Pioneering regulations are nothing new for California, a state that often sets cultural and political trends. It was the first to take on automobile pollution and recently passed laws encouraging recycling of used computers and cell phones. Now, the Golden State's HVAC contractors are contending with a new energy-efficiency rule that some say could eventually be copied by other legislatures.

Last October, the state's building energy-efficiency standards, commonly called Title 24, made it mandatory for HVAC contractors in much of the state to test ductwork for leaks whenever they perform a major system upgrade or installation.

But in a state as big and geographically diverse as California, the regulation is creating confusion for both contractors and their customers.

Title 24, California's energy-efficiency standards for residential and nonresidential buildings, was created in 1978 and is updated by state officials periodically. The latest changes took effect last October.

The updates are numerous and complex. They cover everything from lighted signs for businesses to new roofs. But one of the most confusing changes, many contractors say, has to do with ductwork and duct leakage.

Picture courtesy of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

Location, location, location

In certain parts of the state, all buildings, whether residential or commercial, must now have their ductwork tested for leaks when a major system change takes place. This includes replacing an outdoor unit, a furnace or an indoor coil.

According to the California Energy Commission, about 30 percent of the air passing through the average home's ducts escapes. For an energy-starved state like California, where rolling blackouts were common less than a decade ago, testing and properly sealing ductwork could significantly improve efficiency, which is what the state's new regulations aim to do.

However, many of those expected to test and seal the ducts - HVAC contractors - say the state needs to do a better job explaining the regulations. If the rules are difficult for those in the industry to understand, they're even more confusing for the building managers and homeowners who are now facing higher repair bills because of them, they say.

John Proctor, president of the Proctor Engineering Group, says the regulations are confusing - and he was a consultant on them.

The regulations have good intentions, he said, but improvements need to be made. Proctor said the concern is not the purpose of the regulations.

"Good contractors don't argue over whether we should have leaky ducts," he said.

But many contractors are having difficultly understanding what they need to remember, specifically when and where duct testing must be performed.

Picture courtesy of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

Who, what, where

Under the state's new law, only contractors working in select areas of California have to perform the mandatory duct testing. Most residents and businesses near the coasts have been spared the rules, since year-round temperatures there do not fluctuate much. Inland regions, which experience greater temperature swings, are the rules' main targets.

The state has been divided into 16 climate zones, only nine of which require leakage tests.

Proctor said there is also confusion over the testing itself. Even though the regulations seem to suggest otherwise, sealing ducts is not always required. For example, the law says if ductwork leaks more than 15 percent, it must be sealed. But what if the building has most of its ductwork hidden behind walls or in nonaccessible areas? In that case, the rules create other procedures (see page 27 sidebar).

In some parts of the state, customers can completely bypass the testing and sealing requirements if they opt to buy a high-efficiency furnace or air conditioner.

The reason for all of these different testing options, according to Proctor, is to give customers more leeway and to ease contractors into regulations that will probably be tightened as time goes on.

Picture courtesy of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors' National Association.

Certifying results

After a leakage test is performed and ducts are sealed, the test must then be performed again by a third party to make sure that the technician did the job correctly. A certified home energy-rating system, or HERS, rater is called in to sign off on the job - at an added cost to building owners and homeowners.

This is another concern for many contractors. How will customers react to another expense when all they wanted was a new furnace?

Proctor said that while the added costs may be frustrating, he believes most customers will understand.

"(Customers) want a quality job," he said. "There is a lot of education that has to happen."

And Proctor says it isn't just customers that need more education about the changes to Title 24; many contractors need to train their technicians. He said that many technicians do not know how to perform a duct-leakage test. In fact, Proctor said he knows technicians who have never even seen the equipment used to perform them.

One such piece of equipment is called a Duct Blaster. Made by a Minneapolis company called the Energy Conservatory, it includes a fan that connects directly to a home or building's duct system, usually through the central return or the air-handler cabinet. Remaining registers and grilles are taped off. How airtight the ducts are is measured by either pressurizing or depressurizing the ductwork and measuring the fan flow and duct pressure.

"It's easy to set up," Proctor said about the test. "Just do it on every job and it's no big deal."

But Proctor said he fears some contractors won't learn how to do the test and will choose to ignore the regulation. Most of these contractors would not bother to get a permit, so there would be no record of the work being done.

Proctor said that this worries legitimate contractors, who say that the testing requirements could "push the market in the opposite direction." He says that some contractors worry that customers will choose contractors who "do the worse job because they charge less and don't pull permits."

Acceptance

Other contractors are not thrilled about the new regulations, but said they are making the best of it.

Vince McDonald, owner of McDonald Plumbing & Heating in Sacramento, Calif., says the new state rules have not caused a negative impact on his business. But McDonald initially wasn't sure that would be the case. When the regulations were first announced, his reaction was "Oh my God, this will be terrible," he said.

But McDonald found that the new regulations were not the headache they looked like on paper.

"It's similar to what I've experienced with other regulations," he said. "The initial impact is a little hard for us to take. Then it's back to business."

To lessen the initial impact, McDonald chose to educate his customers and do it early. In fact, he sent out letters informing them about two major changes that would be occurring in the industry.

The letters said that if customers were considering a new system, they might want to purchase it before new standards would drive up the price. It explained that by Oct. 1, 2005, new California regulations would require ductwork testing, which would increase the cost of installing new equipment. And in January 2006, a new federal air-conditioning efficiency standard would make HVAC units more expensive, so they might want to purchase now. According to McDonald, the direct-mail pieces were a success.

And for those customers who did have equipment replaced after the state's law took effect and had to pay higher service prices, McDonald said they took it well after the new regulations were explained.

Added burdens

"The majority of people are kind of disgusted that the government is involved in this way," he said. "I don't like the government being involved in my life, but I understand the need for it."

McDonald's opinion echoes that of other business owners. While many contractors may not want added regulations on their jobs, they understand the motivation behind it.

According to Ken Justo, when it comes to ductwork and duct leakage, "we've done a really poor job in our industry."

Justo is the vice president of sales and marketing for ASI Hastings, a residential contractor in San Diego. ASI Hastings specializes in indoor air quality and energy efficiency. He said Title 24's new requirements cover what the company has already been trying to achieve for years.

Justo said he believes that the new regulations are important because existing ductwork in many old homes was not properly installed. For example, he says that on many projects, ductwork was not banded or there was no solid vapor barrier, and this will cause ducts to leak "like a sieve."

Under the new regulations, customers can avoid having their ducts tested or sealed if they install high-efficiency heating or air-conditioning units. But Justo said that he would rather see customers purchase a lower-efficiency system with a more efficient duct system.

Too many companies do shoddy work to fix leaky ductwork, he added.

"Duct tape is good for anything but ducts," said Justo.

A duty

Bob Jardine, owner of Hi-Tech Air Conditioning Inc. in Santee, Calif., near San Diego, said he believes contractors owe it to customers to take care of their ductwork. He said that there are some contractors who won't seal duct joints. They may go to a customer's home and put duct tape on the ducts, but in a year the tape will be falling off and air will be blowing into the attic.

"That's just not right for the customer," said Jardine.

Jardine is a commercial contractor, specializing in computer and dust-free "clean rooms" used for laboratory work. He said that the new regulations have not been a headache for his company because his customers were already looking to save energy. By focusing on these needs, Jardine says his company is ahead.

"We try to stay ahead of the curve, and these days, you better," said Jardine. "Everything is competitive now. We need to educate the end user. They are not aware."

Jardine requires his company's technicians to take classes in airflow and duct leakage. He said such training is the key to succeeding with regulations like Title 24. He said that some contractors are too busy moving from job to job, and they do not take the time to learn proper installation or new regulations. In fact, that's why rules like Title 24 were created, Jardine said.

"There are a lot of people who just aren't aware, and they won't move until they are forced to," he said.

The ‘easy' way

David Tuck, owner of Air Technology in Orangevale, Calif., agreed.

"A lot (of contractors) try to get by, slam dunk the unit in and collect the money," he said.

Tuck, as well as being a contractor, is also licensed to certify home-energy performance. This means he can verify the duct testing and sealing on other companies' work, just not his own. Tuck said he went through the licensing process to better understand what was expected under the state's new rules.

Tuck said it is not just important for contractors to educate themselves on new regulations, but they also must understand the law well enough to educate customers. According to Tuck, a duct test for residential homeowners can be anywhere from $250 to $350. This added cost could - and usually does - raise questions from them.

Last year, the state's energy commission posted a letter on its Web site, intended to make consumers aware of the new regulations. But according to Tuck, for many customers the requirements "still go way over their head."

Tuck tells his customers that their heating and cooling system is designed to deliver a certain amount of airflow. And when there are leaks, that system is no longer delivering adequate heating and cooling. Since that hikes their energy bills, Tuck tells customers that they are "stealing from themselves."

More changes?

Title 24 is scheduled for a rewrite in 2008. Proctor hopes that legislators will find a way to smooth out the law's compliance aspects. He says that in the meantime, contractors should continue to educate themselves on duct testing and why the requirements are important.

And according to some experts, HVAC contractors across the United States may want to keep an eye on California - similar laws could be heading their way.

According to Proctor, the U.S. Department of Energy has been trying to get duct-sealing requirements enacted in other states.

Florida is one such possibility. Danny Parker with the Florida Solar Energy Center says that his state has been very interested in energy-efficiency measures. While Florida does not currently require duct testing and sealing, it does require all buildings to pass the state's energy code. Buildings are tested with special software to ensure that they are energy-efficient.

Owners can comply with the energy code in several ways, including tightening and sealing ducts, or they can buy a more efficient HVAC system, install a metal roof or put in better windows - whatever it takes to pass the code, Parker said.

Jardine said he wouldn't be surprised if more states started following California's lead.

"California is on the cutting edge of a lot of things," he said. "Arizona could get it next and possibly Nevada."

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.

Sidebar
Clearing up some confusion

When do you test for leaks? How does work get certified? The questions are endless when it comes to the new regulations under California's Title 24, the state's energy-efficiency standards for residential and nonresidential buildings. And when new rules were added in October 2005, contractors found confusion and tons of questions.

Here are some important aspects of Title 24, according to the California Energy Commission, to help clear up some of the confusion.

When to test

Duct-leakage tests are only required in certain areas. California has 16 different climate zones. Zones that must do testing include Zone 2 and zones nine through 16 (see page 24 map).

Tests must be performed if customers install or replace a new central air conditioner or furnace.

Tests do not have to be done if a home has 40 feet of ductwork in a non-conditioned space or if there is asbestos on ducts. Nonresidential buildings do not have to perform the test if 25 percent of ductwork is in a non-conditioned space.

A leakage test does not have to be performed if the customer opts to install a high-efficiency system, such as a furnace with a 92 percent annual fuel-utilization efficiency rating.

Third-party verification

Every time a contractor performs a leakage test and seals ductwork, a HERS rater must verify that ductwork has been sealed properly.

There are three options for the third-party verification. An inspector can come out for every job or can conduct a random sample of every seven or every 30 projects. For example, after a contractor has finished seven jobs, the inspector will randomly select one home. If the duct-leakage test passes in that home, all seven homes pass. If it fails, the rater must visit another home.

Contractors can be HERS raters, but they may not verify their own work.