Columbia City Council poised to settle dispute over energy efficiency standards

Sunday, September 15, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:34 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 18, 2013

COLUMBIA — Two city panels, the Building Construction Codes Commission and the Environment and Energy Commission, don't see eye-to-eye over energy efficiency requirements, and the City Council will have a chance to weigh in Monday night.

The council will debate the costs and benefits of higher energy efficiency standards at Monday's meeting before voting on proposed updates to construction requirements for homes. The proposal, submitted by the city's Building Construction Codes Commission, would bring most city construction requirements in line with current standards set by the International Code Council, an association that drafts building safeguards used by city governments throughout the U.S. and federal agencies like the Department of Defense.

The debate concerns the energy efficiency portion of the commission's proposal, which does not recommend adopting the code council's 2012 energy efficiency standards in full. That portion specifies requirements for areas including lighting, programmable thermostats, ventilation and insulation.

The city's Environment and Energy Commission, however, is recommending the council amend the proposal and accept the energy code in full. 

"Our position is that keeping the national codes is good for Columbia, good for the consumer and good for the homeowner," energy commission Vice Chair Lawrence Lile said. "I even think it's good for the builder. There are people who disagree and would argue that it's of no benefit to increase insulation levels — an argument that I cannot understand."

The energy commission's proposal cited a study conducted by the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, which found that a 2,000-square-foot home with a basement would save $230 in energy bills each year if constructed to meet most recent International Code Council requirements. The alliance estimates this would mean city-wide savings of $233,000 per year for Columbia.

The requirements for increased insulation in walls, attics and foundations would have generated the most savings in energy bills, Lile said.

"I've been presented with opinions from people who disagree but not been presented with rigorous economic analysis that shows anything but a benefit for the homeowners," he said. 

Building Regulations Supervisor Phil Teeple, who compiled data used by the construction codes commission, said the efficiency alliance's study didn't specifically address the increased insulation requirements for walls, attics and foundations. 

"We don't have any backup numbers that substantiate those claims," Teeple said. "The issue that remains is 'What is the rational payback for spending several thousand dollars more on a house, and how soon should you see that money back?'"

The construction codes commission deliberated over the energy code for more than seven weeks before deciding the costs to meet the code's requirements outweighed potential energy savings. Citing a study by Texas A&M University, the construction codes commission said the amount of wall insulation required by the code council's 2012 standards would save only 3 percent of a home's energy bill but would cost $1,500 to $1,600.

"The (construction codes) commission found that the wall and attic insulation will not pay back in 10 years,” Teeple said. “That is their standard for whether or not to make recommendations to City Council. The savings in energy bills would not be seen for 10 years after the cost of doing the extra work."

The International Code Council's recommendations adopted in the construction codes commission's proposal would already generate savings, including a requirement for structures to limit the amount of air exiting and entering the building that would generate about 15 percent savings in energy bills, Teeple said.

Alliance to Save Energy associate Matt Kerns said the savings in energy bills outweigh the costs of installing more insulation. The alliance is a nonprofit organization that promotes energy efficiency worldwide through research, education and advocacy, its website says.

"They state they want to increase the energy efficiency of new homes, but the provisions in the code they're getting rid of are where the primary energy savings would be,” Kerns said. “Even if it would cost slightly more to build, the savings the consumer sees from the energy code would significantly outweigh any added cost to the house. Many builders don't want to add costs to their construction, but that's not what's actually benefiting the homeowners.”

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, a former chairman at Columbia/Boone County Environment and Energy Commission, said he was inclined to favor full implementation.

"I've gotten lots of support to accept the full energy efficiency standards just the way they are," he said.

Skala worked with the construction codes commission on a debate of whether to implement the code council's 2009 energy efficiency requirements in 2010, which were eventually adopted. He said the building codes commission looking after construction costs is an honorable thing to do, but the costs should be compared to the savings.

"Frankly, in 2009, there was some discussion amongst staff that we would eventually adopt the energy code in totality; it was just a matter of whether or not we did it immediately or waited a year," he said. "It's not a matter of misrepresentation or inaccurate data. I think this is a matter of where you want to go and how quickly you want to get there."

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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