June 14, 2010

Inefficient builders about to hit a wall

Like it or not, Maine's new mandatory residential energy code will take effect in December.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FALMOUTH - The homeowners won't see it, but the stud walls of a new house being built in the Ridgewood subdivision here were stapled tight last week with a fine-mesh netting. Insulation contractors blew dense cellulose behind the netting, pumping it into tiny cracks through which heated air would otherwise escape in winter.

click image to enlarge

Daniel Gagnon of Lewiston installs insulation in a new home being built in Falmouth. Falmouth had adopted its own minimum energy standards for construction before the state made the new rules.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Jerry Brown, assistant manager at Quality Insulation in Yarmouth, points out areas of a building under construction that are affected by changes in new state insulation regulations.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

"You really need to fill all the nooks and crannies," said Jerry Brown, assistant manager at Quality Insulation in Yarmouth. "You need a solid seal."

This air-sealing technique is a common way to create an energy-efficient house in 2010, but most Maine home builders don't do it. Despite all the media chatter about green building, most new homes in Maine are being insulated to standards that were cutting edge when Ronald Reagan was president.

That's about to change.

A few weeks ago, Maine formally adopted rules for a mandatory statewide energy code for new homes and substantial renovations. Starting in December, construction in communities with more than 2,000 residents must meet the code.

Maine had been among only 11 states without any minimum residential energy standards. A small number of municipalities, such as Falmouth, have adopted local versions.

Some large builders aren't happy about the statewide rules because they will add to the cost of a new home. They say customers are more interested in hardwood floors and granite countertops than how much insulation's in the attic.

This view is shortsighted, state officials say, when millions of taxpayer dollars are going to weatherize leaky homes and cut the state's oil dependence. It's less costly in the long run, they say, to do the job right the first time.

After years of debate and voluntary standards that were largely ignored, Maine is adopting the latest version of the International Energy Conservation Code.

The home energy rules are part of a package of new building codes coming into effect. Many builders are just getting up to speed on what's required, and how it will change what they do today.

Mainstream insulation practices haven't changed much since the late 1980s, when 2-by-6 stud walls became common. Most builders shove fiberglass batts with an R-19 insulating value in the walls, and line the attic and roof with up to R-38. They typically don't insulate the foundation or floor. And they don't do air-sealing.

BUILDERS QUESTION LOGIC

The new code requires a minimum of R-20 in the walls, R-49 in the attic and R-30 in the floor. It also requires sealing all joints, seams and penetrations, such as attic hatches and plumbing holes.

These steps can make a home more comfortable and cut heating bills by at least 20 percent, compared to the old-school insulating method, according to Efficiency Maine Trust, the state's new energy agency.

But a couple of southern Maine's top builders question whether it's worth the extra money.

Bill Risbara, co-owner of Risbara Bros. in Scarborough, said a standard insulation package costs $2,500 in a starter house. The new code will add $1,000, which is money that first-time buyers would rather spend on amenities.

"My people would give up energy savings for a hardwood or tile floor any day of the week," Risbara said.

In higher-end homes, Risbara has used spray foam, which has a high insulating value and fills tiny cracks. It makes a noticeable difference but is expensive and requires heat-recovery ventilation for indoor air quality.

The extra efficiency doesn't make financial sense in starter homes, he said, because owners plan to move up.

"They've got a three- to five-year attention span," he said.

That's also the observation of Mark Patterson, president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Maine. He's a co-owner of Patco Construction in Sanford, which specializes in two-bedroom starter homes.

(Continued on page 2)

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