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Musings of an Energy Nerd

The Energy Star Homes Program Raises the Bar with Version 3

The Energy Star program — the first rung on the green building ladder — is scheduled to get more stringent, with new airtightness and HVAC mandates and tougher requirements for larger homes

Strengthening the specification in five categories. According to the EPA’s marketing materials, the new Energy Star Homes specification (dubbed Version 3) will raise the bar for builders in five categories: controlling air flow, controlling heat flow, controlling moisture flow, equipment efficiency, and verification procedures.
Image Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Beginning on January 1, 2012, homes enrolled in the Energy Star Homes program will need to comply with a new specification — dubbed Energy Star Version 3 — that is stricter than the current Version 2 specification.

Version 3 will still offer builders two possible paths to obtaining an Energy Star label: a performance path and a prescriptive path. Since it’s impossible to provide a comprehensive description of Version 3 in a short article, I’ll confine myself to commenting on some of the highlights of the new specification.

More checklists

By now, Energy Star builders are familiar with the Thermal Bypass Checklist. The Version 3 specification has given the checklist a new name: the Thermal Enclosure System Rater Checklist.

Joining that checklist are three new checklists:

Among the requirements found in the Water Management checklist:

  • Builders must install pan flashing on the rough sills of all window and door openings.
  • Builders are prohibited from using any materials (including framing lumber) with “visible mold.”

While it’s hard to imagine that builders won’t be tempted to slip in the occasional 2×4 with a spot of mold on it, the checklist probably won’t slow down progress on many building sites, since the entire checklist lacks teeth. The only person required to verify that the builder has complied with the checklist is — drumroll, please — the builder.

Lowering the HERS Index goal

Energy Star builders will need to achieve HERS Index targets that are lower (that is, stricter) than the Version 2 HERS targets. Actual HERS targets will depend on the climate zone — in Vermont, most Energy Star homes will need a HERS Index between 60 and 70 — and the size of the home.

That’s right — Version 3 includes a “size adjustment factor.” The bigger the home, the lower (stricter) the HERS target. The Energy Star program deserves credit for this long-overdue innovation.

To calculate the size-adjustment factor, The Energy Star program assumes that

  • a 1-bedroom home should measure 1,000 square feet;
  • a 2-bedroom home should measure 1,600 square feet;
  • a 3-bedroom home should measure 2,200 square feet;
  • a 4-bedroom home should measure 2,800 square feet; and
  • a 5-bedroom home should measure 3,400 square feet.

If you plan to build a larger home — for example, a 3-bedroom home measuring 2,600 square feet — then the Energy Star program will require you to achieve a lower HERS Index than if you built a 3-bedroom home measuring 2,200 square feet.

Addressing thermal bridging

To reduce thermal bridging, the Version 3 specification requires builders to choose one of five wall-construction methods:

  • A continuous layer of rigid foam insulation (at least R-3 in climate zones 1-4 and at least R-5 in climate zones 5-8);
  • Structural insulated panels (SIPs);
  • Insulated concrete forms (ICFs);
  • Double stud wall framing; or
  • Advanced framing (optimum value engineering).

The foam-sheathing option sets a very low bar for builders — an issue I’ll get back to at the end of this blog.

New air barrier details

The Version 3 specification introduces a new, better definition of an air barrier material: “For purposes of this checklist, an air barrier is defined as any durable solid material that blocks air flow between conditioned space and unconditioned space, including necessary sealing to block excessive air flow at edges and seams and adequate support to resist positive and negative pressures without displacement or damage. EPA recommends, but does not require, rigid air barriers. If flexible air barriers such as housewrap are used, they shall be fully sealed at all seams and edges and supported using fasteners with caps or heads > 1 inch diameter unless otherwise indicated by the manufacturer. Flexible air barriers shall not be made of kraft paper, paper-based products, or other materials that are easily torn. If polyethylene is used, its thickness shall be > 6 mil.”

Among the air barrier details required by the Version 3 specification:

  • Wind-wash protection (for example, air-sealed blocking) at the perimeter of insulation installed on an attic floor (facing the soffit);
  • At least R-10 insulation and weatherstripping at all attic access hatches and panels on top of drop-down stairs;
  • Maximum air leakage rates (as determined by a blower-door test) that vary by climate zone: 3 ach50 or better in zone 8, 4 ach50 or better in zones 5-7, 5 ach50 in zones 3-4, or 6 ach50 or better in zones 1-2.

A low bar for insulation

The Version 3 specification requires that cavity insulation be installed to meet the Grade I installation standard developed by RESNET. The requirement calls for insulation to be installed without gaps or flaws and with less than 2% of the insulated area showing signs of insulation compression. Although the Grade I installation standard is difficult to achieve with fiberglass batts, builders should have no trouble achieving it with cellulose or blown fiberglass.

In a home with exterior foam sheathing, cavity insulation can be installed to a lower installation standard (Grade II) than in a home without foam sheathing.

The Version 3 specification requires visual inspection of installed insulation — something that is impossible with some insulation methods. For example, when cellulose insulation is blown into wall cavities after drywall has been hung, visual inspection of the insulation is impossible. So far, the EPA has not come up with a solution to this inspection conundrum.

Although building codes have long required insulation to be installed according to manufacturers’ instructions — in other words, without any gaps or compression — that code provision has been widely ignored. Although the Energy Star requirement that insulation be installed to the Grade I installation standard appears to be a new provision, it is simply a restatement of an existing (unenforced) code provision.

The Version 3 specification allows Energy Star builders to use insulation levels that barely meet code. For example, the 2009 IECC requires the use of R-38 ceiling insulation in Climate Zones 4 and 5. But the code allows lower insulation levels — as low as R-21 — when builders use the alternative equivalent U-factor calculation path or the alternative “Total UA” compliance path. Either of these code compliance paths will satisfy the Version 3 specification, as long as the attic insulation covers the exterior wall top plates.

For years, energy experts have been urging builders to install above-code levels of insulation, so it’s discouraging to see that the Energy Star Homes program has decided to allow builders to install insulation levels that barely meet code.

According to Sam Rashkin, the EPA’s national director for the Energy Star Homes program, the Version 3 specification includes a low bar for insulation because of pressure from builders — or, as Rashkin explained in an e-mail, “We … [wanted] to avoid some potential ‘poison pills’ for production builders.”

Venting combustion appliances

The Version 3 specification requires that in Climate Zones 4-8, all furnaces, boilers, water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces must be sealed-combustion units (with ducted outdoor combustion air) or must be power-vented.

In Climate Zones 1-3, atmospherically vented appliances are still permitted.

Installing and commissioning HVAC equipment

According to the new specification, installers of HVAC equipment in Energy Star homes must have passed a special course and been “credentialed.” Currently, the only organization that has such a credentialing program is the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), which offers the training under its “Quality Assured Contractors” program.

For more information, see the ACCA Web page on “Quality Assured Contractors.”

Forced-air systems

The Version 3 specification includes many new requirements for homes with forced-air systems:

  • Any supply ducts installed in unconditioned spaces need R-8 or better duct insulation.
  • Any return ducts, bath exhaust ducts, or kitchen range ducts in unconditioned spaces need R-6 or better duct insulation.
  • The maximum leakage rate for a forced-air duct system will be 6 cfm @ 25 pascals per 100 square feet of the home’s conditioned floor area.
  • The maximum leakage rate to the outdoors for a forced-air duct system will be 4 cfm @ 25 pascals per 100 square feet of the home’s conditioned floor area.
  • Every forced-air system will need a filter rated at MERV 6 or higher.
  • The air flow of the whole supply duct system must be measured and must be within 15% of the design air flow.
  • The air flow at each supply register must be measured and must be within 20% of the design air flow.
  • The maximum pressure difference between a bedroom with a closed door and a common room of the house (measured with the forced-air system operating) will be 3 pascals.
  • If the home has central air conditioning, then the installer must verify that the subcooling deviation is no greater than ±3°F and the superheat deviation is no greater than ±5°F.
  • If the house is equipped with a central-fan-integrated supply ventilation system, then the furnace or air handler blower must be powered by an ECM (electronically commutated motor) and the fresh-air duct must be equipped with a motorized damper wired to a control that prevents overventilation or underventilation.

Builders who are anxious about some of these provisions should note that the new requirements don’t come with any teeth. The person responsible for verifying all of these requirements is the HVAC installer.

Mechanical ventilation

For the first time, Energy Star homes will now be required to include a mechanical ventilation system complying with the ASHRAE 62.2 standard. It’s about time.

The specification requires ventilation air inlets for supply or balanced ventilation systems to be at least 4 feet above grade. This provision means that many homes will no longer be able to install such inlets through the basement rim joist.

What Version 3 gets wrong

The Energy Star Version 3 specification gets many things right, and the EPA should be commended for raising the bar on Energy Star home requirements.

Unfortunately, the new specification gets several things wrong:

  • The specification allows builders in Climate Zones 4 through 8 to omit interior air barriers at rim joists. In other words, rim joists in those zones can be insulated with unfaced fiberglass batts. Sam Rashkin predicts that this lax provision won’t be a problem, because the stringent Grade I installation spec will make the use of fiberglass batts unlikely. However, it remains to be seen whether raters will really have the backbone to fail fiberglass batt jobs with installation defects.
  • An early proposal prohibiting furnaces, air handlers, and return-air ducts from being located in garages was cravenly eliminated. According to Rashkin, “That was a battle with the American Gas Association. We said, ‘What battles do we want to fight?’ The AGA is a pretty big player.”
  • Rather than requiring above-code insulation levels, the specification allows builders to install insulation that barely meets minimum code requirements.
  • The specification allows builders in cold climates to use very thin rigid foam wall sheathing — for example, R-5 foam on a 2×4 wall with R-13 batts in Vermont. Such thin foam can allow moisture accumulation or condensation in the wall cavity.
  • The specification’s envelope air leakage goals (between 3 ach50 and 6 ach50, depending on climate zone) are too high.

I’d like to give credit to Li Ling Young, whose presentation on Energy Star Version 3 at the Better Buildings By Design conference in Burlington, Vermont, inspired this article.

Last week’s blog: “Disappointing Energy Savings for Energy Star Homes.”

10 Comments

  1. Dick Russell | | #1

    Air inlets four feet above grade?
    "The specification requires ventilation air inlets for supply or balanced ventilation systems to be at least 4 feet above grade. This provision means that many homes will no longer be able to install such inlets through the basement rim joist."

    What am I missing here, other than some concern that snow will bury an inlet in heavy snow areas? It would seem that in many cases, with most or all of the foundation having only a foot or so above grade, the requirement will force the inlet to come out through the framed wall, preventing the ventilation equipment from being in the basement, making the connection to a duct system originating in the basement awkward, or compromising the insulation in a piece of the framed wall. The only framing construction I can imagine that would accommodate the requirement is a double framed or otherwise quite wide wall.

    My new, superinsulated and exceptionally tight house (not quite finished), with HRV inlet and exhaust ducts already installed, would fail Energy Star Version 3!

  2. User avater
    Danny Kelly | | #2

    Rigid air barrier
    Martin - are you sure they will allow a non-rigid air barrier? I heard Sam state at RESNET conference (last year) that they will require rigid air barriers for version 3. All of our current raters we use are requiring rigid air barriers with the current version.

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Dick Russell
    Dick,
    In addition to the problem of 5-foot snow banks, the minimum height requirement for ventilation air inlets may be driven by a concern about proximity to smelly objects on the ground like dog feces. But I'm just guessing.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Danny Kelly
    Danny,
    I have quoted from the language in the EPA documents: "EPA recommends, but does not require, rigid air barriers."

    You are not alone in questioning this provision; it came up during the comment period, but the EPA didn't budge. See comment #129, and the EPA's response, in this document:
    EPA Responses to Comments on ENERGY STAR Qualified New Homes Guidelines, Version 3.0

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #5

    Great article!
    Great article, Martin, as usual. Another new aspect of the program, which you almost touched on, is that builders, HERS raters, and HVAC contractors must go through a special training class and pass a test. Raters have to take a two-day class, HVAC contractors have to take a 4 hour class, and builders have to go through a 1 hour online module. Builders and raters must go through these classes to maintain their ENERGY STAR Partner status or to become a Partner if they're not one yet.

    Last week, the ES team just released their guidebooks for Thermal Enclosure Systems, HVAC, and Water Management. (You can download them here: http://1.usa.gov/hk5jKM.) They're much better than last fall, when I first saw them, but there are still a lot of missing photos.

    ENERGY STAR Version 3 is a big step up in the program, but it certainly has some flaws, as you've documented. I've been writing in our blog (http://bog.energyvanguard.com) about ES V3 since they first released it last April and have also written a white paper about it (http://bit.ly/hGyP1X).

  6. Robert Hronek | | #6

    In one respect I think
    In one respect I think testing may increase the proformance of the home. On the other hand it may be like appraisals with the auditor doing whatever it takes to keep a client.

  7. Brennan Less | | #7

    Near-grade supply inlets get fouled with yard waste and detritus
    I would expect that this requirement is due to the potential for the air inlet of a ventilation supply duct to become fouled with yard waste, grass clippings, etc. Exhaust ducts are not a problem, because they are forcing air out to the exterior. But supply ventilation ducts are sucking air in, and this tends to draw debris. I think experience would bear out that after a year or two (if the supply inlet is not manually cleaned), the whole supply ventilation intake will be covered with debris, which would seriously restrict the air flow through the duct. Essentially, you get a supply ventilation system that is incapable of delivering any fresh air, and you've increased the ventilation fan energy in the case of ECM powered units. In addition to clogging, any debris that passes by the insect screen on the exterior will come to foul the heat exchanger, reducing its efficiency over time. It's hard to say if this problem is entirely eliminated by raising the inlets by 4', but it seems like a logical step. Hope this helps.

  8. Isaac Savage, HvacDesignPros.com | | #8

    Energy Star Version 3 Training
    Nice article Martin.

    There seems to be a lot of concern out there about Version 3 being too hard, too expensive, etc. Some partners have threatened to back out of their home certification commitments completely. As with most of the general public, it seems many Energy Star Partners fear change.

    The largest change seems to be found in the HVAC contractor's scope of work. While the EPA-required course covers what has to be completed, it doesn't teach the attendee HOW to complete these Version 3 requirements.

    We've developed an Energy Star Version 3 training for HVAC Contractors that combines the 4-hour ACCA course with an additional 1.5 days of in-depth coverage on diagnostic testing, HVAC design, and Version 3 checklist completion... with an additional (optional) day of in-field, hands-on, training. In-field training for HVAC contractors and technicians will be critical for the overall success of Version 3. We hope that most of our class attendees will see the value in bringing additional staff from their companies out for the field training portion.

    We're also offering a 2-day class, Energy Star Version 3 for HERS Raters, where we'll not only focus on the necessities, but spend some time discussing ways for Raters to increase their service offerings as a result of the Version 3 requirements. With an expected decrease in volume, diversification is key.

    Lastly, we've designed a 1-day class, Energy Star Version 3 for Builders and Architects, that covers the core changes per trade, covers inspections and diagnostic testing requirements that Raters will implement, and emphasizes the importance of getting their trades on-board early. As with most things, buy-in has to happen at the top of the decision making ladder in order to ensure success throughout. We feel that after attending a thorough training, having their questions answered, and understanding who's responsible for what, some of the builders that were previously "on the edge" will come back over to the Version 3 side of the fence.

    Thanks for addressing all of these Version 3 issues. Keep up the great work!

  9. John Ashton | | #9

    What Version 3 gets wrong - Bullet 1
    What Energy Star document says that builders in Climate Zones 4 through 8 can omit interior air barriers at rim joists?

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to John Ashton
    John,
    Here's the document:
    http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/bldrs_lenders_raters/downloads/InspectionChecklists.pdf

    And here's the quote:
    "Band joists are currently exempt from interior air barrier requirement in Climate Zones 4 thru 8."

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