The whole world is going green. Businesses and consumers are implementing green strategies, and the color green is taking over marketing campaigns. Even petroleum companies are coming out with green media campaigns. From low-emissions vehicles to wind turbines, photovoltaics and recycling, most walks of life are embracing the environmental movement. Electrical construction is no different. Early adopters of this green movement in construction will reap the rewards and get a seat at the design table, where their input is increasingly valued. Electrical contractors that think it’s too much trouble, too expensive or just a fad will be left behind.
According to experts in residential green construction, it takes some time for electrical contractors to get acclimated to building differently and collaboratively with an energy-efficient mindset. There’s a learning curve that begins with understanding what qualifies as green or certified in the residential market.
LEED for Homes basics
Green construction begins with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, implemented by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED for Homes, a voluntary rating system that is designed to rate the measure of a home’s green features, has gained momentum since the system’s 2008 inception for residential green projects.
According to Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the USGBC, there are about 3,000 newly certified LEED homes and another 12,000 registered to qualify for LEED certification.
“That’s a pretty robust ramp- up,” Kredich said. “It gives us a great deal of confidence moving forward.”
The residential green movement coincides nicely with a reduction in costs to implement green upgrades. What used to be cost-prohibitive for many residential projects has become a market advantage. Kredich said $200,000 to $300,000 production homes are qualifying for LEED certification for approximately $500 more than traditional building. That equates to a markup of between 1 and 6 percent, depending on the overall cost of the home. Consumers can easily and quickly recover those costs in energy savings.
Of course, some options, such as $20,000 photovoltaic roof panels, are more showy options in a green home. Jay Hall, Ph.D., principal of Annapolis, Md.-based Jay Hall & Associates, a technical consultant to the LEED for Homes program, dubbed solar panels “green bling,” something to show off, like having a Toyota Prius in the driveway. However, there are many subtle, less-costly ways for electrical contractors to contribute to a home’s green features, starting with the most obvious component: lighting.
According to the LEED for Homes rating system, the minimum requirement for certification is to install at least four Energy Star-labeled lighting fixtures or Energy Star-labeled compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in high-use rooms (kitchen, dining room, living room, family room, hallways). This minimum package (Section 8.1 of the LEED for Homes rating system) will earn one point.
“Improved lighting” (Section 8.2 of the LEED for Homes Rating System), the second tier of certification, can earn one and one-half points, provided electrical contractors install one or both of the following measures:
• Indoor lighting—Install three additional Energy Star-labeled lighting fixtures or Energy Star-labeled CFLs in high-use rooms. These are in addition to the number of required lights.
• Exterior lighting—All exterior lighting must have either motion-sensor controls or integrated photovoltaic cells. The following lighting is exempt: emergency lighting, lighting required by code for health and safety purposes, and lighting used for eye adaptation near covered vehicle entrances or exits.
The Energy Star Advanced Lighting Package (ALP) can earn the maximum three points. To earn this coveted level of certification, electrical contractors must install an Energy Star ALP, using only Energy Star-labeled fixtures. The ALP consists of minimum 60 percent Energy Star-qualified hard-wired fixtures and 100 percent Energy Star-qualified ceiling fans (if any). Or, electrical contractors can install Energy Star-labeled lamps in 80 percent of all fixtures throughout the home. Energy Star CFLs also are acceptable (Section 8.3 of the LEED for Homes rating system).
“With green construction, there’s not one technology that will get you there,” Hall said.
Beyond lighting packages, which are a major component of making a home green, electrical contractors are heavily involved in installing solar photovoltaic systems and low-voltage display devices that monitor the energy usage in homes. If homeowners can monitor their energy usage, they can lower their thermostats during peak hours and have a dashboard view of kilowatt-hours being used.
According to Hall, electrical contractors also get involved in lighting controls and programmable thermostats. In addition, tankless water heaters can be installed by electrical contractors, but can be challenging because they can require an upgrade to 2 kW to service the unit (see Code Applications, page 82, for more information on how to install these water heaters). While there can be as many as 200 upgraded items on a LEED for Homes project, only about 20 or 30 apply to electrical contractors, Hall said.
Aside from products and installations, electrical contractors can serve as professional experts among the other trades. Their input is valuable to the overall process, and builders appreciate that potential value.
Walter Cuculic, director of strategic marketing for Pulte Homes and a USGBC board member, said electrical contractors can help push the envelope when it comes to high-efficiency lighting. The electrical contractor can come back and support a modified design.
“Some builders just want the electrical contractor to come in and do [connections],” Cuculic said. “But we are always open and up-front with the trades. There are constant challenges in building a better product for less. We can continue to differentiate ourselves if we coordinate with the trades.”
The builders that want electrical contractors to just connect the systems that others designed cling to a “short-sighted business solution.”
While electrical contractors are coordinating with design and installing electrical and low-voltage gear, sometimes they also are specifying the products. That design/build capacity is critical to the overall success of a green home, in many cases. There must be coordination between designers and subcontractors to ensure the right products are going into the job.
“We preach pulling together the full team before the home is designed,” Kredich said. “In green design, it’s imperative.”
He added that it is better to have the electrical contractor influence the design on the front end than it is to have them trying to fix thorny issues downstream when it’s much more costly.
Hall said that integrated design is a more collaborative process where there’s a real value having electrical contractors involved early. Especially in large-scale multifamily or apartment complexes, an early brainstorming session is common. At that meeting, all trades, designers, developers, engineers, etc., are invited to discuss ways to make the project better. It isn’t until later that a green rating determines whether the project achieves LEED for Homes certification. That early collaboration brings the best and brightest together to maximize the home’s efficiency.
On the way to LEED for Homes certification, there is late design, during which a green rater assesses the plans before construction begins, Hall said. The rater will make the final decision on compliance for certification.
“What happens often after that is the specification phase,” Hall said. “They have a design and a design intent, then they have to pick the products that qualify as green under the program.”
That’s when electrical contractors should choose which particular products from various manufacturers fit the design. That’s an added value for the project. Hall said, however, that there is a lack of standards for green products in the marketplace, so all trades—including electrical contractors—must educate themselves to bring that expertise to the design table.
Focus on education
Experts agree that ECs should focus on education to be able to work on these green home projects. Whether that means learning how to install photovoltaic panels or configuring the systems to sell energy back to the grid, electrical contractors must learn all the aspects of LEED for Homes to be a valuable partner in this green movement.
Kredich recommends attending workshops or seeking a LEED Accredited Professional designation through the USGBC to prepare for green projects in the future.
“Electrical contractors should use this down time to invest in their future,” he said. “As difficult as it is to bite off time and money, now is a good time to think about the future.”
“Green and energy efficiency are here to stay,” Cuculic said. “Electricity is going to continue to increase in cost.”
He sees a day in the future when homes will have numbers or ratings, just as cars have ratings for miles per gallon, to demonstrate their efficiency. It will help people compare homes when making their purchasing decision.
Cuculic compared green building to the early 1900s municipal fire codes. After the great Chicago and San Francisco fires, new fire codes took hold in the United States. Today, no one questions fire codes. He sees the same thing happening with green building. Soon, it will be an integrated part of building codes.
Therefore, it’s in the best interest of residential electrical contractors to educate themselves on LEED for Homes and energy efficiency. It’s time to be creative in devising ways to cut energy costs and contribute to the design phase with energy-efficient solutions. Your voice will be heard, and you can differentiate yourself from traditional contractors who build only to code.
“There is a strong direction from the industry,” Kredich said. “If I don’t learn this stuff, I’m going to be left behind.”
KELLY, former editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.