As the number of high-performance homes being built continues to increase, a pilot program being conducted here in the northwest of the United States aims to collect data showing just how efficient these energy saving features are.
The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance began the program in 2012 in conjunction with home builders and utilities. By 2013, 12 energy-efficient homes were constructed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, and then its energy usage was monitored once it was occupied.
“We’re collecting one year’s worth of actual usage data from all of these homes ... really granular, really detailed data,” NEEA Residential Sector Senior Initiative Manager Neil Grigsby said.
Regional diversity was important to see how energy-efficient homes perform in different areas and weather environments. As the program moves into phase three with the completion of another 27 homes this year, NEEA will be narrowing the amount of data collected.
“We’re still going to be taking a look at how they perform through billing data and some metering data on the home, it’s just going to be a much more simplified version,” Grigsby said. “As we expand our reach, it’s harder to have the same amount of touch on each home.”
Houses that are part of the program are at least 30 percent more efficient that those built only to code. NEEA is able to see the data related to the energy efficiency of these homes in real time, a unique feature of this pilot.
“It can be very educational for the homeowners and also for us to understand usage patterns and how certain technologies perform,” Grigsby said.
Education is a key goal of the pilot program. The data collected is being shared with builders and states that want to see proof of just how much energy these high-performance homes save. The utilities that fund NEEA are also interested in seeing the program’s results. Finally, the organization has share the data with product manufacturers so they can see how their products are performing.
“We definitely want to find out how these homes perform and what the right mix of products and building strategies are to help align and create some consistency among all those brands and different building programs,” Grigsby said.
One of the phase two homes is being built by Habitat for Humanity in Tacoma while one of the phase one homes was built in the Olympia area by Scott Homes, Inc.
“Anybody can build a house, but to build a house that’s under $100 a year to heat is pretty exciting,” Scott Homes, Inc. founder and president Scott Bergford said.
Bergford has been building homes for 31 years with the attitude of building above code.
“It just makes sense to do the best you can if you know that you can do it better,” he said. “Why build a house to code when for a little bit more effort you can build a house that will save significant amount of energy, will be much healthier indoor air quality, so you’re giving your customer a better comfort, a better quality of life and of course lower utility bills? I mean it just makes sense. I frankly have no idea why more builders aren’t jumping on the bandwagon.”
All of the energy saving materials and products Bergford used to build the Olympia home involved in the pilot program, such as triple pane windows, a ductless heat pump, a heat recovery ventilator and structural insulated panels or SIPS, are standard for him.
NEEA has managed and implemented above code building programs for more than 10 years. Grigsby said NEEA preps the market for code advancement and is an advocate for more stringent codes.
“In order to continue to advance that into the future, we need to identify what the next generation of advanced building practices and technologies are,” he said. “That’s a big part of what we’re doing through this pilot.”
It is important to build these types of homes because they can help add to energy efficiency as well as the health and comfort of those who live in them, Grigsby said. Other benefits to homeowners of energy-efficient houses include lower operating costs, a reduction in heat costs, improved indoor air quality and peace of mind.
“That’s a natural byproduct of building a house well,” Bergford said. “If you approach it trying to build it energy efficient, you naturally also make it way better indoor air quality.”
Through the pilot, NEEA and its partners, which include home building companies like Scott Homes, Inc. and utilities like Puget Sound Energy, are learning what the building community can do well right now as well as what current challenges are. It has also led to the understanding that builders can accomplish the same objectives, such as creating an envelope, using different methods.
“This program is wonderful because they didn’t tell us how to do it, they just asked us to try to achieve a platform,” Bergford said. “Each of us builders try to approach the same final result, but different ways. Using the different building techniques, and as creative as man can be, you get to see the benefit of what’s really working and what isn’t.”
“If we can become a resource that builders look to to learn about advanced technologies and advanced practices, then that would be ideal,” Grigsby said.
With demand for energy-efficient or high-performance homes on the rise — Bergford gets two to four calls a week from people wanting his company to construct such a house — the hope is data from programs like NEEA’s will be a catalyst to inspire builders, utilities, product manufacturers and states to keep improving.
“You can’t settle in, that’s the problem with codes,” Bergford said. “This kind of a program takes those builders that want to find out how to be better and better and it gives us the data and it gives us the imagination to think outside the box to keep getting better and better and then what happens is code follows us.”