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Building Energy Codes – A Blutonian D-

By September 16, 2013November 8th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

Building energy codes and the legal age for buying and consuming alcoholic beverages have something in common.  If you read this blog regularly, you probably know what it is.  In case you are new, I will explain.

I’ve been off the college campus scene for about a quarter century, so I can’t speak for students today. However, back in the day it seems we started classes on Thursday and Friday, received our syllabi, joked around a while, and then immediately launched into a three day weekend for Labor Day.  The regents must have been young or dumb because that does one thing: prepare for massive parties with adult beverages, so that’s what we did.  I would add that when I was a freshman, I was underage for a purgatorial four (4) weeks.  Ten years prior, there was no purgatorial period at all.

After a year or two of being legal, suddenly I wasn’t.  The almighty federal government coerced states to raise the drinking age to 21, but in the great state of South Dakota where people really live free or die, they clung on to 3.2 beer for 19 and 20 year olds as a bridge, but this is beside the point.  The point is legal drinking ages were raised to stop/reduce debauchery and ruin the college experience (hide the kids).

Did it work as planned?  Like virtually all federal government ideas: No.

Since making alcohol illegal for virtually all undergraduate college students, “binge” drinking dropped a whopping four percentage points, and that’s being generous.  Refer to the chart nearby.  This does not explain the “why”, which is probably entirely divorced from the legal drinking age.

Similarly, building codes keep wrenching down the target energy consumption for new buildings, but is it having a significant impact?  Cursory research and direct experience indicates the answer is: No.

I filtered some data from the commercial building energy consumption survey (CBECS) maintained by the DOE.  That data set is pretty old already but is the newest they have.  I split buildings into two groups: those built in 1989 or before and those built since then.  Newer buildings should be more efficient.  They have more insulation, better windows, more efficient equipment, and are likely to have flexible, fully functional digital control systems versus the archaic pneumatic controls.

The results are shown in the following table in source fuel energy in thousands of Btu per square foot.  Data represent schools and offices in the northern tier of states including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, states of similar latitudes, and those states north of these.  I should also mention that the data set was filtered to include only central heating and cooling plants (boilers and chillers) either in the facilities or as part of district heating and cooling plants like those for college campuses and some downtown areas like Minneapolis and Chicago.

The significant differences are in cooling and lighting.  I can only guess as to why the cooling energy dropped substantially for newer buildings.  One guess is chiller efficiency is substantially better for these newer buildings.  Lighting is a surprise to me.  Lighting represents 80% of impacts achieved by typical electric efficiency program portfolios.  It’s the easiest to understand, the most up to date, and it seems everyone is getting on board.  Efficiency or efficacy (light out versus energy in) improves, but apparently designers are over-lighting spaces, badly.

Consider the total improvement of new buildings versus old buildings: just over 6 MBtu per square foot.  Look at the heating, which is a 12% improvement.  That’s it!  Progress in newer buildings versus old ones is a measly 6 MBtu, or 0.06 therm, or $0.04 per square foot.

Toga! Toga! Toga!  Bluto could do better than this.  This is absurd and pathetic.

The point of this post is; sure, go ahead and keep ratcheting down building energy codes and pat yourselves on the back, declare victory, and knock back a few shots of peach schnapps.  It is having minimal impact.  This is further demonstrated on page 7 of this white paper we wrote a couple years ago.  In that paper you can see that new buildings are badly underperforming estimated efficiency, or miles per gallon, so to speak.  Why?

  • Market forces demand cheaper and cheaper and cheaper buildings.  Make me a delicious four course meal.  You have five dollars and 10 minutes to do it.  Go!
  • There is no time or money to do things right.
  • Many systems and things allowed by code are archaic kludges and need to go.  I’m talking about central variable air volume systems.  Sure – you can demonstrate these things are efficient and with an energy genius lording over them, they are, but see the previous bullet and add to that insane complexity that makes successfully and correctly setting the minimum box positions for adequate ventilation (don’t ask) as common as driving the speed limit at all times.
  • There is no effective code compliance oversight.
  • Effective code compliance oversight is expensive.

I was going to get into making the case for code compliance DSM programs but ran out of space.  I will add it to the queue for a future post.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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