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Utahns celebrate home energy efficiency reforms

SALT LAKE CITY — New homes won't be as drafty and utility costs will be lower after Utah lawmakers unanimously signed off on the first substantial revision of new home construction codes in seven years.

The regulations offered in HB202 are expected to be signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert after homebuilders, engineers and energy advocates agreed to a compromise measure that includes new construction requirements for increased airtightness in homes, and improvements in duct sealing and water piping insulation.

While the state did not adopt the entire slate of new homebuilding codes that would bring it in line with the latest standards, the provisions in the new measure will help get Utah closer, said Kevin Emerson, with Utah Clean Energy.

Emerson's organization predicts that homeowners will shave utility costs by 10 percent, and over the next 10 years, that will pump $18 million into Utah's economy.

"That's money that will stay in people's pockets to be spent in the community," he said.

The association crunched the numbers by figuring the annual average of new housing starts, 3,500 across the state, and typical utility bills.

Utah Clean Energy has been pushing passage of reforms for the past three years, but Emerson said sweeping changes were met with resistance at the Utah Legislature because of cost concerns it would impose on the housing industry.

"Our desire is to see them built with this in mind from the start," he said.

Homebuilders, engineers and energy advocates met over last summer to come up with a measure that at least gives people a starting point, Emerson added.

"There were a number of different groups coming together to find that sweet spot, if you will, of opportunities to make new homes that cut energy waste and are more efficient for the homebuyer," he said.

It helped, too, that the bill's sponsor was Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, a homebuilder who garnered respect among his colleagues.

Emerson said the measure makes sense because doing the right kind of construction early on is much cheaper then to have to come in afterward for a retrofit.

Homeowner Heather Culligan, who started an online petition urging that homes become more energy efficient, said she couldn't agree more.

Culligan bought modest, average-sized rambler in Murray and was stunned when she received a home heating bill of $370 for one month in the winter of 2012.

"I about had a heart attack," she said.

It was confounding, Culligan said, because that bill for her Murray home was equal to what it used to cost her to heat a sprawling multistory Victorian she had in the Marmalade District of Salt Lake City.

"I knew something was wrong," she said.

Culligan ended up spending $12,000 to fix the leaks in her home after she had a home energy audit done to identify the deficiencies — where heated air was rushing outside in the winter and cool air was rushing in.

Jason Dittmer, a president of audit energy company DwellTek, said those changes in the pressure outside of the home compared to inside the home end up taking "all that air you paid to heat" out of the structure.

"People will do whatever it takes to be comfortable, even if it means paying more for electricity and gas," he said. "But what does my life look like when I am paying 50 cents per kilowatt hour, when right now I am paying nine cents? Those costs are going to go up."

Dittmer said there was a time when homes were thrown up in Utah with scant attention to quality and energy efficiency.

"They were just really poorly built," he said. "I am not sure we had the code requirements that gave inspectors the ability to do much about it. And the industry at the time didn't understand the basics of building science."

Dittmer said there are Utah bungalows built around 1905 that perform better from an energy standpoint than those class of homes.

"At the end of the day, it is the guy swinging the hammer who cares about what he does," he said.

The challenge, too, is balancing quality with affordability, Dittmer said, adding that as consumer consciousness grows, the marketplace will invoke the necessary changes.

"It has been very positive to see some of these homebuilders take real leadership and go above and beyond what the code requires," he said. "The construction industry has reacted to the concern of homeowners who have to buy that home, live in it and pay for electricity and gas that is going up every year."

Dittmer is also president of the Utah Home Energy Performance Association, a trade association for energy auditors, contractors and suppliers that educates homeowners about the benefits of energy efficiency.

He said the greatest benefit to come from the revisions is that it will start people talking.

"This introduces a conversation about building better homes, and I hope it introduces the homebuilding community to how easy it is to do the right thing. And I would think that would be enough," Dittmer said.

Ultimately, that "enough" would result in the sort of community where code requirements didn't have to exist, and like texting, the housing industry had an auto-correct mode, he added.

"With that, Utahns could go out and purchase homes with the peace of mind that it is not only well-built, but built with energy efficiency and comfort in mind," Dittmer said.


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