Energy Conservation and the Electrical Industry Overview and Residential Requirements

The recent article in the IAEI News outlining the background, purpose, and need for energy codes, energy conservation and sustainable construction should serve as a wakeup call to the electrical industry. Energy codes are not new; the first energy conservation code appeared in the seventies as a reaction to that decade’s energy crisis. However, the major energy codes in use around the country, the International Energy Conservation Code and ASHRAE 90.1, have been primarily focused on mechanical systems and the building envelope with little emphasis directly related to the electrical industry. This is rather surprising, given the fact that these codes are mainly intended to save electrical energy in addition to conserving other sources of energy like oil and natural gas. There are some significant requirements for lighting and lighting controls, and to a lesser extent, motor and transformer efficiency, and scattered other electrical requirements, but these are relatively minor sections compared to building components such as insulation, glazing, and mechanical system efficiency and controls.

While it can be argued that the electrical industry has been somewhat slow to respond to this nation’s energy crisis, some segments of the industry have taken a more proactive approach. The manufacturers of most electrical equipment have taken notice, as evidenced by the strategic initiatives articulated and advocated by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) outlining that association’s commitment to building and providing more energy efficient products. NEMA has been at the forefront of efforts to conserve electrical energy, advocating for legislation at the federal and local level to increase energy efficiency in electrical generation, distribution, and end-use products. (See NEMA’s home page for links to additional information on these initiatives).

As an industry, we have traditionally focused on electrical installations and inspections for compliance with safety codes and standards like the National Electrical Code® and the National Electrical Safety Code®, and with good reason. These and other requirements make our buildings, and the people who use them, safer from shock and fire hazards on a daily basis. But as important as this is, in the long run, maybe the most important legacy of our time will be how we address our current energy crisis as an industry. Furthermore, with the amount of money that the United States spends on importing oil, and with the current unrest in the Middle East region, energy procurement and conservation have become a matter of national security. So there truly is no better time to become involved, aware and proactive with respect to this subject.

The intent of the authors is to identify specific energy conservation requirements in the various applicable codes and standards, the various legislative directives that touch on electrical equipment and installation techniques, to bring a heightened awareness of the requirements and the need for adherence to the requirements, and ultimately to encourage all segments of the electrical industry to become more involved in the code making processes, local adoption, implementation, and enforcement.

In order to fully understand the scope and intent of the various codes, statutes, and recommended practices, it is important to first understand some terminology. Note that each code has a comprehensive list of definitions that the user should become familiar with. A few of the more important concepts are:

The definition of energy conservation should be obvious to even the most casual observer. It means simply finding more efficient ways of utilizing energy for things we need, and identifying and eliminating potential uses that may be wasteful and/or unnecessary. Illumination, climate control, and motors are primary focuses for improving efficiency in our industry.

Renewable resources, as used in the industry, means a source of energy or a building product that can be readily replaced or that does not deplete natural resources. Wind, solar, and biomass technologies are examples of renewable sources of power. Bamboo, rammed-earth, and straw-bales are examples of renewable buildings materials.

Sustainable building is a much broader, more encompassing concept that includes energy conservation as its backbone. Sustainability includes not only energy conservation, but also considers the environmental impact of any building activity, such as the limited use of fossil fuels in the manufacture and transportation of products, the building operations and maintenance practices and increased use of renewable resources. Future articles will discuss how the sustainability standards interface specifically with the electrical industry.

It should be understood that current energy codes and standards do not address the bigger picture of sustainability to any significant extent. They are aimed at reducing energy usage. Sustainable design is essentially a voluntary effort at this time, though some governmental agencies, including a growing number of cities, have stipulated minimum sustainability requirements for municipal and publicly funded buildings. Beyond that, most sustainable construction is a conscious decision by the owner and architect to reach beyond the minimum efficiency requirements to achieve maximum results.

There has been much discussion throughout the construction industry over the perceived restrictive nature of the energy codes. Those who don’t fully understand the concepts, both on the design side and on the certification or inspection side, tend to see energy codes as mandating certain products or construction techniques; limiting innovation, excluding small business interests and driving up costs. There may be some kernel of truth in this for certain aspects of energy codes, but the importance and immediacy of the situation means that we need to change our “business as usual” attitude and realize that the more we do now, the less painful future requirements will need to be.

It has been stated by those who write and enforce energy codes that they are intended to be flexible enough to allow innovation and encourage easy incorporation into the traditional building process. In fact, Section 101.3 of the IECC states in part: “. . . This code is intended to provide flexibility to permit the use of innovative approaches and techniques to achieve the effective use of energy. This code is not intended to abridge safety, health or environmental requirements contained in other applicable codes or ordinances.”

Most all energy codes also try to build in compliance flexibility by offering various pathways: a prescriptive path that dictates exact component values such as R-13 for walls, a component trade-off path that allows mixing higher efficiency products with lower efficiency ones of the same component to achieve an average efficiency value (windows are a prime example of this), and an overall energy use performance path that requires modeling of the whole building as a proposed design to meet an energy use target value. Traditionally, only building envelope components have been the subject of trade-off paths to compliance. Electrical compliance, primarily lighting and lighting controls, utilizes more of a performance path in which a specific outcome is specified and the designer chooses which components to install in order to achieve the needed results.

Let’s take a look at one model national code as a starting point to understanding energy conservation: the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which is a part of the International Code Council (ICC) family of codes. Anyone used to working with the National Electrical Code will notice that the ICC utilizes a different organizational format that might require a small adjustment in reading it, but becoming comfortable in this code should be a quick process.

To begin this journey into understanding energy efficiency codes, we will concentrate on the residential requirements of the IECC for the balance of this article. The current edition is the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code, though the 2009 edition is nearing completion as this is being written. As with most codes, your local jurisdiction may not have adopted the latest version of the energy code, or might even have a completely different code developed “in house” for local enforcement. As always, you should verify what is being enforced before beginning the design process.

Section 101.5 clarifies that residential buildings shall comply with chapter four, which contains requirements specific to residential construction. For mixed use buildings containing both residential and commercial occupancies, each occupancy must be treated separately and shall comply with the applicable requirements for that occupancy. However, it needs to be understood that there are many general requirements scattered throughout the document that will apply to residential construction in addition to those in the residential chapter.

Now it becomes important to understand what is considered residential for the purposes of the Energy Code. The IECC defines residential as Group R2, R3, and R4 buildings three stories or less in height above grade, and excludes one- and two-family dwellings that are regulated by the International Residential Code. (See the International Building Code for specifics on occupancy classifications). So a mid-rise or high-rise residential building, though classified as residential by the building code, will be treated as a commercial building by the energy code. At this point we will note that the International Residential Code (IRC) also contains energy efficiency requirements for one- and two-family dwellings, and, while efforts have been made to coordinate the two codes, there are still a few areas where the IRC and IECC do not agree. Confused yet? Just be sure to apply the proper requirements to each occupancy group.

In the IECC, just over eight pages are dedicated to residential efficiency in chapter four. Of the requirements in this section, there are only three sections with some mention of requirements for electrical installations.

Section 402.4.3 specifies acceptable methods for installation of recessed lighting in the building thermal envelope. The general requirement is that the luminaire be sealed to limit air movement between conditioned and unconditioned spaces. Note that this section does not affect recessed luminaires installed in spaces where there is no thermal barrier, such as between uninsulated floors in a multi-story building. There are three methods for compliance with this requirement:

  • The luminaire must be IC rated and labeled with enclosures that are sealed or gasketed to prevent air leakage into the unconditioned space or cavity, or
  • The luminaire must be IC rated and labeled as meeting ASTM 283, a standard for limiting air leakage under a specified air pressure differential, or
  • The luminaire must be located in an airtight sealed box with specified room to maintain clearances from the luminaire to combustible materials and to insulation. (Those clearances are the same as required in the National Electrical Code for non-IC rated recessed luminaires).

Section 403.1 simply requires at least one thermostat for each separate heating and cooling system. This is intended to prevent simultaneous operation of the heating and the cooling functions.

Section 403.1.1 addresses heat pumps that are provided with supplemental electric heat. The requirement is for controls that prevent the supplemental heat from operation when the heat pump itself can meet the need. There is an exception for defrosting cycles.

A look ahead

While it may appear that energy conservation codes do not immediately or directly impact the electrical industry, particularly the residential sector, very shortly that will no longer be the case given the heightened awareness of how the consumption of energy is impacting the environment. There are numerous proposed changes to the 2009 edition of the IECC that will significantly add to the electrical requirements. We will review these changes in a future article after the 2009 IECC is finalized. The mechanical and building envelope components have been refined to a degree that squeezing more out of these industries will yield smaller increments of savings. Electrical components and design are the logical focus for significant energy savings in the foreseeable future.


  1. American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning
  2. International Code
  3. National Electrical Manufacturers