Since its inception in 1995, the goal of the Energy Star for New Homes program has been to help homebuyers identify homes that are significantly more energy efficient than typical homes in the marketplace. As code requirements have become more rigorous over the years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has responded by modifying the Energy Star guidelines periodically to ensure that new homes that earn the label continue to represent a meaningful improvement in efficiency, comfort, and quality over non-labeled homes.
In 2010, EPA released new guidelines required for homes to earn the Energy Star label (called Version 3). The new guidelines were needed to ensure that Energy Star-qualified homes continued to out-perform homes built to minimum code and standard building practices and to address key building science improvements to enhance home quality and durability. Certain elements of the Version 3 guidelines are being phased in during 2011 - under the auspices of Version 2.5 - but they become fully mandatory on Jan. 1, 2012.
At that point, EPA will require that the HVAC systems in all homes that earn the Energy Star label be installed according to the Quality Installation (QI) guidelines established in ANSI/ACCA Standard 5 QI. This standard establishes minimum requirements to promote proper installation of HVAC systems for optimal performance, which include proper equipment sizing and component matching; correct refrigerant charge; proper airflow to match refrigerant capacity; and tight ducts that are properly balanced to promote comfort throughout the home.
To make sure these steps are properly performed, qualified, and credentialed, HVAC contractors will need to complete a detailed Energy Star HVAC inspection checklist based on the QI standard. A certified home energy rater will also complete an additional HVAC inspection checklist that serves, in part, to verify key data points from the contractor’s checklist.
BIG CHANGES AHEADThe HVAC requirements in Version 3 represent one of the most significant changes in the new guidelines, said Jonathan Passe, communications coordinator, Energy Star Residential Programs, U.S. EPA. “The HVAC requirements under Version 2 only looked at the efficiency of the equipment, required tight ducts, and contained some recommendations regarding proper sizing - but there were no specific quality installation requirements or inspections. This is a new, very significant change that will require more coordination between the builder, home energy rater, and HVAC contractor to make sure that the new guidelines are met.” (Additional information about Version 3 requirements and the inspection checklists can be found at www.energystar.gov/newhomesguidelines.)
There are four checklists in Version 3, as compared to the one checklist in the previous version. These include the Thermal Enclosure System Rater checklist, two HVAC System Quality Installation checklists, and the Water Management System Rater and Builder checklist. The HVAC contractor checklist requires contractors to design and install HVAC systems according to ACCA Manuals; meet ASHRAE 62.2 ventilation requirements; and complete field tests and inspections of the installed systems. The rater HVAC checklist requires raters to collect the completed HVAC contractor checklist; confirm that bedrooms are pressure balanced; visually inspect the duct system and measure the airflow through the heat exchanger, ventilation system, and exhaust fans; visually inspect the filtration system; and visually evaluate combustion appliances and garages.
While some contractors may be uncomfortable with the idea of having to fill out a checklist, and then having a third party make sure the checklist is correct, Steve Saunders, CEO, Tempo Mechanical, Dallas, said contractors should look at this new version of Energy Star as an opportunity, rather than a burden. “Energy performance issues are not going to go away. Codes are continuing to become more stringent, IAQ is still a problem, and energy costs continue to go up, so efficiency is the lowest cost policy option.”
To that end, he stated that Version 3 of the Energy Star for New Homes program is about increasing efficiency and durability while improving comfort, IAQ, and HVAC design. In addition, the Energy Star brand is well known and can be used as an effective marketing tool that can put a contractor in a unique position of addressing energy and the environment.
“But I understand that this new version is different, and different can be hard. Especially in these times when money is tight and time is scarce,” said Saunders. “I encourage contractors to read the checklist with an open mind. As a matter of fact, read it five days in a row in order to get a clear understanding of all the objectives. Then compare the requirements to your current process to identify what you may need to modify. Outline any costs or cost reductions, then get started. And remember that it’s best to learn by doing because the unknown is always more expensive.”
The point of having two HVAC checklists in Version 3 is not to create an adversarial relationship between the contractor and the rater; instead, the hope is to bring these two parties together with a shared goal of installing an HVAC system that delivers efficiency, comfort, and performance for buyers who choose Energy Star-qualified homes. But what happens if the rater does not sign off on the contractor’s checklist?
“If a rater finds anomalies as part of the review of the contractor’s checklist, we want the rater and contractor to work together to resolve any issues that are uncovered,” said Passe. “In general, the rater’s checklist is pretty objective, and we don’t expect to see a lot of gray area. Basically, the contractor’s checklist will either match the conditions found in the home by the rater (such as the home’s orientation), or it won’t.”
The bottom line, though, is that raters are responsible for issuing the Energy Star label for the house, and if they have concerns that it does not meet the guidelines (including the HVAC QI requirements), their responsibility is to inform the builder and not issue the Energy Star label for the home. “We don’t expect that this is going to come up very often however,” said Passe.
TRAINING AND OVERSIGHTUnder the new guidelines, EPA requires HVAC contractors to be credentialed by a training and oversight organization, in order to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively implement the requirements of the QI checklist. This will mean contractors will have to invest in training, education, and possibly some new equipment if they have not been involved in testing airflows and pressures.
“To be clear, EPA is not credentialing the contractors” said Passe. “Rather, we are recognizing oversight organizations that have established credentialing programs that meet EPA requirements. We will link to recognized oversight organizations from the Energy Star website, where builders will be able to find HVAC contractors in their area who are authorized to do this work.”
Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) has already been recognized by EPA as an oversight organization for Version 3 and is offering orientation and training classes to members and non-members alike under its Quality Assured (QA) program. The orientation session explains what is involved in the Energy Star for New Homes Program and reviews the checklists as well as the requirements of the QA program. The session is available for a nominal fee online 24/7 at www.acca.org/qa.
The orientation session should not be particularly complicated for professional HVAC contractors, many of whom already have the prerequisite skill sets to satisfy the Energy Star requirements, said Wes Davis, QA program director, ACCA. “Others may need to be brought up to speed in certain aspects of what it takes to install HVAC systems in a quality manner. Training in these areas is offered by ACCA, as well as by distributors, vocational schools, utilities, and other associations.”
As an oversight organization, ACCA will be responsible for making sure that contractors participating in its program have policies and procedures in place that promote good business practices, as well as design and install systems that meet Version 3 requirements. “ACCA also relies on the rater to review the written documentation that is submitted for every job and to make independent measurements on a number of the QA elements,” said Davis. “These QA program requirements address those instances when there is concern about non-compliance. Failure to follow the requirements can result in delisting from the QA program directory or dismissal from the program.”
If complaints about contractors are received, ACCA will first work with the QA participant to determine if there was noncompliance with program requirements. If that is the case, the QA program is designed to address the corrective action for those instances when there is non-compliance. As Davis noted, the main purpose of the corrective actions is to ensure that internal operational problems are resolved. However, if instances of noncompliance persist, they could result in delisting from the QA program directory or dismissal from the program.
Hopefully those instances will be few and far between, said Davis, as most contractors are looking forward to a program the helps them demonstrate their value, and they want to be recognized for the high quality of work they do. “By using the skills developed within our industry, HVAC contractors are uniquely positioned to be the real leaders in providing energy efficiency in housing. ACCA 5 QI, the QA program, and Energy Star Version 3 all support professional contractors seeking to provide quality in the field.”
Passe agrees that Version 3 represents a fantastic opportunity for HVAC contractors. “We hope that we are helping to create a way for HVAC contractors to showcase that they’re following what the industry recognizes as best practices for the installation of this equipment.”