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VOL. 126 | NO. 17 | Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Testing Green

HERS index measures homes’ energy efficiency

By Sarah Baker

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The word “green” is certainly a buzzword these days, used almost synonymously for energy efficiency. Although energy efficiency is a part of green, green is a whole lot more than that.

Jon Ruch of Ruch Builders shows how all the hot water lines are wrapped in insulation in an Energy Star home he is constructing near Hernando. The 3,000-square-foot home features house wrap, advanced framing techniques, and a 4-ton dual fuel heat pump. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

To date, there are less than 600 houses in Shelby County and its surrounding areas that have some type of energy performance standard applied to them – whether it’s EcoBuild, a Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division program, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design for new homes, the National Green Building Standard or a U.S. Department of Energy Energy Star.

“There are not a whole lot of houses that actually have a process, a prescriptive path that was followed for energy efficiency,” said Jon Ruch of Ruch Builders LLC – an Energy Star Builder and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Partner for Indoor Air Quality. “But that number continues to rise and I think that the more we educate people, the more this gets out there, I think the more and more people will say, ‘I want my house to be a high-performing house,’ and it won’t cost that much more.”

On average, the cost to go from a basic house to an energy-efficient house per EcoBuild standards – which provides 34 to 56 percent savings – is about 1.5 to 3 percent of the overall cost of the project, not including the savings per month on utilities.

A common misconception, Ruch said, is that a new home does not automatically mean it’s energy efficient. In order to compare apples to apples, an objective way to analyze energy performance is through a Home Energy Ratings Score.

The HERS index is a scoring system that was established by Residential Energy Services Network, or RESNET for short, that is based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code.

For instance, if a house that’s allegedly built to the code is tested and survives through various measures – such as through blower door and duct blaster tests, and the use of thermal imaging and Fully Distributed Historic Costs – it will score a 100, meaning it’s right on code.

If a house is built better than that, it will score a lower score. So if a house scores an 85, it uses 15 percent less energy than a house that is built to the energy code.

“It’s just like golf – the lower the better,” Ruch said. “As a general way to talk about it, a HERS index is the lower the score the better, and it is representative as a percentage of energy performance in relation to an energy standard, which in this case is a 2006 Energy Code.”

But the question remains: Is a homebuyer interested enough to spend the money on a nicer installation package instead of on granite countertops? For a custom homebuilder, energy-efficient homes are a much easier sell. But to a speculative builder, a lot of pizzazz is necessary for features to pop.

“That’s a real challenge because you’ve got to sell what people want,” Ruch said. “I like to see pretty things, too. I tell the client it’s all going to be covered up, you’ll never see it, what you do after that is fine.”

One of the major challenges builders like Ruch face in implementing energy efficiency lie in education. Ruch – who currently serves as chairman of the Memphis Area Home Builders Association education committee – is working with the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, The Appraisal Institute and with bankers to take his knowledge mainstream.

MAHBA is also currently asking for Tennessee legislation to provide incentives for energy efficient projects through grants and tax rebates.

“It’s going to be slow, it’s just the nature of what it is,” Ruch said. “But the point is, it’s happening, and I think we’re at the beginning of it and I don’t see it slowing down.”

For homebuyers, the payback is the biggest question, said Don Glays, executive director of MAHBA. But as the technology becomes more common and more accepted, the prices tend to drop.

“The cost of doing green is coming down, simply because what was optional before is now in the code,” Glays said. “It’s like buying big-screen TVs – they used to be $3,000, now you can pick up one at hhgregg for $100.”

Especially as energy prices accelerate, energy efficiency will take hold, Ruch said. In the next five to 10 years, advertising from builders will increase in order to keep up with market conditions.

In efforts to spread awareness, Ruch holds a presentation called “The Dollars and Sense of Going Green” on the first Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m. at Quantum Showrooms, 5690 Summer Ave.

“Everybody that comes says this makes sense to do this,” Ruch said. “Energy’s going to do what energy’s going to do; the only thing you can control is how you use it. Let’s use it wisely.”

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