Why not try to improve what building inspectors do, so that all permitted construction and repairs bring some improvement in building efficiencies?

At the recent HARDI (Heating, Air-conditioning, Refrigeration Distributors International) meeting in Orlando, FL, I sat in on a meeting chaired by two “green building” experts, and listened intently to what they had to say. They were, of course, discussing a program designed to certify certain homes and commercial buildings as energy efficient based on several design parameters, and to allow the builders who meet the criteria to advertise their structures with the “Green Building” seal.

I realize that such programs are usually implemented in cooperation with electric utilities, whose supposed goal is to support energy efficiency and to reduce peak loads on their generating networks, and this seems to work well in many areas. But toward the end of the meeting someone asked, “How can we get a uniform inspection of such buildings to make sure that all the design parameters are truly being implemented properly?”

And one of the speakers replied, “Well, that continues to be a problem. Does anyone have a suggestion?”

This question finally brought to a head something that seemed to be nagging at the back of my mind as I listened, so I did something that the trade press probably shouldn’t do - I raised my hand to offer a suggestion.

I said, “You know, contractors already pay for people to come out and inspect their work when they apply for permits. Now here you are suggesting that electric utilities or others should do the inspecting, but since you both represent government agencies, shouldn’t government be talking to government about this?”

“Well,” the reply quickly came, “if you’re talking about local building inspectors doing this work, they simply aren’t qualified.”

And I asked, “Isn’t your job one of education?” And at that they both agreed.

I know that my suggestion didn’t sit well with some of the attendees in the room, and one immediately jumped in to tell a horror story of the arrests of many building inspectors in his area for corruption. So yes, I can understand the problem. But this raised the question in my mind: “Why do we need special federally sponsored pie-in-the-sky programs, which only do a bit of good in small areas? Why not rather have the federal and state governments work with local governments to improve the existing building inspections, to draft minimum efficiency codes and to provide education on the minimum efficiency requirements for building inspectors to use everywhere?

Oh yes, I know; we don’t want any more legislation! But recognize that building inspections aren’t going to go away, so why not try to improve what they do, so that all permitted construction and repairs bring some improvement in building efficiencies? This would certainly tend to level the field for those contractors who already do a better job and much greater energy efficiency would be realized on a national level.

I guess what was bothering me at the time was that I had just heard of a local job done by a down-and-dirty lowball HVAC contractor, who had just replaced an entire system for $800 over costs. And after he finished, the ductwork was found to be terribly undersized and lacking any worthwhile insulation - yet this job passed the local inspection. What’s wrong here?!!

Yes, special energy programs are a great idea, and we should probably keep them. However, in many areas of this continent there are no rules and there is no inspection to make sure that HVAC systems are properly designed and installed to meet federal minimum efficiencies. In fact, despite the EPA rules and threats, no one that I know of even checks to see if the refrigerant of the equipment being replaced has been recovered and returned for recycling. Yet huge amounts are being spent to design special programs that can be called “green buildings” in just a few special neighborhoods.