I’m in the early stages of skimming through documents and scheduling interviews for a September story on net-zero energy buildings and the HVAC industry’s role in all of it. It’s a big topic to take on, but I’m working my way through it as “efficiently” as I can.

I recently spoke with Ralph DiNola, CEO of Portland, Oregon-based New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit working to improve the energy performance of commercial buildings, who told me about a decades-old bump in the road: federal preemption rules.

The organization outlined this setback in its recent white paper, “Federal Preemption as a Barrier to Cost Savings and High Performance Buildings in Local Energy Codes.” The 40-year-old federal preemption rules prevent states and cities from setting more stringent standards in order to avoid a “50-state patchwork of varying rules,” organization officials said. 

The federal laws set national standards for appliance efficiency, including HVAC systems and hydronic heating equipment, but with growing trends in sustainability, green HVAC and net-zero energy buildings, the organization said the laws are keeping states and cities from setting higher energy efficiency standards through local energy codes and are driving up the incremental cost of efficiency overall. And who are often the recipients of those costs? Consumers and local governments.

“Cities and states find themselves hamstrung when they try to use energy codes to help meet energy and climate action plan goals. Preemption won’t allow them to prescribe higher appliance and HVAC efficiency even though products with high levels of efficiency already dominate their markets,” said Jim Edelson, who is an author of the paper and NBI’s director of codes and policy. “Moving to lift this barrier also would give policymakers the opportunity to provide additional paths to meeting energy and carbon reduction goals.”

NBI officials said the congressional acts from 1975 that created the federal preemption of HVAC equipment — the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act — are due for some “common sense” reform.

You can view the organization’s white paper and suggested path forward here.