Updated county energy code will boost energy efficiency and save money

Energy efficiency scored a win earlier this month when the Garfield County commissioners voted to adopt an updated building energy code. 

Made with little fanfare, the policy change is projected to reduce the energy consumption of all new buildings – residential and commercial – in unincorporated Garfield County by an estimated 20%. Most of the county’s municipalities have already made similar code changes.

The county had a strong incentive to act before July 1. After that date, under a state law passed in 2019, any county wanting to update its building code will have to adopt an even more stringent energy code. As a service to its members, Garfield Clean Energy has been advising building officials at the county and local municipalities on their options.

But why should we care, you ask?

Blower-door test

Positive ROI

Energy codes, like other building codes, set minimum standards for health and safety. They’re the very embodiment of progress. Because they’re updated every few years, our building stock gets steadily safer, sturdier and more efficient over time.

Code updates can be a headache for contractors and building inspectors, and you’ll often hear grumbling about the added costs of new code requirements on development. But that’s not necessarily the case with energy codes, which have historically yielded a positive return on investment because the extra upfront construction costs are often more than offset in the long run by lower energy bills.

According to an analysis by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, updating from the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code to the 2018 one – the jump that Garfield County is making – will result in a net annual savings of $66 for a representative home in our climate zone in Colorado. That may not be a huge windfall, but it puts to rest the idea that energy codes impose onerous costs.

Meanwhile, building to stricter energy codes offers multiple benefits.

Buildings account for more than 40% of energy used in Colorado and represent the largest source of emissions in our region, so making all new buildings 20% more efficient will really help in bending the curve. More efficient buildings are also more comfortable buildings – less drafty, more evenly heated and cooled. What’s more, provisions of the newer energy code enhance health and safety by improving indoor air quality, reducing mold and mildew and ensuring better fire protection.

New requirements

The biggest changes in the 2018 energy code that the county has adopted are requirements for buildings to be tested to verify air leakage and proper ventilation.

In an energy-efficient building, windows, doors and other places where air might intrude need to be well sealed. The 2018 code requires a blower door test – a way of measuring how airtight a building is by placing a contraption in an open doorway that blows air outwards. This test will be a new experience for most builders, and it will likely create a few new jobs for home energy inspectors.

With tight, well-sealed buildings comes the need for extra ventilation, and so the new code also requires whole-house ventilation systems. These are another extra expense, but by including energy recovery features they also save energy and money.

The list of other requirements is long and technical. John Plano, Garfield County’s chief building official, says it will be a challenge to get the building community up to speed on how to comply. He knows from experience; he was Carbondale’s building official when the town updated its energy code in 2020.

To that end, Plano and Heidi McCullough, building specialist with Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), organized trainings for local building officials, contractors and architects last month to help them prep for the transition. A second session to be held at a project site is planned for later in the summer.

“It’s going to be a learning process and that’s how I’m going to look at it, at least for the first year,” Plano says.

Garfield County does the two step

Before the enactment of the 2019 law, Colorado was one of only a few states with no statewide energy code requirement. This year’s July 1 deadline and a second one in 2026 are designed to give Colorado jurisdictions time and flexibility in catching up with the rest of the country.

Garfield County took the opportunity to update its energy code in two stages. After the 2026 deadline, the next time the county changes its building code it will have to adopt the state’s Model Electric Ready and Solar Ready Code, which is based on the more stringent 2021 International Energy Conservation Code. That version of the code requires “continuous insulation” – typically achieved by using structural sheathing with an added layer of insulation, a more costly measure.

“I think what Garfield County is doing is very smart,” McCullough notes. “They’re taking a phased approach by moving to the 2018 code now and adding the step up to 2021 in a few years. This gives builders a chance to get used to some change without making such a big leap.”

While she praises the new state energy code regime, McCullough stresses that it only applies to new construction. The vast majority of existing buildings don’t meet those modern standards. On the bright side, there’s money to be made – and saved – by making them more energy-efficient.