Energy Codes Simplified: What Are They And How Do They Work?

Energy Codes Simplified:
What Are They And How Do They Work?

There is no doubt the defining theme for the construction sector in 2019 is its energy codes. Cities and States are progressing across the U.S. to determine energy usage on both residential and commercial buildings, as the pressure to address climate change continues to grow.


Commercial and residential buildings account for roughly 40% of total energy consumption used in the United States and over one-third of carbon emissions. Without addressing the way these buildings are constructed, climate action and energy efficiency are simply not achievable. The good news is that implementing and understanding building energy codes are attainable.


Here’s a look on what energy codes are, how they are developed, adopted, and enforced. Future blog posts in this series will focus on more specific topics.


What are energy codes?

Energy codes are a subset of building codes, that establish a baseline and govern building construction referencing areas of construction such as insulation, window and door designs, HVAC equipment, and lighting fixtures.


Codes provide a common language for the design, construction, and architectural communities, and have long served as the main tool of standards in setting agreed-upon norms.

National vs State

The United States does not have a mandatory national building or energy code. Instead, states or local governments can choose to adopt one of the national models, use a modified version, or their own state-specific code.


Initially, codes were developed by individual cities and states to address their particular needs, however; several organizations now develop "model codes." Model codes are intended to provide consistency, incorporate the latest knowledge, and reduce the costs of development.


Today, ASHRAE 90.1. and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) are the national model energy codes.


The Process


Energy codes are administered by ASHRAE and the International Code Council (ICC).
Periodic revisions of codes are made through a defined process that allows outside participation. While the development process is slightly different within each organization, the process is intended to comply with the following key criteria:


  • The development process includes a balance of relevant stakeholders, such as; government, citizens/public interests, and building industry representative
  • A rigorous process is followed to make sure that recommendations for revision to existing or criteria for new model codes and standards receive proper consideration and resolution; and
  • Transparency, to facilitate trust and diverse engagement.


The development or revision process for these regulations is open for all and subsequent changes. Therefore, any interested party can submit proposals and/or leave comments for improvement.



The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also participates in the code development process administered by the ASHRAE and the International Code Council. Their responsibilities include developing and submitting code change proposals, conducting analysis and cost savings, and evaluations.


By law, DOE has 1 year to complete a determination of the new standard/code and determine if latest edition of ASHRAE Standard 90.1 or the International Energy Conservation Code will improve energy efficiency compared to the previous version.


Code Adoption Across The United States

How Does It Become Law

Energy codes are adopted in both state and local jurisdictions which can occur by legislative action, or through regulatory agencies authorized by the authoritative legislative body. The authoritative legislative body is comprised of industry representatives, including individuals from the design, construction, and enforcement communities that typically review model energy code requirements and considers the impacts of its provisions.


Process vary from state-to-state depending on whether the energy code is adopted via legislation or regulation, and by a state or local government. The process generally includes the following steps:

code process


What Is DOE’s Role

The DOE provides technical assistance to help states and local code enforcement jurisdictions adopt, upgrade, implement, and enforce their energy codes.
It does so by:


  • Analysis and cost impacts associated with adoption of code
  • Comparative analysis
  • Code language or modifications
  • Training programs both web-based and in-person
  • Software tools and resources for compliance



After codes are adopted compliance verification is very important. All parties involved have a responsibility to design and comply with the energy codes. State and local jurisdictions must prepare and support code officials for enforcement.


Enforcement and compliance check strategies often include:


  • Assessment of building plans
  • Evaluation of materials and equipment being used
  • Examination of the building during construction
  • Inspection post construction


Where state-owned or state-funded buildings are a concern, the state agency enforces the code. Design professional must submit a complete compliance statement and certification to the state agency showing the design is in compliance.


All other buildings code enforcements are done through the local government.
If a jurisdiction adopts an energy code, the code is enforced through the permit and inspection process.


Check back in the coming weeks/months for a more detailed look into energy codes.