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Rebuilding Missouri through energy efficient building codes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2011 - As the weather turns cold, we know Missouri households will see their monthly heating bills rise. No big surprise, right? Well, not so fast.

This time, the bad news first: The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy just named Missouri the 44th-worst state in energy efficiency. That means Missourians are paying hundreds of dollars a year more for utility bills.

It also means we are generating more pollution, as we burn more natural gas or propane to heat our homes. If you heat your home with electricity, keep in mind that more than 80 percent of the electricity in our state is generated by burning coal - so higher energy usage means more soot, more mercury and more sulfur dioxide being released into our air and inhaled into the lungs of our children and neighbors.

Now, the good news: The International Code Council recently approved a much stronger model energy-efficiency code for residential buildings. This code, the 2012 IECC (International Energy Conservation Code) is 30 percent more energy efficient than the 2006 version now in use in many areas in Missouri, including St. Charles City, Kansas City and Springfield. Some local jurisdictions, including Hazelwood, St. Charles County and Creve Coeur, still use codes from 2003, which are even less energy efficient.

The ICC updates its recommended building codes every three years. Each year, the residential energy efficiency component gets more effective. So, the 2009 IECC, while not as efficient as the 2012 version, still provides a 15 percent improvement over the 2006 version. Jurisdictions that already have adopted the 2009 IECC code include O'Fallon, St. Louis City, Troy, Florissant and Clayton.

In Missouri, building codes are set by city or county governments. Now, those jurisdictions can adopt this new model building code. This would provide a double benefit, including:

  • Cleaner Air - buildings consume about 75 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S., and produce about 40 percent of the total emitted greenhouse gases. More efficient buildings means less dirty coal being burned, and less mercury, soot and carbon dioxide in the air.
  • Lower Utility bills - by reducing energy use by 30 percent, building codes will drastically reduce monthly utility bills being paid by Missouri consumers.

Incorporating efficiency measures when a house is being built is much more effective than retrofitting it after it is constructed. According to research by the Building Codes Assistance Project, new homes built in Missouri to the IECC 2009 efficiency codes will generate enough utility-bill savings in 14 months to pay for the additional front-end home-building costs. After that, all the utility savings are gravy.
On the other hand, when I recently improved my old house (built in 1915) with efficiency measures such as a high-efficiency furnace, increased attic insulation and a programmable thermostat, I calculated that it will take seven years for my lower utility bills to pay for that investment. The lesson: Let's implement energy-efficient building codes now.

How? Engaged citizens can make a difference. Find out what building codes are in effect in your city or county. If the residential energy efficiency codes are out of date, talk to your building code officials about the benefits of updating those codes to the 2009 or 2012 IECC level.

Does that sound like a lot to do on your own? If so, you can participate in the Missouri Sierra Club's campaign to educate building codes officials and consumers on why energy efficient building codes are an important policy for Missouri. Beginning in January 2012, we will be holding trainings across the state to give you the tools that you need to make our state more energy efficient (trainings will be listed on www.missouri.sierraclub.org).

John Hickey is chapter director of the Missouri Sierra Club. 

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