I just finished my DIY solar panel installation. Reviewing the costs, I noticed that a full 22% of the bill went to upgrading my circuit breaker panel and meter box.
If you’ve been doing any construction work around your home lately, chances are you’ve come across the same thing. Building a new home or upgrading an existing one requires that building code updates be anticipated. Some will make sense and some won’t. In 1977 there seemed to be no need for a circuit breaker that could shut down your entire house. Now there is, and I’m more confident about it. Conversely, I had to pay for a whole house surge protector, a device of dubious value to me as every sensitive element was already protected. But that’s how codes work. You can’t choose.
Due to a recent bill, Colorado will soon have a statewide energy code (managing things like a plug for an electric car). Following a pattern that has become a pattern, the decision will be made by the Colorado Energy Code Board, a group of 20 people chosen by political representatives.
I get it. Channel chases or centimeters of foam are not exactly exciting topics. But the recent experiences of Superior residents who lost their homes to the Marshall Fire should give us cause for concern. Seemingly minor changes in energy regulations can add up to hundreds of dollars in house prices, and this panel doesn’t debate minor changes. As in the Superior case, the proposed changes are major overhauls, with costs to match.
Just like EVs, I think the best way to sum up the proposed changes (more insulation, insulated windows, 98% efficient appliances and the like) is to say they will cost more to buy but less to run . There are many estimates, but the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) report seems to be a commonly cited source. By their numbers, building a home like my current one in Logan County (by the 2021 energy law) would cost about an additional $3,400, take me five years to get positive cash flow on my investment, and take about 17.5 years , until it’s paid in full for itself. Note that this doesn’t include things like Superior included in its code; Annexes to the regular Energy Act requiring solar power (or purchasing a “solar treat” from your local solar garden); Charging stations for electric vehicles and the like.
Is it worth it? Opinions differ because the situations are different. A young couple who start living in their house for five years before buying a bigger one probably thinks that is not the case. An older, more established couple buying their last home and keen on living a carbon-free lifestyle might decide to go all out. However, the problem from above remains: you don’t get to choose the codes. You can’t even see your county commissioner at the grocery store, give him or her a buttonhole, and tell him how you’re feeling. They must do what the unelected board decides.
If this bothers you as much as it does me, there are a few things you can do. First, go to the Colorado Energy Code Board link above and sign up for updates on their meetings. If you have the opportunity (at my last review, the board was still finalizing the details of how public comments will work), speak up. You don’t need to be an expert on codes, and you are entitled to be. We need to let more voices be heard from the middle of the street in this state instead of letting the conversation be dominated by the kind of appointees and activists who have run this state for the last four years.
My second advice is to act locally. Talk to your county commissioner and ask what can be done to regain some level of local control. I’m working on this myself in Logan County (an effort that could easily be copied by others) and will post to my Facebook page when I have updates if you’d like an idea.
Regardless of what type of insulation and amenities a home should or should not have, I would much rather the code reflect what the everyday life of the people of this state values. I would much rather have it as local as possible. I really don’t want the kind of nasty surprise the homeowners experienced at the Marshall Fire. Please join the conversation.
Cory Gaines is a physics teacher at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called it “the pleasure of finding things out.”