May 4, 2012
CHEYENNE, Wyo — Home buyers in Wyoming may love the look of a house, but it’s how well the house is constructed and insulated that will make all the difference in comfort and low utility bills for the length of a mortgage in windy Wyoming.
“It is a buyerbeware market in a large portion of the state,” said Jim Brown, deputy building official in the City of Gillette.
That’s because Wyoming has never had regulations for building construction and energy efficiency, so homebuyers can only judge a house like they would a book--by its cover. They can’t see the amount of insulation, if there is any, in the attic and walls, how tightly the windows are installed, and whether the exterior was covered with an air sealer like Tyvek. These things make a huge difference in how much air leaks in and out of the house—and determines what Brown calls quality of life at home. He recommends that buyers get an energy audit in order to learn these things so they know the quality and comfort level of the house they are buying. A well-sealed and insulated house is a better value because it is naturally cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and utility bills can be quite low.
Wyoming homeowners would save an estimated $14 million annually in energy bills by 2020 if homes were built to modern efficiency code specifications, according to the federal Building Code Assistance Program. Program analysis shows that a home energy efficiency retrofit in Wyoming would cost, on average, $1,280 and the homeowner conservatively would save $391 every year thereafter on heating and air conditioning costs.
For homes in housing projects that are bid out for construction, the lack of building codes produces unfair competition. The contractor who uses cheap materials and no insulation can bid the job at a lower cost, but the occupant will pay by having less comfort and higher bills, said Jesse Stover, building inspector for Teton County.
“It is an issue of value,” said Stover. If there is no standard, then homeowners have to trust that their builder is doing a good job when nothing requires him to do so, said Stover. “A builder with more of a conscience who puts in a building what needs to be there to provide comfort to the occupant, that building will cost more.”
Brown decided to do something about housing quality and set out to establish a minimum energy standard for all new homes in Wyoming. He started with his own city, Gillette, and came up with a prescription for home design and construction that designers and builders can follow just as a cook would follow a recipe. Brown’s prescription calls for R49 insulation in ceilings and R19 in walls, insulated basements and crawl spaces, and windows that are fit tightly and have an u-factor of 0.35 or lower (the lower the better). In addition, the house exterior must be swathed with an air sealer and inspected before the final finish siding is installed. Someone buying this type home would save 20-30% on every utility bill, Brown said.
The effort worked well. So well, in fact, that Brown teamed up with Stover to establish the Wyoming Building Code Officials Association’s first Energy Code Committee in 2011. Stover chairs the committee, whose mission is to advance energy efficiency building codes at the local level throughout Wyoming and ultimately to protect consumers and save them money on energy bills. The Association joined forces with the Wyoming State Energy Office and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and, through a grant, began offering free trainings on the building codes that are open to everyone.
“With the help of the attendees at the training we can better educate our citizens on building energy codes so that they can make informed decisions on making their homes energy efficient,” said Sherry Hughes, energy efficiency program manager for the Wyoming State Energy Office which underwrites the trainings.
This week’s training in Cheyenne is the first of a series and attracted 30 attendees from throughout the southwest, including building code officials, university professors and building designers. They will advance their skills to train others on building energy codes.
“We provide the training free of charge. You can’t beat that deal,” said Brown. The two-and-one-half day training provides continuing education credits. Homeowners can pick up inexpensive tips for retrofits that pay for themselves right away.
Improved building codes do increase the cost of a new home—and retrofits can cost several thousand dollars. Brown said a homeowner’s return on investment in insulation, good windows and doors, air sealing and overall better construction is about two years in Gillette. After the investment in these things has been paid back through lower monthly utility bills, the continued savings go on. In fact, the top three public benefits of better building energy codes is money, money and money, Brown said.
Not everyone can purchase a new, more energy efficient home. If a buyer has fallen in love with a good-looking but old house, Brown advises getting an energy audit. In Gillette, a $50 rebate brings the cost down to about $100 and the resulting report could help a buyer make a purchasing decision—or negotiate a lower price when efficiency upgrades need to be made.
For more information, contact:
Sherry Hughes, energy efficiency program manager, Wyoming Energy Office: (307) 777-2824
JC Martel: building code specialist, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project: (303) 547-2652
Jim Brown, deputy building official, City of Gillette: (307) 257-9926
Jesse Stover, building inspector, Teton County: (307) 732-8417