The Energy Star for New Homes program was introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1995 as a way for buyers to identify homes that were more energy efficient than typical new home construction. Over the years, code requirements around the country became more rigorous, and the program evolved to ensure that new homes earning the label continued to significantly outperform non-Energy Star homes in terms of efficiency and comfort.

That evolution continues with Version 3 of the program, which was introduced in April 2010 — at the height of the slump in residential new construction. Some in the construction industry questioned whether it was a good time to implement stricter guidelines which would increase the cost of Energy Star homes. That seems to be a moot point, however, as more than 250 builders around the country have committed to building homes that will meet the new and more rigorous Energy Star requirements for qualified homes in 2012.

HVAC contractors are also embracing Version 3, with many noting that even though they must now become certified to participate in the program its stricter guidelines improve quality, reduce callbacks, and raise the bar for the industry.

Dedicated to New Construction

Sonoran Air Inc., Phoenix, was established in 1993 and according to president and CEO Greg Cobb, the company has been installing systems in Energy Star homes for as long as he can remember. “We were some of the first contractors building Energy Star homes, and we’ve been involved ever since. We’ve built almost 10,000 homes under the Energy Star program, and over 80 percent of the homes we currently build are Energy Star homes. It’s been a big plus for us.”

While other contracting firms have diversified during the downturn in residential new construction, Sonoran Air did exactly the opposite by shedding other parts of its business and focusing exclusively on design, installation, and warranty service for its residential new home builders. As Cobb noted, “We wanted to be the absolute best at one thing instead of being average at two or three things.”

The Energy Star program has helped Sonoran Air in its quest to be the best by providing a defined building envelope, as opposed to relying on rules of thumb and little information regarding infiltration rates and the quality of products being installed by the home builder. Many HVAC contractors continue to utilize the latter approach, which often results in oversizing the equipment to accommodate the unknowns in the thermal envelope.

“With Energy Star, we have a much more predictable envelope, so now instead of oversizing the equipment, we can properly size it, as well as calculate airflows for each room much more accurately,” said Cobb. “This allows us to be able to install smaller equipment that operates more efficiently, and we can design duct systems that deliver the proper airflows for each room. As a result, a lot of our warranty claims have gone away because we have a much more predictable house to cool.”

The warranty calls have been reduced so substantially that Sonoran Air now has an engineering department that is larger than its customer service call center — the complete opposite of what it used to be not that long ago. “Granted, new construction has slowed down quite a bit, but even so, our volume of warranty calls has dropped off dramatically in our properly designed Energy Star homes,” said Cobb. “It’s difficult for some to understand because you have to invest a lot of effort, time, and cost to design and install HVAC systems for Energy Star homes and you don’t see the results for two or three years. Basically, the payback is the warranty call that doesn’t happen. That’s why we track it, and I can now say we are seeing results — we’re getting the benefits of our investment.”

Weeding Out the Competition

Beutler Corp., McClellan, Calif., has also been involved with Energy Star for New Homes for as long as it has been available. The 64-year-old company began doing energy consulting with its builders back in 1983, when California instituted its performance energy compliance requirements. “We worked with the utilities over the years to develop and implement rebate programs for new homes, and when Energy Star came on the scene, we engaged it as it developed. We have installed systems in thousands of Energy Star homes and it continues to be a strong part of our new home business,” said Rick Wylie, president, Beutler Corp. and Advanced Comfort and Energy Systems, a division of Beutler Corp.

In addition to residential new construction, Beutler Corp. offers numerous other products and services, including plumbing, electrical, fire sprinklers, solar, whole-house audits, energy makeovers (including insulation, windows, roofing, etc.), and commercial new construction and retrofit. The company also recently added its newest division, Advanced Comfort and Energy Systems (ACES), which is accredited by BPI.

Wylie likes the Energy Star program because it aligns with the company’s goal of being a consultant with its builder-customers. “This makes us an indispensable part of their team. We like to bring value to our builders and our home buyers with the enhanced comfort and energy efficiency of Energy Star (and other utility rebate programs that have similar goals). Happy customers make long-term customers.”

Beutler Corp. has been keeping up with all of the ongoing training requirements and is almost ready for Version 3. “Overall, we support its intent, and we appreciate the fact that it will continue to weed out those companies that aren’t interested in doing the hard work involved to be experts in the calculations and verifications of Energy Star and other programs like it,” said Wylie.

Weeding out the competition is one of the things Jim Colgan, vice president of sales and engineering, Chas. Roberts Air Conditioning and Heating, Phoenix, likes about Version 3 of the Energy Star program. “Version 3 keeps out those who just dabble in the new construction business. In the past, contractors have been able to come in and give it a try and not really know what they’re doing. They get into it for a year or two and then they get back out. They’re not going to be able to do that now because they need to be certified. And they will probably be put off by all the documentation that’s required in Version 3.”

While there may be a lot of documentation involved, the final result is a home that is designed better, which means fewer customer complaints and callbacks. “For too long, the industry has left it up to everyone’s imagination as to how to design a house,” said Colgan. “With Energy Star, there are certain requirements in place that result in the shell of the house being properly built, therefore, we can get better results, because the house is built better.”

As the contractors here agree, Energy Star has been a benefit to the HVAC industry, although Wylie (jokingly) does not encourage others to get involved with the program. “HVAC contractors should ignore Energy Star. How dare Energy Star try to control our market, and tell us how to do our business? And while the other contractors do this, we will embrace Energy Star and happily take over the work that they are no longer qualified to do!”

Publication date: 02/6/2012