By Robert P. Mader
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed similar bills that would require two or more Federal energy efficiency levels for heating and cooling equipment. The Senate Bill, H.R. 6, would require the Secretary of Energy to develop efficiency rules that would split the U.S. into two zones, presumably north and south. The House bill, H.R. 3221, would go further, dividing the U.S. into three zones, with more than one zone possible within a single state.
The bills have substantial differences that would have to be worked out in a House- Senate Conference Committee. At press time, a conference was not on the Congressional schedule.
The House bill reads, “The Secretary [of Energy] may establish regional standards for space heating and air conditioning products, other than window-unit air conditioners and portable space heaters. For each space heating and air conditioning product, the Secretary may establish a national minimum standard and two more stringent regional standards for regions determined to have significantly differing climatic conditions. Any standards set for any such region shall achieve the maximum level of energy savings that are technically feasible and economically justified within that region.”
Regional boundaries shall follow state borders, the bill states, and only include contiguous states (except Alaska and Hawaii). On the request of a state, the Secretary of Energy may divide a state into two regions.
As a preliminary step, the Department of Energy has to come up with economic justification for setting standards within different regions through meetings with contractors, wholesalers, manufacturers, utilities, advocacy organizations and government experts, including the National Institute for Standards and Technology.
The proposed law also says that ASHRAE Standard 90.1, “Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings,” is the energy standard for most commercial HVAC equipment and for water heating equipment, unless DOE can compellingly show that a more stringent standard is needed.
The bill states, “If ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1 is amended with respect to any small, large, or very large commercial package air conditioning and heating equipment, packaged terminal air conditioners, packaged terminal heat pumps, warm air furnaces, packaged boilers, storage water heaters, instantaneous water heaters, or unfired hot water storage tanks, the Secretary shall within six months publish in the Federal Register for public comment an analysis of the energy savings potential of the amended energy efficiency standards. The Secretary shall establish an amended uniform national standard for that product at the minimum level for each effective date specified in the amended ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1 within 18 months of the ASHRAE amendment’s publication ...”
The proposed laws are loaded with uncertainty that should scare contractors, said Lake Coulson, vice president of government relations for Plumbing- Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association. Contractors may ultimately get stuck with the responsibility for determining what equipment they can legally install and being penalized if they skirt efficiency rules.
Coulson speculated that the current national efficiency standard for air conditioners, 13 SEER, would stick for northern states. The south might be divided up into two regions, say the southwest and the really hot and humid areas such as Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. The southwest, such as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, hypothetically, could have a minimum of 17 SEER, Coulson mused, while the southeast could be at 21 SEER. Climatically diverse California could be split up.
Philosophically, Coulson said he can understand how Portland, Maine, and Phoenix are so climatically different that different levels of energy efficiency make sense. Legislating that, however, is confusing to the trade and to homeowners and may be unenforceable.
“We have a lot of difficulty understanding how any of these would be enforced,” Coulson said, “and the people downtown [Congress] believe this is just a matter of proper labeling.”
The House bill proposes that the yellow Energy Guide stickers on equipment have a map on them showing where a piece of equipment could legally be installed.
“In border states,” Coulson continued, “say, in Virginia the standard is 13 SEER and North Carolina has a 21 SEER, how do you prevent the Virginia 13 SEER product from ending up in the North Carolina market? What could be done to prevent that from happening?” In California, bordering counties could have different standards. “The burden of compliance is now on the contractor,” Coulson said. “The wording in the legislation makes it illegal to install products that don’t meet the standard, so we are specifically included in the legislation.”
Contractors have two rays of hope. First, the House and Senate bills have many differences that must be worked out in conference committee. The Senate bill calls for two regions, for example, and allows states to opt out of stricter standards – although that might be more confusing if Alabama has one standard and Georgia another. A House-Senate conference committee has not been scheduled and Coulson believes one has to take place in September or October. In November both houses of Congress will plunge into election year politics and nothing will get done.
Second, even if final legislation comes out of a conference committee, President George W. Bush will probably veto it. The Office of Management & Budget has issued a “Statement of Administration Policy” that said that the President has so many disagreements with the 700-plus-page bill that he will veto it.