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Green Building Curmudgeon

Energy Code Enforcement is a Mixed Bag

Georgia’s required testing is a great start, but building inspectors need to step it up

The code book provides air-sealing guidance to builders. Several pages of excellent diagrams in the Georgia 2009 IECC amendments provide guidance for builders to meet the code's requirements. Unfortunately, they are too often ignored and not enforced.
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The code book provides air-sealing guidance to builders. Several pages of excellent diagrams in the Georgia 2009 IECC amendments provide guidance for builders to meet the code's requirements. Unfortunately, they are too often ignored and not enforced. Proper kneewall air sealing should be easy to comply with, but it doesn't happen often enough. This house without the required kneewall air barrier did not pass the blower-door test and will need to be corrected. The code doesn't appear to address, nor do inspectors enforce, any quality installation requirements. Currently under construction, this high-end home is using framing cavities for return air ducts, a practice that is not allowed in the Georgia IECC amendments. The required air barrier is missing behind this bathtub. Hopefully, the builder will correct this before it is inspected.

I’ve never been much of a code geek, but recently I’ve been studying the 2009 and 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) documents. When I was a contractor, energy code enforcement by building officials was pretty much nonexistent, so I didn’t pay much attention to the specifics, although I’m fairly certain we met or exceeded the minimum requirements in our projects.

My recent interest in the codes was sparked by Georgia’s amendments to the 2009 IECC that went into effect this year. The Department of Community Affairs put together a pretty thorough document that improves on the 2009 code and requires blower-door testing for new homes listed as an option in the IECC – one of the few in the country that does so. For reference, a house must test better than 7 ach50, and ducts must test to better than 8 cfm @ 25 Pa/100 s.f. total leakage or 12 @ 25 Pa/100 s.f. leakage outside the building envelope. Duct systems fully inside the building envelope don’t need to be tested and blower door testing is not required on renovation projects.

More cops on the street

There is a difference, however between having a good written code and enforcing it.

There are two pieces to making sure that buildings meet the energy code: visually inspecting for the mandatory measures and performance testing. Visual inspections are the responsibility of building inspectors, while the testing can be done by anyone with the proper training – HERS raters or Duct and Envelope Tightness (DET) technicians who are trained to perform blower door and duct leakage tests by groups around the state. The testing does not need to be performed by a third party – the HERS rater or DET technician can be an employee of the builder, the HVAC contractor, or an independent contractor.

Since I am a HERS rater, I do the required testing for some builders and provide the test results for my building certification clients. Most of the houses I test pass; however, two recent homes did not. One house showed some bad duct leakage, which the HVAC contractor was able to identify quickly and repair.

At the second house, the blower-door test showed almost 9 ach50. A quick inspection showed that an attic bonus room did not have the required attic-side sheathing on or blocking below the kneewalls. When they correct this, I will come back and retest. These are two cases where testing identified problems that could be fixed, but so far, there appears to be limited enforcement of the code by building officials.

I see nothing

In my testing role, I am not responsible for overall compliance with the energy code, but I do my best to point out obvious problems, such as the missing air sealing of the knneewall mentioned above. But as long as a house passes the tests, I have no authority to report any work that doesn’t comply with code requirements.

Unfortunately, it appears that many officials who are in a position to enforce the code are not doing so consistently. They require that the contractor post the state-required compliance certificate, but I have yet to see a project fail for missing the required air barriers that could be visually verified in a matter of minutes.

This lack of enforcement allows builders to complete and sell homes that clearly don’t meet the requirements of the energy code, depriving homeowners of energy efficiency and comfort that they deserve. If enforcement were better and more consistent, all builders would have to step up their game and we would end up with much better housing stock.

I recently served on a committee to help the city of Atlanta come up with a plan to properly enforce the energy code, with the intention of disseminating the results throughout the state when complete. The report is scheduled for release early next year. It will be interesting to see how successful this effort is at improving enforcement in the field.


  1. user-723121 | | #1

    Good builders will follow the code
    The upgrades to the Georgia energy code are not onerous and will help builders minimize consumer comfort complaints. 7 ach50, come on, if you remember to install all the windows and doors you should easily meet this threshold. The new code (2012 IECC) when it takes effect will require 3 ach50 for parts of GA, it's time to start fine tuning air sealing details.

  2. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #2

    Never suggested they were onerous
    I agree that the requirements are not particularly stiff and I look forward to the more stringent requirements of the 2012 code, and hope that they are strictly enforced. Whether a house will pass the 7 ACH 50 test depends on the building design as well as the air sealing. Most builders can air seal reasonably well on a standard box, but in the case of the house that failed, it was the attic knee walls that caused the problem. They weren't prepared, didn't budget for, and didn't assign responsibility for proper air sealing this particular detail. Hopefully when I go back to test for the 2nd time, they will have figured it out. In truth, I would like the flexibility to fail a project for missing air sealing even if it passes the tests, especially since the building inspectors aren't doing it yet.

  3. steveb_energylogic | | #3

    Pendulum swing of code inspections
    One interesting thing that we've seen is the pendulum effect on code enforcement. Lots of homes, fewer and less rigorous inspections. Fewer homes, lots more attention. Drives our builders crazy from the lack of consistency. Like any business, consistency is one key to business success. Also, with no state energy code we have a patchwork of codes that makes it quite a pain to know what to do where.

  4. DFKFGSv9xJ | | #4

    Knee wall insulation and construction
    Why does the code require a more stringent r-value for the somewhat protected knee wall than it does for the completely exposed exterior wall?

  5. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #5

    Knee wall
    Roy - an attic knee wall is exposed to summer temperatures that exceed outdoors - sometimes as high as 140 -150 degrees, so it makes sense that the walls require better insulation and air sealing. Poorly detailed knee walls get seriously hot in the summer.

  6. user-949729 | | #6

    New Construction Inspections
    For years running a handyman business, I had to deal with lots of builder omissions - some easy to correct and then the poor new homeowners who got entire sides of their home missing any type of vapor barrier or insulation ... and yes, bathroom pipes freezing every year. Try explaining why it takes to fix this problem from the outside.

    Thought of offering a contractor inspection service to review the house to check for the most common problems as many of them are hidden from the building inspector. Another idea after reading this is to provide the home owners with a list of things to check ... but that only works if they're involved from the beginning.

  7. XbY53AuDnM | | #7

    Training Municipal Inspectors the Energy Codes
    Earth Advantage Institute, a non-profit based in Portland, Oregon, has just begun a project on behalf of Bonneville Power Administration to develop energy code specific training for city and county inspectors. Partnering with counties in Washington state and Oregon, this training will be taught in person, as well as available online. With an emphasis on teaching the building science behind the code requirements, it is our goal to increase the rigor of energy code enforcement.

  8. user-723121 | | #8

    Bonneville Has Been A Leader

    I was on Bonneville Power's mailing list back in the 1980's when they were promoting the "Model Conservation Standards". This was a beautiful program and so far ahead of it's time. I am pleased to hear they are on the forefront once again in promoting energy efficient buildings and the energy code training needed to make this work.

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