Thomas Branch is president of Comfy House, a Pennsylvania-based home performance company that specializes in building energy modeling, energy efficiency retrofits, and energy efficiency inspections. As a RESNET and BPI certified rater with decades of experience in the business, Branch is qualified to speak about the deficiencies he sees in energy code enforcement. Insulation Institute recently spoke with Branch about what he sees as a noticeable decline in code enforcement and how the system should change.
Two Main Issues
Branch cites two primary issues with code enforcement: lack of consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within states and the relationship between the third-party inspector and the builder.
“In Pennsylvania, and I know in many other states, there can be a great disparity between townships on energy efficiency code requirements and inspections. What’s acceptable in one jurisdiction may not be in another. Also, getting an honest and objective energy inspection isn’t guaranteed and a lot of that has to do with who is paying the inspector.” He says the result is homebuyers may be getting a less efficient home than required or even one that hasn’t been evaluated at all.
“We have been doing code and above code performance testing for several years. When we were new at this end of the business, code and Energy Star were very close to the same thing. Builders only had to do a little better job air sealing than they would normally do for code, and they could market their houses as Energy Star. Unfortunately, when Energy Star went to version 3, many builders stopped marketing Energy Star and reverted to code minimum.” A less efficient house is the result for buyers.”
Branch notes that Pennsylvania updated its building energy efficiency code effective October 1, 2018. The state now mandates a blower door rating of 5ACH 50.
“Unfortunately, when third-party rater-inspectors point out flaws and deficiencies to some builders, that’s not well-received, and so inspectors are less inclined to mention flaw or fail a house,” Branch noted. He argues that the objectivity of some inspectors will be influenced by the relationship with the builder, who is ultimately paying them. That is a dynamic that can affect the buyer’s ability to get a home that performs as it should.
“There are real challenges in uniform code enforcement that need to be addressed. Jurisdictions may or may not have the staff to evaluate energy performance, so third-party inspections are a necessity. Still, there’s a better way than having those inspectors hired directly by builders.”
Options for Improvement
Branch advocates for one of two models for improvement in energy code enforcement:
- The homebuyer would directly hire the energy efficiency rater from a state or local code official’s approved list to conduct the home energy assessment and pay for the assessment directly; or
- The state or township enforcement office would maintain a list of qualified home energy raters to inspect homes, and those raters would be paid directly by the state.
Branch cited an experience he had with the city of Pittsburgh’s residential energy code enforcement as an example of an ineffectual system.
“A few years ago, we were told that we had to become a Pennsylvania UCC certified third-party agency. I complied and got my energy code inspectors license and filed with the state as requested. All was good for a short while until, without fanfare, the city announced on their code web page that their code inspectors were going to do the energy inspections starting in May. In late March, I asked a city code official if I understood their announcement correctly. He told me, yes, and he wished it wasn’t so because he doesn’t make any more money for doing the energy inspections and that he doesn’t know how to do an energy inspection. He also pointed out that in some cases, builders complain about the high standards and cost of enforcement.” This situation is to the detriment of buyers, and it’s a system that must be changed.
“Thankfully, we do have a pretty fair number of contractors and builders who want to do a good job, are compliant with inspections, and will make the necessary adjustments or corrections if something fails. But it’s hard to see the system changing for the better if a third-party inspector can’t be fair and objective for fear of being fired by the builder paying their salary, and that has to change.”