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

(Continued from page 1)

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

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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

Patterson offers an upgraded insulation package, but it costs $2,500 more. Buyers would rather put that money into a kitchen or bathroom upgrade, he said.

This attitude is frustrating to Ashley Richards, who's on the board of the builders group but also runs an insulation company, WarmTech Solutions in Yarmouth.


He sees a disconnect: In some states, builders use energy efficiency as a selling point. They guarantee a home's performance and lower power bills. But Maine buyers don't seem focused on energy efficiency, despite well-publicized concerns about high oil prices. As a result, mainstream builders don't see any competitive advantage in offering efficiency.

Maine home builders, who have successfully fought attempts to license their trade, seem particularly resistant to government mandates. They tend to be family-owned companies that develop their own ways of doing business.

Richards said he met with a well-respected builder in eastern Maine who puts hardly any insulation in his homes. Richards asked him why.

"My grandfather told me a house has to breathe," the man replied.

Maine has a stable of custom builders and green contractors who market energy efficiency, but it's rare for high-volume contractors.

An exception in southern Maine is Kasprzak Builders of Waterboro, which focuses on condominiums. All its homes are certified to meet federal Energy Star standards.

Customers rarely ask about insulation levels, according to John Roberts, the company's construction supervisor, but most are at or near retirement age and are concerned about heating bills. They can expect to use roughly 550 gallons a year of heating oil in a 2,000-square-foot unit, below the state average.

But even Kasprzak will need to up its game to comply with the new energy code. While its insulation and window specs are at or above the code, workers will have to do more air sealing, Roberts said.

At the new Falmouth home, Brown underscored the importance of sealing cracks and joints. He pointed to where expanding foam had been sprayed around door and window frames. He explained how cellulose had been blown behind electrical boxes, to eliminate drafts.

This work is labor-intensive. It takes roughly twice as long to insulate to the new code, Brown said. And it takes training. Builders in communities that already have strict energy ordinances will have a leg up, Brown said.

"I think the biggest challenge is going to be education," he said.

The new law requires code enforcement officers or independent auditors to verify the insulation and air sealing. They'll have the option of using equipment that depressurizes the house to detect leaks, or visual inspection. Training is ramping up now.

Meanwhile, the program specs are going through the rule-making process in Augusta and will be reviewed at a public hearing this summer. They will be administered by a new agency, the Bureau of Building Codes and Standards.

While the new code represents an improvement from current practices, it's only a minimum standard, according to Rick Meinking, an energy management expert at Efficiency Maine Trust.

Nationally, many homes are being built to the EnergySmart Home Scale being promoted by building groups and the federal government. If offers a "miles-per-gallon" measurement of a home's energy performance, so buyers can compare a house, just as they do a car. Maine's new code could be a first step to an energy-rating system, Meinking said, to encourage builders to raise the bar.

"We have learned a lot in our building practices," he said. "If we do these small things, we can make a big difference."


Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:



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