What Government Energy Efficiency Programs Are There For Homes?

I’m doing my utmost to embrace energy efficiency and I hope you are, too. That’s why I went ahead and tackled our first net-zero solar home renovation.

Before and after picture of the First Attainable Home back yard
The First Attainable Home of many more to come!

I didn’t learn everything on that one project, though. And I’m on a mission to enable everyone who wants to increase their home’s efficiency. So I’ve been exploring the initiatives, resources, and programs offered by the U.S. Government, and I’m going to share my findings with you.

Government initiatives and resources come in various forms, including certifications and programs. I’m convinced that they can help us all reach meaningful sustainability goals in one way or another.

One thing is for certain: energy efficiency is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways we, as a nation, can combat climate change.

Of course, the government has a leading role to play. It can help reduce energy costs for consumers, improve the viability of energy-efficient initiatives, and take steps to ensure that the air we breathe is clean and healthy.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) works with national laboratories, universities, and businesses to develop new, energy-efficient technologies. It also does what it can to boost the efficiency of existing technologies and improve the competitiveness of businesses in the industry. It’s up to each and every one of us to take advantage of the help offered.

Picture of The Forrestal Building, United States Department of Energy headquarters on Independence Avenue
The Forrestal Building, United States Department of Energy headquarters on Independence Avenue. By US Department of Energy – http://www.energy.gov/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6239456

Government resources take many different forms that include:

  • Building codes
  • Standards for appliances, equipment, materials, and buildings
  • Energy rating systems
  • Certifications for energy efficiency and related specifications
  • Programs that focus on specific needs (water conservation, solar energy, and so on)
  • Guides and checklists that help us figure out the challenges and intricacies of energy efficiency and related issues
  • Federal tax credits for homes (now for a limited time only)
  • Funding for innovative organizations

Initiatives and programs include:

  • ENERGY STAR
  • The Zero Energy Ready Home Program
  • Building America Program
  • The Better Buildings Initiative
  • The Home Energy Rating System
  • WaterSense
  • Indoor airPLUS

As we explore these, you will see that there is an inter-dependence of many of these initiatives and programs with one another.

Energy Efficiency Policies & Programs

U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy logo

The DOE’s Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy spearheads many of the initiatives and programs enabled by the U.S. Government. Their website has a State and Local Solution Center that highlights national and local energy efficiency policies and programs. These include:

  • Appliance standards
  • Building codes for energy performance
  • Commissioning and retro-commissioning procedures
  • Decoupling and utility business models
  • Education and behavior modification for local government employees as well as consumers
  • Energy benchmarking and disclosure
  • Energy efficiency resource standards that include standards and targets set by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
  • Financial incentives and programs, together with a database of state incentives for renewables and efficiency
  • Lead-by-example state and local government programs and policies
  • Industry outreach and coalitions
  • Strategic energy management and plans for continuing improvement
  • Local government and state-controlled zoning and permitting

They provide additional resources for many of these.

But I want to focus on more specific Government energy-efficiency programs and initiatives. So let’s dive in.

ENERGY STAR

Energy Star Logo

Probably the best-known energy efficiency resource, ENERGY STAR is a joint program run by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Its primary aim is to provide simple, unbiased, and credible information that consumers, including businesses and homeowners, can use to make well-informed decisions.

ENERGY STAR products, from light bulbs to heat pumps and solar water heaters, are independently certified for efficiency. The most important factor is that they all use less energy than products that are not ENERGY STAR-certified.

Closeup photo of Energy Star label certifying energy efficiency on a dishwasher
We made sure the new appliances in our project house were Energy Star certified.

ENERGY STAR also has many tools and resources that enable the commercial sector to manage energy use in buildings and plants.

If you live in an ENERGY STAR-certified house or apartment, it will be at least 10% more energy efficient than other homes. Retrofitting your home through the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program will also help you improve the energy efficiency of your home and save a lot of money.

You might even want to take it a few steps further and do what I have done, renovating my home so that it is net-zero! I’ll give you more info in the next section about the Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) program.   

Federal Tax Credits

Federal equipment tax credits for homes have been a great incentive for homeowners.

For example, ENERGY STAR-certified heat pumps that meet specified requirements qualify for a tax credit amount of $300. Certain ENERGY STAR-certified non-solar electric and gas water heaters also qualify for a $300 tax credit.

There are also several energy efficiency improvements that qualify for 10% of the cost, up to $500. These include doors, skylights, and windows (up to $200), insulation, and metal and asphalt roofs.

First introduced in 2006 and 2007, and changed over the years, tax credits are unfortunately due to expire on December 31, 2021. But you can still claim until that time.

Renewable energy tax credits for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells, small wind turbines, and solar energy systems now feature a gradual step down in credit value. They are, though, still valid until December 31, 2023.  

Zero Energy Ready Home

Department of Energy ZERH logo

The U.S. Department of Energy has established the Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) Program. It aims to enable consumers to achieve outstanding levels of energy savings, durability, health, and comfort in their homes and buildings.

The program is based on the comprehensive building science requirements established by ENERGY STAR as well as innovations and best practices from Building America (see section below).

Zero Energy Ready Homes are verified by qualified third-party professionals. To make the grade, homes need to be at least 40% to 50% more energy efficient than any other typical new home. This usually corresponds to the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index Score. You will find out more about HERS ratings below. 

The program is an excellent way the DOE can recognize builders for their leadership in the goals towards increasing energy efficiency and achieving zero energy ready homes.

Architects, designers, builders, verifiers (raters), and various manufacturers and organizations striving for innovation can apply to become partners of the ZERH Program.

Requirements for the DOE ZERH Program

The ZERH requirements are specific to when they were permitted – on or after July 20, 2017, or before June 1, 2019. In general terms, Zero Ready Energy Homes must comply with specified codes and programs.

The ZERH Program is dependent on compliance with the ENERGY STAR Homes Program Requirements and Inspection Checklists for:

  • The target home and size adjustment factor ENERGY STAR uses
  • Water management
  • Thermal enclosure
  • HVAC quality installation, both for the contractor and the HERS rating

It is also essential that all ZERHs use ENERGY STAR-qualified energy-efficient fixtures and appliances.

They must have high-performance windows that meet ENERGY STAR specifications for different climate zones installed. There are, though, different compliance paths that include area weighting and allowances for passive solar design. Window specifications are also variable.

ZERHs must meet the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code for insulation.

Ducts must be installed in optimized locations or a conditioned space as defined in the Program specifications.

Water and energy conservation goals must be achieved by using a high-efficiency water heater and fixtures or an efficient hot water distribution system. Homeowners in the program are instructed to download the WaterSense (see section below) tool to estimate the stored hot water volumes in their distribution systems.

It is important for those building ZERHs to ensure that indoor air quality is fully certified in terms of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Indoor airPlus Program (see below).

Savings on the cost of future solar photovoltaic (PV) installations should be achieved by following the PV-Ready checklist for different climate types. Although the checklist isn’t mandatory, it is strongly recommended. The EPA has a detailed solar PV specification guide that incorporates an easy-to-follow checklist (see the last section below).

How Builders Qualify Homes for ZERH Certification

Builders of ZERHs can qualify homes by using one of two paths:

  1. Following the national Program requirements for all the elements of the house including:
    1. ENERGY STAR for Homes Baseline
    2. Building envelope
    3. Duct system
    4. Water efficiency
    5. Lighting and appliances
    6. Indoor air quality
    7. Renewable ready (see the EPA Solar Photovoltaic Specification, Checklist and Guide below)
  2. Using the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) accredited HERS rating software tool that creates a DOE certificate that is specific to each home.

If state-specific energy codes exceed the requirements of the ZERH Program, these take precedence.

Building America Program

Building America | Department of Energy

Established more than two decades ago, the DOE Building America Program provides the building industry with specialized expertise. It also shares new insights from a wide range of research projects and funding-worthy projects.

Over the years, Building America has partnered with world-class research projects in the construction industry, including many top U.S. Homebuilders. They have aimed to bring cutting-edge resources and innovations to market.

The Building America Solution Center

The Solution Center was established to provide residential building professionals with access to expert information on high-performance design and construction topics. These relate to every element of residential buildings including indoor air quality, windows, HVAC components, and air sealing and insulation.

Resources are vast and varied and include specifications and contract documents, energy codes, labeling program compliance, technical reports, training videos, CAD drawings, photographs that show the right and wrong way to do things, and climate-specific case studies. ENERGY STAR checklists, house diagrams with components you can select to suit your needs, and an information map are also included.

The Solution Center is a user-friendly interface that is community-driven. Those who provide information include national laboratories, research teams, the ZERH Program, and industry professionals. Information also comes from building codes and ENERGY STAR.

Advanced Building Construction Projects Funded

In February 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 Lockdown, the Building Technologies Office (BTO) awarded a mammoth $26.3 million to 40 projects that had been selected competitively. These were led by 29 organizations that are striving for innovations to further the goals of the BTO’s Advanced Building Construction (ABC).

All 40 projects aim to reimagine the ABCs and improve the effectiveness and affordability of energy-saving measures.

The projects, which are located throughout the U.S., were selected in three topic categories:

  1. Integrated Building Retrofit
  2. New Construction Technologies
  3. Advanced Technology Integration

Each category focuses on different challenging elements within each topic.

The Better Buildings Initiative

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s Better Buildings Solution Center offers thousands of proven, cost-effective, real-world solutions to help you save energy and water in your home. Ultimately, using the strategies they suggest will help you save money.

This is an initiative that will enable you to learn by example.

Building owners, managers, and operators are invited to join a Better Buildings challenge and to become a partner in the initiative. Projects undertaken by partners are showcased so that others (including you and me) can see how they managed to reduce energy or water use by at least 20% in buildings. 

They also offer loads of information on vital topics including renewable energy, water and energy savings, and waste reduction.

HERS Ratings

The Home Energy Rating System index is an industry standard in the U.S. that is used to measure the energy efficiency of homes. It is also the official system used to inspect and calculate the energy performance of homes.

The HERS index score will give you invaluable information about your home. For instance, it will assess how efficiently it’s operating and highlight modifications that you can make to generate greater energy savings.

If you are buying a new home, the HERS report will outline the energy features of the house and tell you how well it performs. It will also assess the expected cost of utilities.

If you are selling your home, a low HERS index score will provide you with a compelling, justified reason to ask a higher price.

How HERS Assesses the Energy Efficiency of Homes

As I said earlier, RESNET is the accredited HERS rating software tool used to assess the energy efficiency of houses. Only certified RESNET home energy raters are given access to the tool, which provides all the calculations needed to produce a home energy rating.

Once the rater has established an energy rating, he or she compares the data against a “reference home” that is a similar shape and size to your home.

graphic of the HERS rating index

According to the DOE, a traditional home typically scores 130 on the HERS Index, and a house built to the International Energy Conservation Code is likely to get a rating of no more than 100. According to HERS:

  • Homes with a score of 70 are 30% more energy-efficient than RESNET reference homes.
  • Homes with a score of 130 are 30% less energy-efficient than RESNET reference homes.

WaterSense for Water Conservation

WaterSense | US EPA

WaterSense is a voluntary partnership program that is sponsored by the EPA. In a similar way to ENERGY STAR, it provides a label for programs, water-efficient products, and new homes that meet the EPA criteria for performance and efficiency. It is also a resource that shows us ways that we can save water.

It’s worth noting that products, services, and new homes that WaterSense approves are certified to use at least 20% less water. They also save energy and are guaranteed to perform as well as or even better than regular products. 

The WaterSense mission is to promote a nationwide ethic of water efficiency so that we can conserve water resources for future generations. It also represents a mammoth attempt to reduce the costs of water and wastewater infrastructure.

To do this, the program partners with homebuilders, irrigation professionals, manufacturers, distributors and retailers, and utilities, encouraging innovation in manufacturing.

There are various WaterSense specifications and certifications, all of which are detailed and explained on their website.

Indoor airPLUS Program

Indoor airPlus logo

Similar in concept to WaterSense, the Indoor airPLUS Program is another EPA initiative that involves labeling and voluntary partnerships. It was launched to enable builders of new homes to improve the quality of indoor air. They are encouraged to do this using proactive construction practices and products that will minimize contaminants and airborne pollutants. 

Construction specifications include the careful selection and installation of systems for:

  • Moisture control
  • HVAC
  • Combustion venting
  • Radon resistance
  • Low emissions

Before homes can be Indoor airPLUS qualified, they must earn the ENERGY STAR Certified Home label. This is, of course, the U.S. Government-backed symbol for energy efficiency.

With an ENERGY STAR build as the core, the builder then incorporates the home design and construction features needed to meet the Indoor airPLUS specifications.

Independent third-party inspectors are employed to ensure compliance with the rigorous guidelines and specs.

The program offers educational resources to both homeowners and builders. 

EPA Solar Photovoltaic Specification, Checklist and Guide

The EPA has developed a free resource for renewable energy-ready homes (RERHs) specifically to help builders design and construct homes that are solar PV ready.

The Solar Photovoltaic Specification, Checklist and Guide takes project design and building teams through the essential steps that enable them to assess homes’ solar resource potential. It also defines the minimum structural and system compliments that they will need to install to support a future solar energy system.

The EPA has also developed an online RERH solar site assessment tool (SSAT) that compares the solar resource potential of the proposed array site to its optimal potential.

So, even if you aren’t ready to get off the grid or even maximize your home’s renewable energy specs right now, you can take steps to make your new home renewable-energy ready.

This EPA document is a lengthy one and it is aimed at builders, but it is an incredibly useful resource. There is also a section on homeowner education that builders are encouraged to develop for each RERH home that they build.

This would include a copy of the EPA guide, the completed RERH checklist, and various architectural and electrical drawings that relate to the solar array. If you’re in the market for an RERH home, be sure your builder provides you with these documents.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are a homeowner, someone who wants to build an energy-efficient or zero-energy home, a home builder, or anyone else in the energy-efficient 21st-century construction industry, you will probably be interested in the initiatives and resources offered by the Government.

Before I began my research, I didn’t realize how much potential federal support there is out there. If you’ve done some exploring and research of your own, we’d be happy for you to share it with us. Otherwise, we’d love for you to sign up for project updates, blog posts, and relevant news that we regularly post.

I have a 100% commitment to the global net-zero goals and I’m going to do all that I can to help others who also want to get there.

Erin Shine

Erin Shine

Founder | Attainable Home

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