November 28, 2023

Resolving Conflicts Between Safety Codes and Energy Codes

SEAC leaders have identified the need to monitor codes and standards development for instances where one set of provisions may disagree with another.
Interstate Renewable Energy Council President and CEO Larry Sherwood presenting at SEAC's October 2023 General Meeting

At SEAC’s October 2023 general meeting, Larry Sherwood, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council President and CEO, led a discussion about the need to resolve confusion between requirements in the safety codes and requirements in the energy codes.

SEAC members including Sherwood, UL Solutions Senior Regulatory Engineer John Taecker, and Davidson Code Concepts Managing Partner Bob Davidson noted that SEAC could create a new working group to help harmonize safety codes, energy codes, and green building codes.

One source of confusion that Sherwood pointed to is funding in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that provides technical assistance to government agencies to implement strong energy codes that meet or exceed the 2021 version of International Energy Conservation Code.

“Many jurisdictions and people working on energy-related code issues are hearing a lot about energy codes and assume what they’re hearing refers to all codes. But in fact, IRA deals only with energy codes, not safety codes,” Sherwood said.

How the Codes Differ

Safety codes, including electrical codes, building codes, and fire codes, refer to longstanding codes designed to reduce injuries, loss of life, and property damage. Safety codes have been adopted most everywhere across the U.S. with different code versions in effect in different jurisdictions.

Energy codes state minimum building design and construction requirements to increase energy efficiency and reduce overall consumption. In the U.S. context, energy codes generally refer to two model codes: the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) issued by International Code Council and ASHRAE 90.1, the Energy Standard for Sites and Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. California also has its own energy code, and some jurisdictions use other building performance standards as energy codes.

The map below shows IECC adoption where states colored dark green have adopted more recent versions of the code, states colored light green have older versions of the code, those colored gray do not use the IECC, and those colored white leave IECC adoption to the local level.

Examples Where Codes May Conflict

As the California Energy Commission weighed modifications to Section 150.0(s) of the California Energy Code, addressing energy storage system (ESS) readiness in single-family residences, the City of Bakersfield flagged several provisions that would complicate future ESS integration.

For one thing, the proposed code language contained technical errors, such as use of the term energy storage system where the correct term, as defined in the California Electrical Code, is battery energy storage system (BESS).

The proposal also contained technical inaccuracies. In one instance, the unit of measurement for battery capacity was given in amps rather than the correct unit of measurement, the kilowatt-hour. In another instance, the proposal used the phrase sufficient space without defining the threshold for sufficiency. Errors such as these have the potential to render code provisions unenforceable and make it more difficult to integrate energy storage technologies.

Some codes anticipate conflicts with other codes and establish protocols for resolving them. For example, the administrative chapter of the International Residential Code says where there is a conflict between a code and a reference standard, the safety code prevails. But as several SEAC members pointed out, it would be better to eliminate the conflict altogether.

Role for New SEAC Working Group

The potential for conflict that exists between safety codes and energy codes also extends to green building codes. For example, Taecker said, in the last cycle for development of the International Codes, some ICC voting members objected to designating parking spaces for electric vehicle charging according to occupancies and uses, but said the designation could go elsewhere, like the green building codes.

Codes do not function as separate, mutually exclusive disciplines. Projects must be permitted and inspected according to all relevant codes and standards.

“As energy codes have higher standards,” Sherwood said, “they are requiring more sophisticated systems and the chances of conflict increase.”

To get involved with a new SEAC working group on safety codes, energy codes, and green building codes, join an upcoming SEAC monthly general meeting or send an email to [email protected].