Contractors - Build to Code
Q: I'm trying to choose a contractor to build my new home. Often I hear the phrase that a particular contractor always "builds to code." Is that the highest standard of construction?
A: While it is true that we live in the "information age, sometimes the sheer amount of information available is more cause for confusion than clarification. Terms like super-insulated and high-efficiency are common place and contractors constantly boast that their houses are "built to code."
In an effort to clear the muddy waters of jargon and industry lingo, lets take a look at some clarifying factors. First, that last statement "built to code" is actually the same as "least allowable by law." Remember this, the next time your building contractor promises to insulate your new house to "meet code" or your heating and cooling contractor wants to recommend a "high efficiency" furnace or heat pump that "meets code."
Speaking of HVAC equipment and standards, using today's new standards, all HVAC equipment could be called high efficiency, when compared to the equipment of 15 to 20 years ago. In fact, the systems that were considered "high efficiency" then, aren't even permitted to be sold today!
Federal standards passed by Congress in the 1970's, and updated in the 90's dictate minimum efficiencies for most HVAC equipment. These numeric ratings are similar to fuel mileage ratings for vehicles. The higher the number, the lower the cost to operate the equipment. The rules require manufacturers to display numeric ratings on their equipment, using the familiar "yellow energy label." For example, room air conditioners must have an Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) of 9 or higher. Equipment on the market 20 years ago had an EER of 4 or 5. (This means that replacing an older unit with even the least efficient unit available today still results in significant energy savings.)
You may have also noticed an additional symbol appearing on some equipment, denoting it as an ENERGY STAR product. This takes the efficiency standards one step higher. This program is separate from the government's "yellow label" ratings mentioned above. Established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 as voluntary labeling for energy efficient computers, the ENERGY STAR program has expanded to more the 35 product categories, including all types of HVAC systems and even manufactured homes.
Also, the ENERGY STAR program defines what the term "energy efficient" should stand for. It sets a minimum efficiency level (that is beyond government standards) which products must meet before they can be called "energy efficient."
Some information for this article from the National Food and Energy Council website, article written by Greg Stark, P.E. Volume 19, No.2, December 2003.