You Call That Energy Savings?

Michael Brown

Several years ago, in an effort to save energy, the State of California established strict regulations for commercial construction in terms of energy usage. In October, 2005, the State decided that these regs were working so well in the commercial-building industry that they’d extend them to cover residential construction, too. These regulations are known as Title 24, Part 6 of the California Code of Regulations: California’s Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings. This is more commonly known simply as Title 24.

Saving energy is obviously in everyone’s interest Few would argue that we need to reduce greenhouse gases , burn less fossil fuel, and generally lighten our footprint on the planet. Okay, so there are a few people on the other side of the debate .

So Title 24 is a great idea, right? As it turns out, simply taking the same blanket of regulation designed for commercial buildings and stretching it over the construction of every new home in the state has more than a few practical drawbacks.

And as often happens, the people in government who write the rules don’t think to consult with either the people responsible for carrying them out and those who wind up living with the results. Just ask any electrician, as I did while discussing the lighting plan for the new home I’m building.

If you work in a modern office building, you might have noticed how difficult it is to find a simple light switch. These devices have largely been rendered unnecessary by occupancy sensors : a regulatory requirement. When you walk into the room, the lights turn on in response to your movement. But since there’s no light switch for you to flip when you leave the room, the lights remain on for a period of time after you’ve left. That’s because the occupancy sensors are designed to assume someone’s in the room, but just isn’t moving around enough to trigger them. They’ll turn off the lights eventually, but not as fast as if you’d flipped a switch. This often results in more energy being consumed than if you were able to flip the switch on your way out, but the government figures you’re either too absentminded or too lazy find out if you’re the last person in the affected room.

In residential buildings, California’s Title 24 regulations dictate that “high efficacy luminaires are required for almost all rooms…. Exceptions are made in kitchens for a limited percentage of watts if the luminaires are on a separate circuit, or in other specified rooms if the luminaires are controlled by occupant sensors or dimmers.” The regulation defines an occupancy sensor as a device that “turns off automatically when no one is present. When lighting is needed it must be turned on manually with a switch.”

The State isn’t fooling around when it says “high efficacy luminaire.” You specifically cannot use a compact fluorescent bulb with a medium base—the type that’s designed to replace a conventional light bulb; in fact, the lighting fixture itself cannot even use modular components that allow conversion between the two standards.

Luminaires, as you’ve probably figured out, refer to light fixtures. Light bulbs are referred to as lamps. But Title 24 applies only to lighting fixtures that are built in or otherwise attached to the building. You can plug in as many inefficient halogens, grow lights, and other portable energy sinks as you’d like. The same goes for lighting in your appliances—including the vent hood over your stove.

And apart from your kitchen, you can install low-efficacy luminaires throughout the rest of the interior of your home, too—as long as they’re controlled by either an occupancy sensor or a dimmer. Any outdoor lighting attached to your home must be either high-efficacy or controlled by a motion sensor with an integral photocontrol—meaning that it turns on only when it’s dark and the device detects motion. Landscape lighting that is not permanently attached to your home, however, is explicitly not regulated by Title 24. You can bathe every tree, shrub, and fern in your yard with a spotlight if you’re of a mind to.

Unlike the occupancy sensors in commercial construction, the lights in residential construction won’t automatically turn on when you enter a room outfitted with one (unless the sensor is controlling a high-efficacy luminaire). That’s not a big deal, but Title 24 requires the occupancy sensor to shut the light off after 30 minutes whether the room is occupied or not. The electrician working on my home tells me he gets countless complaints from clients whose children no longer bother to turn the light off when they leave the bathroom, because they know it will eventually turn itself off. He also gets a lot of complaints from clients who take long baths and suddenly find themselves plunged into darkness when they exceed the time limit. As a result, many of these homeowners take it upon themselves to replace the occupancy sensors with conventional toggle switches after the building inspector leaves.

To solve the latter dilemma, Title 24 recommends that contractors install a second set of high-efficacy luminaires that are not controlled by the occupancy sensor. So if you plan to be in the room for more than 30 minutes, you’ll switch on two sets of lights just so you won’t be left in the dark when the occupancy sensor shuts off the incandescent lights over your sink. These same rules apply to garages, laundry rooms, utility rooms, and closets larger than 70 square feet. For the record, if the contractor installs only high-efficacy luminaires, there’s no need for the occupancy sensor—but no one likes to look at themselves in a mirror illuminated by fluorescent tubes.


I’m sure the Title 24 drafters mean well, and perhaps some of these regulations will actually save some energy. But in many cases, these rules will actually increase energy consumption. And then there’s the issue of what to do with the tons of mercury contained in all those millions of fluorescent tubes when they expire.

One of the ways I’ve decided to lessen my new home’s footprint on the planet is to install skylights that will augment the natural light coming in from the windows. More significantly, I’m also installing a solar array that will generate much of the energy my home will consume. I’ll report more on that in a future blog.

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