Many states have adopted the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC); some have even migrated to the 2012 version. They are both very good codes, significantly improving the energy performance of new buildings, but, unfortunately, their effect on existing buildings is limited.
Specifically, the code only applies to those parts of additions and renovations that are either entirely new or that expose the insulation or the empty insulation cavities. New areas must meet the code minimums, and existing exposed framing cavities must be filled with enough insulation to meet the code or filled with as much insulation as will fit. So, though the existing part of a remodeling project doesn’t have to comply with current codes, you can use them as a guide to create a better building, lower energy use, and make homeowners more comfortable in the process.
The Envelope, Please
The most useful part of the IECC is the table of required air sealing measures (Table 402.4.2 in the 2009 version). This table offers good standards for creating a solid building envelope, starting with a requirement that the insulation is installed in contact and aligned with the air barrier. Other requirements include:
insulated wall corners and headers;
air-sealed and insulated rim joists;
insulation cut and fit around wires and pipes (think of that!); and
HVAC boots sealed to drywall and floors.
Now, if you are doing an addition to a house, this is, at least theoretically, all required in the new construction areas, provided the inspectors actually enforce it. But nothing has to be done to the existing parts of the building that aren’t gutted. So in most cases you end up with (hopefully) an efficient addition, usually attached to a poorly-performing existing building.
Air sealing can be somewhat labor-intensive, but it makes a home much more efficient and comfortable. I realize that it would be challenging, expensive, and in some cases, impossible, to upgrade an existing structure to the current energy code, but there are many things we can do that cost very little yet provide significant value:
Caulk around windows, doors, and interior baseboards when painting and finishing floors.
Caulk the gaps around pipes and wires in top and bottom plates and then install extra ceiling insulation.
Install solid blocking at the top and bottom of mechanical chases between floors, at dropped soffits, and behind attic knee walls.
Have your painter caulk HVAC boots — they probably won’t charge you much if anything to do it.
Even though you aren’t required to upgrade an entire house to meet the new energy code, if you use it as a guide for improvements in an existing building, your clients will save a lot of energy and be more comfortable, and those things can lead to some good referrals.
Chapter 4 of our book, Insulation and Air Sealing, is available for free download from the publisher.
—Carl Seville teaches, speaks, and writes about, consults on, and certifies green buildings. He is co-author of Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction. sevilleconsulting.com; greencurmudgeon.com