Energy-efficient home certification sprouts here

Energy-efficient home certification sprouts here

Parish, Linn

An effort to promote energy-efficient home construction is sprouting, in the Spokane area.

A consortium of Pacific Northwest power companies, public agencies, and other groups has started the Energy Star Homes Northwest program, through which it’s certifying high-efficiency homes built in the region.

Chris Aiken, the program’s builderoutreach specialist for Eastern Washington and North Idaho, says power companies and others are pushing harder to get builders to construct new homes to high-efficiency standards. That’s in addition to longtime efforts to get homeowners and remodelers to retrofit older homes with energy-efficiency enhancements.

“They are focusing on the new construction, let’s-get-it-rightthe-first-time market,” Aiken says of the consortium.

Named the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, the consortium is based in Portland. Its Inland Northwest members include Avista Corp., Inland Light & Power Co., Kootenai Electric Cooperative, and a few other consumer-owned utilities. Aiken is based in Spokane, but works for Ecos Consulting Inc., of Portland, which markets the Energy Star program for the consortium.

Aiken says some homes built in Moses Lake and in the Puget Sound area already have received Energy Star certification. In the Spokane area, the first homes to be considered for the designation have been completed and currently are being reviewed by an independent party to ensure that they meet the program’s standards, Aiken says. He expects them to be certified in a matter of weeks.

Energy Star-qualified homes in Washington state are at least 15 percent more efficient than homes built only to state energy codes. Those greater efficiencies come in the form of highperformance water heaters and heating and air-conditioning systems, controlled air infiltration, tight duct work, more efficient lighting, and greater R-ratings for walls, floors, doors, ceilings, and insulation. An R-rating refers to the resistance to heat flow both into and out of a home-the greater the R-rating, the more energy efficient a part of the home is.

The Energy Star program requires at least an R-38 rating in vaulted, or cathedral, ceilings. State code calls for an R-30 rating in vaulted ceilings, Aiken says.

Another example of a greater efficiency requirement is Energy Star’s standard for gas furnaces. Energy Star requires gas furnace that are at least 90 percent efficient. State code calls for furnaces with at least 78 percent efficiency, he says.

The homes here that are candidates for Energy Star certification include two duplex buildings located in the Nine Mile Falls area northwest of Spokane. Spokane builder Rob Young constructed the two buildings, completing one about a year ago and the other last fall.

The single-story duplexes’ living units each have a total of 1,400 square feet of floor space and include three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

A home builder in the Spokane area for 32 years, Young says he and Andrews Mechanical Inc. President Larry Andrews have worked on developing their own energy-efficiency building standards in recent years. Andrews worked on the duplexes with Young, who had completed work on one duplex building and had started work on the other before he learned about the Energy Star program. Even so, the specifications for both of those homes will meet Energy Star standards, Young says.

“When we met Chris (Aiken), we realized we’re going down parallel paths,” Young says.

Andrews says that in addition to meeting Energy Star standards, the homes also include some innovative technology not necessary to achieve those efficiency benchmarks.

Specifically, he and Young installed radiant heating and cooling systems in the duplexes. Radiant heating systems have been relatively common for a number of years, but the technology typically hasn’t been used to cool, Andrews says.

With a radiant system, all water used by a unit is run through a series of tubes under the unit’s floor. In the winter, the water is warmed in a high-efficiency hotwater heater before being run through the tubing. In the summer, the water runs through the system at the cool temperature at which it’s piped into the home.

As with most any other modern heating-cooling system, the unit’s temperature is regulated with a thermostat. With radiant heating and cooling, though, a home doesn’t have a furnace or any forced-air ducting. Another benefit of this, Young asserts, is that the air in a home is cleaner, with less airborne dust and particulates.

Andrews says the system cools an energy-efficient home suitably, because the shell of such a home is built so tightly, it allows less warm air into the home. A radiant system could cool a conventional home, he says, but wouldn’t do so as efficiently as it cools an energy-efficient home.

Young and Andrews have started a company called RaCool through which they’re marketing their energy-efficient building method and radiant heatingcooling system to other developers. So far, though, they’ve only employed the technology in homes that Young has constructed.

The cost of constructing a high-efficiency home is about 20 percent higher than the cost of building a conventional home to code. The anticipated energy savings likely would offset the additional capital cost of a high-efficiency home over a number of years, Andrews says.

At the duplex units, natural gas powers the radiant system and the hot-water tank and provides hot water for the washer and heat for the dryer. At one of the year-old units, the monthly gas bill has ranged from $21 last August to $70 in December, Young says. Other than the radiant system, no supplemental heating or cooling sources have been used in that unit, he says.

Avista spokeswoman Catherine Markson says the average monthly bill for an Avista natural-gas customer in Washington or Idaho is $68. Of course, a typical bill is substantially higher than that average in the winter months and much lower in the summer months. Also, homes vary greatly in size and energy efficiency, and can have many kinds of auxiliary heating and cooling systems.

While the radiant system Young and Andrews are employing is innovative and noteworthy, Aiken says, a builder doesn’t need to use it to have a home be Energy Star certified. A number of different types of high-efficiency heating and cooling systems can be used to qualify for certification in the program.

Aiken says he currently is talking to other home builders in the Inland Northwest who are considering constructing homes to Energy Star standards.

Aside from future energy-cost savings, the only financial incentives to build energy-efficient homes are rebates offered through power companies.

Chris Drake, energy-efficiency program manager for Avista Utilities, of Spokane, says that company doesn’t offer rebates specifically for Energy Starcertified homes, but a builder could benefit from using equipment and supplies that are eligible for other rebate programs it offers.

For example, Avista currently offers a $150 rebate for installation of a natural-gas furnace that is 90 percent efficient.

Avista is looking into packaging some established rebates together under an Energy Star brand. Such an overall rebate would include incentives already offered, but might be easier for Energy Star proponents to promote, Drake says.

Energy Star certification guidelines have been developed through a federal program headed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. The Energy Star label most commonly is seen on new highefficiency household appliances, such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, and freezers.

The Energy Star program is somewhat similar to the Super Good Cents Program that was popular in the 1980s and ’90s, in that both target energy-efficiency construction.

Copyright Northwest Business Press Inc. Mar 10, 2005

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