schools and so forth. Little Rock and North Little Rock, for example, received more than $1.5 million to refit public housing with energy efficient lighting, appliances, thermostats and more. Details can be found at recovery.arkansas.gov.
To accept the money, Energy Office Deputy Director J.D. Lowery said, the state had to agree to implement an energy code that complied with the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code. The state must meet at least 90 percent of the code — which requires duct testing and would keep Northwest Arkansas in a colder climate zone — by 2017.
If Arkansas fails to meet the code, Lowery said, the state could lose future federal funding. "We're not just talking about money that would pay my salary ... but money that goes to low-income heating assistance, programs that help utilities get reimbursed for costs," and other energy programs, Lowery said.
But Cozart said homebuilders didn't benefit from the stimulus dollars and weren't eager to accept the federal caveat. "Builders did not accept that money. It may have gone to some people but it didn't go to the majority. ... They're holding something over our heads that we didn't do."
Cozart said that the duct-testing requirement was particularly onerous. "There's a big push from people doing those type" inspections, Cozart said, and should a house fail the test, the builder would not be able to get a certificate of occupancy until costly changes were made. "We just object to mandatory testing. We'd like to see that it's open to each builder and he can use that for his selling point." He said he wanted the energy office to work out a "meet-in-the-middle type deal" with homebuilders.
Arkansas Homebuilders Association Executive Vice President Julie Mills disputed that the stimulus funds hold the state to adopting the 2009 IECC as is. She said the state could amend the 2009 IECC. "It's always amended," she said.
Ron Hughes, whose company HERS Inc. does energy cost inspections — including duct testing — and who teaches at Pulaski Technical College, says that in favoring the homebuilders and "dumbing down" the 2009 IECC, the legislature is forgetting consumers the code is meant to benefit. The HERS index — tossed from the new legislation — would have allowed consumers to know what it would cost to run a home. Energy-efficiency measures will raise a buyer's cost to purchase a home, he said, but energy savings will make up for the extra cost within a few years and add value to the home.
Hughes is one of 36 or more certified HERS raters in Arkansas. Another, Gary Kahanak of Home Energy RX, told the energy committee in October that about 10 percent of new homes are using HERS ratings as selling points.
Third-party HERS inspectors, who are certified by the national non-profit organization Resnet (Residential Energy Services Network), calculate efficiency scores by comparing the inspected home to a "reference home" of the same size and shape.
The 2009 IECC does not require HERS ratings, but it does require duct testing by a third party, which is part of the service that HERS raters provide. According to the state energy office, two out of three Arkansans support home labeling. Other information from the energy office: Arkansas ranks 45th in energy efficiency, and Arkansans' energy expenses are 9th highest in the nation.
The proposed 2014 code actually weakens the residential standard in Northwest Arkansas, where ceiling insulation requirements are greater. Zone 4 requires R-38 insulation; Zone 3, which the new code would put Northwest Arkansas in, requires only R-30, which allows more heat to travel through it than R-38.
The exception would be Fayetteville, which adopted an ordinance in 2011 that meets the 2009 IECC and requires HERS ratings. Ben Booth of Booth Builders in Fayetteville said the requirements "have cost us time and have cost us money." But, he added, he was speaking for builders in general rather than himself. As a custom home builder, the new code "hasn't affected me at all; we were already doing quite a bit of this." It's builders of spec houses who must now invest more and ask more for their houses.
Time issues, he said, are being resolved; the problem was that inspectors had to learn the new code's requirements, from pulling permits to HERS ratings.
"I don't mean to paint the whole thing negative," Booth said. "There is certainly payback for the consumer." He estimated that energy-efficiency requirements have added only 1 to 2 percent to the cost of a new home. He also estimated that the lower energy bills would make up for the higher purchase price of the home in 10 years at the minimum.
Linda Miles, whose family owns Chenal Valley Construction in Little Rock, said the company is no longer building energy-certified spec houses. To build spec homes certified under the federal Energy Star program, which provides rebates and tax breaks on certain energy-efficient building products, is costly "and nobody wanted to pay any more per square foot. You are selling the intangible. ... [the investment] did not make sense."
Miles said she was not opposed to energy ratings, but that she thought the market, rather than law, ought to set the standards. "The market has been awful for about five years and we don't want to start doing things to drive the prices of houses up."
There will be a 30-day public comment period on the residential code, after which the code will go to the Bureau of Legislative Research. Energy office deputy director Lowery said the code should go before the energy committee again in March.