Idaho building officials could make major cutbacks to energy code regulations

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The State of Idaho’s board overseeing building codes is set to consider removing all regulations in the energy code except those governing “life safety” later this month. 

The Idaho Division of Occupational and Professional Licenses put forth a recommendation to the Idaho Building Code Board earlier this summer to significantly pare down the state’s energy code regulations governing plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems. Energy codes are building regulations governing a range of items in building construction related to energy efficiency, including insulation on hot water pipes, requirements for the sizing of heating and cooling systems, and tests measuring how well buildings keep inside air from going out. 

This move comes after the Idaho Legislature passed HB 660 earlier this year, which hands the governing authority over energy codes from the executive branch to the Idaho Legislature. Any formal recommendation approved by the Building Code Board would go on for final approval at the statehouse. 

The proposal sparked a divide among stakeholders and building officials statewide. Some cities and organizations argue energy codes are important to protect consumers who expect high-quality homes, while the Building Contractors Association and some other building officials and DOPL officials say buyers should have a full say in how energy efficient their home is and the government shouldn’t regulate anything more than what impacts the safety of residents. 

The Building Code Board will meet on August 16 to discuss the possible changes. 

Spirited discussion at negotiated rulemaking session 

The philosophical differences between the state and some building officials came out during a four-hour rulemaking session at the end of July. 

During the meeting, DOPL officials took feedback line by line through the proposed changes from city building officials, industry officials, and other stakeholders. Officials from the cities of Boise, Nampa, and Ammon heavily questioned staff on the changes and lobbied hard for keeping the protections in. But throughout the meeting, DOPL Operations Manager Michael Hyde kept steering the conversation back to the importance of only regulating things directly tied to safety. 

For example, he said while he ran the state’s HVAC program, he received many calls from Idahoans who were frustrated that state code mandated the size of their air conditioning and heating units through the energy code. 

“(Callers would ask) ‘why can’t I install a larger AC in my home? Why am I limited? It’s my house’,” he said during the meeting. “‘I am spending the money, and I moved to Idaho why can’t I build the home the way I want? Why are there sizing restrictions?'”

Charlie Allen, a building official with the City of Ammon in East Idaho, pushed back on the idea of removing these regulations, leaving it up to the consumer to size their own HVAC systems.

House under construction
A house under construction. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev file

“Do you think we have any responsibility or input in the efficiency for homeowners because they are going to be paying the utility bills?” He said during the meeting. “I think that needs to be part of the whole process too. We don’t want to be putting in an AC unit that is oversized that is going to cool the home down in 5 minutes when we know that the AC units don’t receive ultimate efficiency until they’ve run for more than 10 minutes.”

Joe Barlow, a mechanical inspection supervisor with the City of Meridian, heavily disagreed. Multiple times during the meeting, he said the current code requires unnecessary items added to buildings and how he believed the state should leave the property owner and industry to decide what is best for each situation. 

“The design professional is responsible for sizing the system for what the customers’ needs are,” Nelson said during the meeting. “(The homeowner) should have the ability to design the system for what (they need). It should be in their wheelhouse, it shouldn’t be regulated by the state. That is a civil matter and should be addressed through the civil system.”

Changes part of Governor Brad Little’s push to cut regulations, legislation

DOPL says there are two reasons for this change happening now. 

First, this is in reaction to Governor Brad Little’s executive order to cut regulations in Idaho and his zero-based regulation initiative. This order requires state agencies to continually review regulations, their efficacy, and possible alternatives with the aim of reducing red tape and reducing the word count in Idaho’s regulatory statutes. 

Little’s Press Secretary Madison Hardy did not comment on the energy codes or DOPL’s proposal specifically, but she said the public has the ability to provide input on any regulations being cut or changed. 

“The (regulation) re-examination process occurs on a rolling basis every five years and involves multiple opportunities for public input to make certain agencies appropriately consider all interests and feedback before presenting any final rules to the legislature for approval,” she wrote in an email to BoiseDev.

Gov. Brad Little
Gov. Brad Little

“Governor Little has also taken steps to maximize opportunities for the public to participate in the regulation re-examination process by implementing (this website) – a one-stop-shop of all public meetings held by state agencies so that Idahoans can make their voice heard.”

The Idaho Legislature’s changes to the energy code earlier this year also prompted the proposal. DOPL Deputy Administrator Tim Frost told the crowd at the July rule-making session that his agency didn’t push the legislature to make changes to the energy code or how it was determined, but he did want to listen to some legislators’ objections to the current code what it regulated. 

“I think it would be unwise for us not to consider the intent of what the legislature did and not consider the statements the legislators made related to the energy code, so we’re trying to do that in a negotiated manner,” Frost said. 

Boise and Nampa raising objections

Building officials from two of Idaho’s largest cities are raising concerns about how the code will impact their communities. 

Jason Blais, Boise’s lead building official, said Idaho has had a building code regulating the efficiency of buildings and other matters in place for roughly twenty years. During the July meeting, he raised several concerns about potential changes, like removing requirements for economizers (a type of heat exchanger) in certain buildings and insulating hot water pipes. He argued to DOPL staff that energy efficiency could impact the safety and well-being of building occupants in certain circumstances, even if it wasn’t straightforward as some other requirements. 

He told BoiseDev in an interview the City of Boise objects to these broad changes and the interpretation of the law being used to justify them. 

“Unfortunately, the energy code has become a political code, which is unfortunate because it helps regulate heating, cooling, sizing, and moisture inside of buildings,” Blais said. 

Old Town Lofts Meridian
Old Town Lofts in Meridian under construction in February. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The City of Nampa’s Building Official Patrick Sullivan also lodged lengthy complaints about the changes during the July meeting. He argued to DOPL that their process should ensure any sections removed are duplicated or have the proper context in the other building codes specifically for mechanical, plumbing and electrical to make sure there is not uneven enforcement or unintended consequences. 

In an interview with BoiseDev, Sullivan said making these changes to the energy code will remove requirements for builders not to cut corners, which hurts consumers. While some builders are going to continue to build at a high standard in order to attract customers, there will be contractors who use it as an opportunity to build less expensive and lower quality homes, while consumers who come in from other states might buy without knowing how the home is built. He said building and energy standards are especially important in areas with high volumes of homes being constructed. 

“There are a few jurisdictions where they don’t have (building codes), but where it makes the most sense (to have a high design standard) would be those urban and suburban centers, whereas if you’re building ten houses a year, maybe it doesn’t make much of a difference,” he said. “If we want our housing stock to be safe and healthy, so the buildings perform well, we need to keep the code we’ve adopted.”

Industry groups divided

Two building industry associations have taken opposite stances on this issue. 

The Idaho Building Contractors Association, an advocacy group for home builders and contractors, is not concerned about any potential impact of these changes to the energy code. The organization’s lobbyist Ken Burgess disagrees with Sullivan’s concerns about the items in the energy code not being duplicated elsewhere in Idaho’s building codes. He said during conversations with builders around the state, no one raised any concerns about how removing these energy code provisions would impact their work. 

“The question I posed to my builders was ‘Does this cause you guys an issue in terms of the way you read or interpret or apply a code?’ and their answer was ‘No, we don’t think it would’,” Burgess said. “The reason is the plumbers know what they’re doing for those provisions when they put in the plumbing, the electrical guys know what they’re doing when they put in the electrical work, and so on. I kind of got a collective shrug of the shoulders from them about that particular proposal in the code.”

11th and Idaho Boise
The new 11th and Idaho building under construction in Downtown Boise. Photo: Eric Turner/Special to BoiseDev

Terri Ottens, with the Building Safety Professionals of Southwest Idaho, is not convinced. She pushed back against DOPL officials during the July rulemaking session, arguing their process was not open to collaboration and occurred outside of the normal cycle of reexamining building codes.

Ottens pointed to Texas, which has had problems with homes and infrastructure not being able to withstand extreme weather, as an example for why energy codes are life safety measures. 

“There are very few states that have not adopted energy codes,” she said. “People who are coming here and people who live here automatically assume that the home they’re buying has insulation in the attic, insulation in the walls, that the floor is properly insulated, that the windows meet the requirements.”

Correction: A previous version of the story had the incorrect name for a building official from the City of Meridian due to incorrect information provided during the reporting process. The name has been corrected to reflect the inspector’s name is Joe Barlow.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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