Effective October 1, 2005 California's new Energy Code took effect, sending shock-waves through the state's contracting community. These new laws have serious repercussions for homeowners, contractors, building inspectors, and others involved in the process of repairing and replacing HVAC equipment in most areas of the state.

In a nutshell, the California Energy Commission (CEC) convinced legislators to force homeowners to fix their duct systems. In public documents, homeowner letters, and press releases, the CEC outlines the reasons why ducts must be sealed, including energy savings, comfort, and a healthier environment. Yet they also state this rule can be bypassed by purchasing a 14-SEER condensing unit and installing a high efficiency gas furnace! What happened to their concerns about IAQ, safety, and comfort?

As you navigate the complex series of requirements for meeting this new code, you'll also find that in most cases you don't need a third-party to verify the system unless you want to. But if you don't, you enter a lottery where third-party verifiers will check 1 in 7 homes. To learn about all the nuances of the new energy code, go to www.energy.ca.gov/title24/2005standards/index.html

Here are some hard questions to ponder:

  • Is it fair to have a law that requires making your existing home more energy efficient? For example, is it fair for an elderly person on a fixed income who can barely afford a needed furnace or heat exchanger replacement to be subjected to this intrusive and possibly unconstitutional law?
  • With the focus on just sealing ductwork rather than determining whether a system can deliver needed airflow, what are the odds that sealing the ducts alone will make the system perform worse? This could shorten compressor life, and even increase energy consumption.
  • What will be the true effect of these requirements when homeowners find out it could cost thousands more to have their systems replaced if a permit is pulled? How many homeowners and contractors will play the odds and not pull permits, knowing it will take years to have enough inspectors and third-party verifiers to truly enforce this law?
  • If not pulling a permit becomes the norm in California, does that not invite every fly-by-night contractor to set back the state's HVAC industry 20 years?
  • Does California have enough qualified third-party verifiers to implement this wide scale invasion of California's millions of private homes? Right now CEC is pointing to HERS (Home Energy Rating System) raters as that third party. There are apparently less than 500 HERS raters in California. Very few have a foundation in HVAC. Few, if any, are EPA certified to handle refrigerants. Yet according to the program they'll be checking refrigerant charge. Ooops.
  • What's next? Will California begin to put remote monitors on thermostats to make sure people are setting them back — all in the name of energy conservation? Where do people's inalienable rights and privacy come into play? The bigger question is, if this is allowed to go on unchecked in California, could it become a nationwide "Big Brother" approach to energy conservation?

Let's be clear about one thing, I'm all for improving HVAC systems, especially fixing air distribution systems to perform to peak potential. Heck, that's what my mission has been for the past 15 years. But history repeatedly shows that when government tries to force something to happen, they usually end up with the exact opposite result.

There's a good chance this well-intentioned program will blow up in the CEC's and legislators faces. Of course it's amazing how in today's world one can make a failed program still look successful if you put just the right spin on it.

Dominick Guarino is chairman/CEO of National Comfort Institute, a national training, certification and membership organization focused on Performance-Based Contracting, air diagnostics and balancing, carbon monoxide, mold liability prevention, IAQ, and much more. He can be reached at 800/633-7058 or e-mail domg@nationalcomfortinstitute.com. You can also learn more by visitng the website: www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com