NC's Energy Code is Under Short and Long-Term Attacks

Author: Ryan Miller

Last August I wrote an article highlighting reasons for North Carolina to invest in stronger energy codes. This was just after the new 2018 North Carolina Energy Conservation Code was completed and, unfortunately, around the same time that some North Carolina groups decided to try to roll the brand new code back. More on that later, but first a little background.

Building codes are developed and evaluated through the International Code Council (ICC) to provide minimum standards of construction for building safety, fire prevention and energy efficiency  which also advocates for adoption and practice throughout the US and internationally. Adoption by individual states, however, is not compulsory. Energy codes have been part of the code picture since about 2004, and the ICC makes extensive attempts to insert the latest research results into the codes. But make no mistake, codes are legislative laws, and because the building code affects a substantial portion of a jurisdiction’s economy, it is open to the same influences from lobbyists and special interests as any other piece of legislation (Rossberg and Leon, 2019)

This has been especially true in North Carolina where newly-adopted energy codes have come under continuous attacks.  Last month, legislation passed the House that would require a laborious cost-benefit analysis on energy code provisions retroactive to January 1 of 2018.  This effectively singles out energy code for unwarranted and duplicitous scrutiny – no other codes would fall under this new law, just energy – and challenges some highly regarded, state-supported fiscal analysis (like HUD and USDA) that already demonstrates cost benefits to builders as well as added long term value for homeowners through lower life cycle costs.

Plus North Carolina seems to be going against the International and National grain here. In fact, North Carolina is trending towards “seceding from the Codes Union”, and it’s a dangerous course that could leave us with substandard buildings and costly retrofits in the future.

The reasons for this trend are complex, but I’ll try to outline some of the core issues and what organizations like North Carolina Building Performance Association (NCBPA), where I serve as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, are doing to correct them.

In 2019, House Bill 675 sponsored by Rep. Mark Brody (R-55) was first introduced to require a cost-benefit analysis of all proposed changes to the NC Energy Code. It required the analysis to be based on a hypothetical five-year payback period as well as enumerate potential impacts on the energy efficiency of the entire built structure. This requirement set up a nearly impossible hurdle for any new energy codes, which seems to align with other legislative attempt to prevent even moderate improvements to energy efficiency, plus served to roll-back the mediocre standards North Carolina already has.  Thankfully, advocacy efforts led by NCBPA eliminated most of the incredibly restrictive and unrealistic language in the bill, but then it was replaced, in the new version of the bill that passed the House, with vague and likely impossible requirements.

The bill now requires the NC Building Code Council, comprised of 17 Governor appointees from the architecture, plumbing, general contracting and other industries, to not only create a new cost-benefit analytic methodology, but also use it to vet all energy code proposals going forward and, worse, retroactively to include any proposals since January 1 of 2018 whether they were approved or not.

As daunting a task as this would be for experts, in fact it will be nearly impossible in this case because there is no Energy professional on the Building Council. Alarmingly, just one Council member has any expertise, experience or credentials in energy efficiency, renewable energy or other type of sustainability profession, yet this Council will be developing and implementing a mandatory analysis of costs and benefits of efficiency, renewables and energy storage-focused building practices that will affect every home and building in North Carolina.

To address this shortcoming, NCBPA’s Executive Director and Principal Lobbyist Ryan Miller used this past legislative session to rally necessary legislative support and create a roadmap for establishing a new Energy seat on the Council. A voice of reason. Had his efforts not been intentionally suppressed, this may have added some confidence in the eventual Council results. But as it stands, my confidence is low that the energy codes will be of service to North Carolinians.  

Opposition to stronger codes is, I believe, a result of false beliefs and fear. One of the biggest falsities about energy codes in North Carolina is that stricter codes mean higher costs. As a Builder, I agree that the concerns echoed at the local, state and national association levels that link a lack of skilled labor to higher overall costs and reduced housing affordability are true.  I see it every day in my work.  However, where reality differs from advocacy campaigns is in the home building industry’s position that diligent energy codes exacerbate affordability problems. Builders like myself and organizations like NCBPA know that lower utility bills improve affordability by lowering life cycle costs and expenses. The ICC has a position paper (referenced above) that concurs. In fact, many lenders provide incentives for homeowners to choose energy efficient homes, such as lower interest rates or reduced down payments, because underwriters factor in the lower monthly costs of ownership. 

Need more proof?  When the NC Department of Insurance completed their required Fiscal Analysis of the (now altered) newly proposed energy code, they noted that higher energy efficiency requirements would yield $8 – $10 per month in savings for homeowners at a cost of $1 – $3 per month in mortgage costs.

But North Carolina’s Building Code Council did not pass that code. And now, North Carolina’s new 2018 Energy Conservation Codes, both for residential and commercial buildings, are so “cherry picked” that the Department of Energy won’t provide us with the standard compliance systems, REScheck and COMcheck, to verify compliance for lenders, builders, code officials, or homeowners. This is bad.

To make matters worse, one NC Building Code Council member, who happens to be the most recent Board President of NCHBA, is drafting code proposals to roll-back the minimum insulation values for homes in the climate zone where he builds, Charlotte. Less insulation? Really?

As if this all wasn’t bad enough, unfortunately the Code Council is often on the receiving end of even worse policy originating from higher up the food chain: the North Carolina General Assembly.  In these cases, the Council’s role is simply to apply the code legislation passed by the General Assembly with no vote and no opportunity for review.  The most egregious (and self-serving) example of this occurred in 2017 when a single legislator was able to change energy code to avoid having to apply it to her own personal home. That’s right, homes in North Carolina with attached garages no longer have to meet air barrier and energy efficiency standards that might protect occupants from the car exhaust, lawn chemicals, pool chemicals and other noxious airborne pollutants in the garage. The code change, eliminated with a stroke of a pen, removed the one building practice that kept pollutants from making their way into a child’s room above a garage, or from being sucked into a kitchen through a kitchen exhaust vent. Nice work. 

So, what can YOU do about all this?

  • As a consumer, let your elected officials know that responsible energy codes are important to our future – both for energy and non-energy reasons like health and safety.  Building Code Council appointments are made by the Governor – let their office know that you want great support for energy codes!
  • As a builder, work through your local and state home builders associations to advocate for improved energy codes, not reduced.  The notion that small incremental increases to energy codes is creating housing affordability issues is wrong – it’s the exact opposite when we builders can best contribute to future monthly energy savings for our customers.

There is no reason that we have to sit back and watch North Carolina’s energy codes continue to deteriorate – at the expense of homeowners and renters – for political and profit reasons. 

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