As most of our readers now know, California’s energy code got a lot stricter in January of 2010. Increasingly, HERS tests are required to comply, even for custom residential projects. HERS tests are special third-party field inspections for things like ductwork, insulation, and air-conditioner efficiency. These tests are called out on the Title 24 energy compliance report, also known as the CF-1R. This energy report must be included on all Building Department submittals statewide throughout California to obtain a building permit. The energy report is then reviewed as part of the plan check process.
And now, a new requirement, or really an old one that’s just now being enforced: All CF-1R reports that call for a HERS test must be officially “registered”. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Plan checkers are starting to kick back custom residential submittals if they don’t see a CalCERTS watermark on the energy report.
But first, a little background.
Our clients are other design-oriented (read: “modern”) architects. Some of them like to use dramatic walls of glazing in their designs. This, while awesome, presents an energy problem, because glass is a poor insulator compared to, say, a 2×6 framed wall cavity packed with high-performing insulation. California’s energy code seeks to discourage over-glazing by imposing a maximum glazing threshold at 20% of the conditioned floor area.
The only way around this is to employ a complex “performance approach” to energy compliance, whereby the project is run through energy modeling software that allows trade-offs – acres of picture windows in exchange for beyond-code energy upgrades elsewhere. As long as the house as a whole is under the threshold for energy usage, the designer can creatively determine how that goal is achieved.
For Those Who Came In Late
What are HERS tests?
HERS stands for Home Energy Rating System, a method of diagnostic analysis to determine a home’s energy efficiency by establishing a benchmark and then making site-specific upgrade recommendations for the homeowner. It’s not specific to California; other state energy codes sometimes reference HERS as a standard or its later incarnation, HERS II. HERS raters are independent contractors who are trained and certified through an organization such as CalCERTS.
Why does California’s energy code include HERS testing?
HERS is a recognized and proven standard that relies on empirical testing on a case-by-case basis. Many of the HERS tests address well-known construction deficiencies that can waste up to 30% of a home’s total energy consumption. With a goal of having all new homes statewide be Net Zero by 2030, the State of California has employed a phased approach that tightens the energy code in three-year increments.
When does California require HERS testing?
Depends which energy compliance method you use. Prescriptive requires certain tests, like the duct blaster test, for any new construction or any time a forced-air system is replaced. Performance has this as an option, because it boosts the score quite substantially.
What is this magic database up in the sky, and why haven’t I heard of it before?
Actually, you have if you’ve been reading our blog. But, if you read our blog, chances are your’e the last group of architects to be affected by it. Back in 2009 I took a CABEC-sponsored Title 24 class in Sacramento on upcoming code chances. However, at that time nothing had been implemented, and no one knew how it would actually work.
Since then, CalCERTS has been working with the California Energy Commission to get this up and running. It’s been gradually phased in for different types of projects: mainly production homes, which are far more numerous than the custom, one-off projects and remodels that comprise our own design focus.
As an aside, I found the CalCERTS online registry to be very fast, with no glitches – the test project I did in order to write up this article worked just fine. The registry actually parses the report file (a special un-readable ZIP file generated by the energy modeling software) so it “knows” what the project requirements are. The CalCERTS folks themselves were very courteous, helpful, and responsive. I was very impressed that the entire online interface was implemented by one person, who seems to have taken every last aspect of the energy compliance process into account. There oughta be a medal for that!
Why do we need a database? Isn’t there enough red tape as it is?
The idea behind the registry is to reduce cheating. Prior to this, any CF-1R requiring a HERS test had no follow-up to ensure that the test was actually performed, or that the project actually passed the test.
So, Who Does What?
Here’s a magic molecule diagram that shows the “new” process highlighted.
Green Compliance Plus clients: We take care of pretty much everything that’s in the shaded box. The only thing you’ll need to do is make sure that if your Title 24 energy report calls for any HERS tests, you’ll need the watermarked version on your submittal package.
Note that this diagram only goes up to permitting – there’s a Part II that shows how all the installation certificates and HERS test results are uploaded later down the road. For now, suffice it to say that whatever’s in that energy report has to be followed in the field, because if something doesn’t match up, chances are either the HERS rater or the building inspector will pick up on it.
Impact of Design Changes and Field Swaps
All this bureaucracy means that any changes to the design, including field swaps, could mean having to re-do the energy compliance report and a whole slew of headaches for architect, builder, and owner alike. The energy-modeling “performance” method that we use most of the time allows you to specify the exact efficiencies of every piece of heating equipment and every single window. This allows for a lot of flexibility but it also locks you in to using products that meet those numbers – and are field labeled as such.
Here are just a few of the changes that could trigger a new round of energy analysis: changes to unit models for heating, cooling, or water heating equipment, especially efficiency; any change to the building envelope, including wall and roof assemblies; moving to a less efficient window product; failing a required HERS test; local building requirements that mandate exceeding Title 24 by a specified percentage.
Re-doing the energy report means you try to make up the shortfall somewhere else. This gets harder to do the further along the project is in construction. If you get caught during a site inspection, the damage control can eat up the project budget, not to mention irritating YOUR clients – the homeowners who rely on you, the architect, to guide the project smoothly to completion.
Don’t paint yourself into a corner. Make sure that your builder and all the builder’s subs REALLY understand what’s on that energy report.
All This Applies to Remodels, Too
Even alterations, additions, and other remodeling efforts within the State of California may be subject to this CalCERTS registry requirement. Oftentimes, these are our toughest energy compliance projects, because the scope is limited but for one reason or another we can’t use the simpler prescriptive approach. Usually it’s because the project is over the glazing limit. However, we don’t have much room for energy trade-offs using the energy model because most of the house isn’t being opened or altered.
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.