By John Woestman
U.S. consumer awareness of energy efficiency spiked suddenly in 1973 when an Arab oil embargo led to soaring oil prices and fuel shortages. Many Americans will recall waiting in long lines on alternate odd- or even-numbered days to fill up their cars’ gas tanks, getting slammed with astronomical home heating bills, or walking to school in the dark as Daylight Savings Time was extended into winter to help save energy.
Consumer interest in energy efficiency generally tends to rise and fall with the prices of oil and natural gas, which influences electricity, heating, and cooling costs. However, even though 2015 oil prices slumped to half what they were in 2014, federal spending on building construction energy efficiency programs for residential and non-residential buildings jumped to $23 billion that year. This efficiency-focused construction spending represents a nearly 25 percent increase from 2009 and a 37 percent increase over 2006.
Increased spending on energy efficient construction is likely in part a report of the significant acceleration in the adoption of new energy codes and standards. A 2015 International Energy Agency (IEA) report noted that energy efficient building standards in at least half of U.S. states and several federal agencies had “tightened markedly” in the recent years.
What are the Benefits?
New building codes are only one reason construction and renovation projects are focused on energy efficiency. Home and building owners are increasingly aware of and eager to learn about the direct benefits of energy efficiency modifications. However, making the case to clients to invest in energy efficient new construction or renovations has long persisted as a challenge for some home builders.
Builders who deepen their knowledge of energy efficient products, design and construction, as well as financing options and incentives, can offer valuable guidance to their clients. Energy efficiency is also often lauded as a profound way to reduce a building’s negative environmental impact, a significant motivator for many consumers.
One important step builders can take is checking the applicable federal, state, and local incentive programs that encourage energy efficient modifications or new construction. Beyond the resources put forth on the U.S. Department of Energy website, sharing tools such as SmarterHouse.com and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) energy savings guide with consumers can help clients understand energy efficiency options and available incentives.
The financial benefits of energy efficient buildings are persuasive. Estimates from the ACEEE show combined U.S. efficiency efforts save consumers a total of $840 per household every year in utility bills, a national total of $90 billion. Tightly sealed and well-insulated buildings can more than pay for the cost of the efficiency upgrades over the long-term, not just through reduced heating and cooling costs but also from recouped energy efficiency investments from increased resale values.
One stand-out opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of new construction and renovation projects is insulation. From a consumer’s standpoint, having robust insulation may not garner the level of admiration that their guests might give to a scintillating lighting system, but insulation is one of the most crucial elements in building energy efficiency. However, few non-building professionals understand the importance of using high-quality insulation, installed properly, for maximum impact. Insulation with superior moisture performance and short- and long-term R-value, such as extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) insulation, can be one of the most powerful and cost-effective ways to achieve better building energy efficiency.
The design and installation of high performance wall systems with continuous and extra cavity insulation is surging, particularly in regions with colder climates. Such applications not only increase energy efficiency by mitigating heat flow from thermal bridging and improving moisture management, but rigid foam insulation such as XPS may also modestly contribute to structural strength. The Foam Sheathing Committee of the American Chemistry Council has recently developed guidance for attaching siding (cladding) through various thicknesses of foam insulation, an important consideration as exterior continuous insulation is used in increasing thicknesses.
Getting back to building codes, more communities across the country are mandating insulation on walls above- and below-grade. While basement insulation is less common, without it, an otherwise well-insulated home can experience as much as 20 percent heat loss through foundation walls. Code changes, especially above-grade, require builders to focus more closely on contractor sequencing and coordination. For example, changes in insulation size and application can impact many aspects of construction, including the size of rooms; the amount and placement of sheathing; the size, number, robustness, and placement of fasteners; and the installation of siding, doors, and windows.
The growing trend toward energy conservation and new building codes mandating energy efficient construction combine to produce more opportunities for the construction industry – especially for smaller companies which make up 60 percent of the industry and rely on specialization and superior customer service to compete. Construction professionals who stay on top of techniques and technology related to insulation are in a position to take advantage of this growth sector.
John Woestman is director of codes and standards for the Extruded Polystyrene Foam Association (XPSA). He has more than 25 years of experience in the construction and building products industry with various responsibilities in construction, manufacturing, human resources, marketing, and codes, standards and regulations. He can be reached at email@example.com.