Your state probably has a building code that impacts design and equipment choices related to energy use, but upcoming changes to a national energy code may soon change those rules. Under a 1992 federal law, state codes need to be updated to meet a tougher national standard. Since that new code covers renovations (not just new buildings), the design of future energy upgrades in your building(s) may be affected.

What’s This About A National Energy Code?

While building codes have traditionally been within the jurisdiction of city and state agencies, most echoed or incorporated wording or sections from professional standards maintained by professional organizations, such as ASHRAE. In 1992, Uncle Sam instituted the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) that mandated a common baseline for all states to follow, that being ASHRAE 90.1-1989. That standard set minimum acceptable levels of efficiency on fans, refrigeration systems, insulation, lighting, and other major users of energy in nonresidential buildings. For example, it banned (for nonresidential buildings) the standard 40-W fluorescent lamp in favor of the 34-W version, and pushed for copper wiring in magnetic ballasts (instead of the notoriously inefficient aluminum cores). Under EPAct, all states were required to enact or upgrade energy codes that met or exceeded ASHRAE 90.1-1989’s recommendations.

Fast Forward To Today

That federal mandate had mixed results: fully a third of the states ignored the edict through weaker (or nonexistent) energy codes. The other two-thirds are about equally divided between codes that just meet 90.1-1989 (meaning they are woefully out-of-date) or which exceed that standard. To see where your state stands, go to:

When EPAct was passed, several states (such as New York and California) already had codes that were more stringent than 90.1-1989, and many energy professionals were unimpressed by that standard. It was, however, a good beginning to the process. It focused attention on energy efficiency in parts of the U.S. where little concern had been paid to it. Coverage of 90.1-1989 was, however, limited (like many building codes) to new construction, e.g., new buildings or major additions. As a result, it had no impact on the vast majority of energy upgrades being done in existing buildings.

Enter The New Energy Sheriff

Under EPAct’s authority, states must now upgrade their codes to the 90.1-1999 standard, unless they have already done so. California’s Title 24 and New York’s 2002 Energy Conservation Construction Code stand out in that regard. Some states that have recently tasted the whip of energy price volatility (such as Oregon) are also not waiting to upgrade their energy codes. Others have until July 15, 2004 to do so, or provide good reasons why they haven’t.

So what’s new in 1999? Perhaps the biggest difference is that 90.1-1999 applies to most renovations, though a variety of exemptions are provided. If your state adopts such coverage, designs of new upgrades not previously covered by an energy code may now be affected. The bar has been set higher on most efficiency levels, and a greater level of control is required. In lighting, for example, maximum installed energy densities (e.g., W/sq ft) have been reduced for most types of spaces (though a few, such as bathrooms, have been raised).

In effect, T8 lamps with electronic ballasts are now essential to meet 90.1-1999 while still maintaining sufficient illumination levels. Tighter control of operating hours is required (e.g., through occupancy sensors and/or timers), though greater latitude and clarity is provided to meet those rules.

Similar changes have been instituted for HVAC: smaller motors need to have VSDs, duct leakage must be reduced (say goodbye to duct tape), more exhaust systems will need heat recovery, hot gas bypass will be restricted, etc. For a detailed analysis of the differences between the 1989 and 1999 versions, see:

Keep One Thing In Mind

Recall, however, that none of this touches your existing systems until you try to change them. Likewise, your state may alter (or ignore) aspects of 90.1-1999, so it is compliance with your state’s code that is the real bottom line.

Copies of ASHRAE standards are available at Save yourself a few bucks, however, and wait for your state’s version to come out. To find a copy, start with your state’s energy office. Find a link to it at: