Utilities should look beyond energy efficiency to improve indoor air quality

Utilities should look beyond energy efficiency to improve indoor air quality
By Paul H. Raymer
Apr 13, 2022

Since it was introduced by the EPA in 1992, the ENERGY STAR voluntary labeling program has grown significantly. The ENERGY STAR symbol for energy efficiency can now be found on major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics, new homes, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing plants.

Building on ENERGY STAR’s success, the EPA introduced the Indoor airPLUS certification in 2008. This voluntary partnership and labeling program helps builders of new homes improve indoor air quality by requiring construction practices and product specifications that minimize exposure to airborne pollutants and contaminants.

Building homes with improved indoor air quality

The two programs work hand-in-hand: A builder must first design a home to earn the ENERGY STAR Certified Home label. To earn the Indoor airPLUS label, the builder needs to include additional features to help protect the home from moisture and mold, pests, gases, and other airborne pollutants. Before the home officially earns the label, it is inspected by an independent third party to ensure compliance with the guidelines and specifications.

We've been a part of the EPA's Indoor airPLUS program since the beginning. Our team worked on refining technical aspects such as limited ozone emissions, increasing filtration in HVAC systems, and implementation carbon monoxide alarm protection during construction. More recently, we worked with EPA to expand the criteria to existing homes. Version 2 of the specifications were sent out for public review and we helped manage the comments for the updated version.

One interesting challenge has been that the original program only covered single-family homes. The new version of the spec includes multi-family and multi-story buildings, which are considerably more complicated. For example, radon gas typically enters buildings through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Should all the units in the building be tested for radon gas? Where should the makeup air for the ventilation systems come from? Those are the kinds of questions we're trying to answer in the new spec.

Utility companies have an important role to play

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Indoor air quality is more important to customers now than ever as more people work from home and as ventilation is a key component in fighting COVID-19.

When it comes to the real-world application of these programs, utilities can sign on to the ENERGY STAR program as a sponsor for residential new homes. This allows them to promote energy efficiency in the residential market and complement their other residential energy efficiency initiatives. Cities like Lancaster, California, counties like North Westchester, New York, and states like Massachusetts all have healthy home incentive programs that can be included on top of energy efficiency incentives.

Utilities typically focus on the energy savings aspect of buildings. However, one unintended consequence of making spaces tighter in order to improve energy efficiency is that the indoor air quality can be degraded. Inadequate ventilation can actually increase indoor pollutant levels.

Indoor airPLUS consists of seven elements:

  1. Controlling moisture
  2. Controlling radon
  3. Controlling pests
  4. Optimizing the HVAC system (including ventilation)
  5. Limiting combustion pollutants
  6. Specifying low polluting materials
  7. Ensuring all the systems are working as specified through third party verification

Going a step beyond energy efficiency is a concrete way for utilities—and the builders they partner with—to sell health benefits to customers.

The future of indoor air quality

The interest in indoor air quality has never been higher, but outreach and education continue to be important to growing the program. For example, we led a webinar for the Salt River Project to encourage builders to participate in the ENERGY STAR for Homes program as well as a training webinar for AEP Texas and Texas-New Mexico Power. We also support EPA in the development of sales and training webinars for builders at trade shows and conferences such as BPA (Building Performance Association) and EEBA (Energy and Environmental Building Alliance).

In Dallas, Beazer Homes announced that all new homes built will now be designed and built Indoor airPLUS qualified. Nationwide, Indoor airPLUS has certified more than 36,000 homes and is growing at an average rate of 64% per year to meet buyer demand for healthy homes. We continue to work with the EPA on ways to illustrate the benefits to builders and their associated utilities.

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Meet the author
  1. Paul H. Raymer, Senior Advisor, Building Science