The Good News and Bad with California's Energy Efficiency Code Updates

California adopted an energy efficiency code in 1978 the first time Jerry Brown was Governor, and now it has updated that code to reflect advanced in technology.  I have not been a big fan of many of California’s crazy regulatory demands, but the Energy Efficiency Code was a good idea in 1978 and it is still a good idea. The proof is in the data. California today has an energy intensity fully 50% than the national average, and it is a good thing since our utility rates are among the highest in the nation.

The amendments to Energy Efficiency Code don’t go into effect until 2014 but they continue to position California for its energy future by requiring that new homes have roofs capable of supporting solar rooftop systems, that new structures are oriented wherever practicable to facilitate solar energy.  Other requirements include window that reduce heat gain, better insulating walls and hot water pipes, and installation of whole house fans and daylighting to reduce peak loads.  These all make good sense and will save customers money while continuing to improve energy efficiency.

There are some regrettable and ill-considered changes too. While it makes sense to apply these new code requirements to new construction, it is overreach to mandate major retrofits when homes are remodeled or otherwise updated.  This will lead to more off-books remodeling and endless cat and mouse games between cities and home owners.

I faced this recently myself when replacing the old fluorescent fixtures in my kitchen with can lights.  When I asked for bids I was told the contractor had to quote the bid to include LED lighting.  But that nearly doubled the cost.  No problem, the contractor said, we install the LED lights until the city inspector finals out the project.  Then we come back and take out the LED can lights and put in the ones you want and make an adjustment on the price.  In essence the contractor beat the system because the rules are seen as stupid since they demand that the lights be put in, but nothing prevents me as a homeowner from replacing them afterward.  So until LED lighting prices come down to competitive levels games like this will be played.

I also object to the requirements for more independent inspections of air conditioners.  This just drives up costs and creates hassles.  We need code requirements that are seen as reasonable and do not require more nanny state inspections hassling people.

The costs of these code changes are said to total about $2900 per typical single family home built after 2014.  These costs seem high and I think could be mitigated by dropping the remodeling mandate (we all know that home remodels are ripe for cost surprises) and eliminating the stupid independent inspection requirements.  I’d actually prefer to see the new code changes take effect sooner than 2014 so they are clearly in place before we begin the next housing building cycle.

There are a lot of stupid rules that drive up costs and drive away business in the Golden State.  The energy efficiency codes have been a clear and practical success.  If other states had followed California’s lead back in 1978 the nation would likely have an energy intensity 50% lower today as shown by California’s experience except the savings would likely have been greater in areas with colder winters and hotter, more humid summers.