This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Utah’s largest homebuilder is upgrading its standards to make all new homes Energy Star-certified and add energy and water-saving features.
Ivory Homes, which expects to build 800 single-family homes this year, will install energy-efficient and less-polluting dual-fuel heat pumps in nearly 500 of of those homes in an effort Ivory hopes will be replicated by other Utah homebuilders.
“Ivory Homes differentiates itself by making a typically optional energy-efficiency package standard in all of our homes,” said Ivory CEO Clark Ivory. “Starting this year, all of our homes will be moving to EnergyStar, a smart thermostat and sprinkler controller, at no additional cost to Ivory homebuyers. In fact, it will save Ivory homebuyers over the long term.”
The company says new Ivory homes will be nearly 20% more efficient than current Utah building code requires. They will have an average Home Energy Rating Score (HERS) of 53, as defined by the independent Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). Under the HERS system, an average home built in 2006 is scored at 100, and a home built under Utah’s current building code would be about 70. By building to Energy Star standards, Ivory also qualifies for a $2,500 tax rebate on each home under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Compared to older homes, Energy Star homeowners can expect to save up to $2,100 a year in heating and cooling costs, according to Ivory.
Most Utah homebuilders still build to the lower energy standards of the Utah code, with some exceptions. Salt Lake City-based Garbett Homes, for instance, has been meeting or exceeding Energy Star standards for several years.
“It’s a very positive thing to see that Utah’s largest homebuilder is updating to this latest standard. Absolutely,” said Kevin Emerson, director of building efficiency and decarbonization for the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy.
Emerson was particularly pleased with the decision to install heat pumps. “That’s not only delivering efficiency. It’s also reducing combustion, which contributes to our air quality challenges.”
Moving heat instead of burning
Heat pumps differ from furnaces in that they don’t produce heat. They transfer it. They are basically air conditioners that can work in reverse. In winter, they can absorb heat from outside and bring it inside a building. Even in the cold days of winter, there is still a certain amount of heat that can be moved inside. Since no fuel is consumed, heat pumps take less energy. In summer, they work like regular air conditioners, transferring heat from inside to the outside to keep the building cool.
The Ivory homes will have “dual-fuel” heat pumps, which still have the capacity to burn natural gas to produce heat if the heat pumps alone aren’t enough. Dual-fuel heat pumps are still far more efficient than traditional furnaces because they only burn gas at the coldest times of year. Ivory estimates homeowners will save about $200 a year in heating costs in addition to reducing air pollution.
Ivory worked with the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), Utah’s largest natural gas supplier, Dominion Energy, and Utah’s largest electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power. Both utilities now offers rebates that can be combined to builders or homeowners who install dual-fuel units. Depending on size, Rocky Mountain’s Wattsmart program offers up to $1,800, and Dominion’s Thermwise rebates range up to $1,200. The smart thermostats also qualify for a $50 Rocky Mountain rebate.
Fueled by rebates
Dominion began offering dual-fuel rebates in 2021, said Jorgan Hofeling, communications strategic adviser for Dominion. More than 1,100 rebates were paid the first year, and another 1,800 last year. This year the company projects that it will have 2,300 homes eligible for rebates, including the Ivory homes.
“Dominion Energy commends Ivory Homes on their commitment to sustainability and decision to install dual fuel heating systems in a large percentage of their new homes in 2023,” Hofeling said. “We look forward to working with Ivory Homes, other builders, and all of our Utah customers as they seek to achieve their sustainability goals.”
“Rocky Mountain Power is excited to work with Ivory Homes in their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of their home designs,” added Clay Monroe, director of customer solutions. “Heat pump installations in homes are a win-win for energy efficiency and air quality along the Wasatch Front. Our Wattsmart incentives play an important role in helping customers achieve their efficiency goals.”
Ivory estimates the smart thermostats can save homeowners about 8% on their annual heating and cooling bills. The sprinkler controllers include sensors to monitor moisture and control sprinkler systems to avoid overwatering.
Michael Parker, Ivory’s vice president for strategy, said the slowdown in home construction caused by rising interest rates and improvements in the supply chain make the move possible. “It’s hard to do this when the frenzy is happening.”
He also said they will be installing the heat pumps in their larger homes to get the most air quality benefit.
This comes on top of earlier efficiency and clean-air efforts the company has offered under the “IvoryGreen” brand. Those include 6-inch framing with added insulation, and a 220/240-volt outlet for electric-car charging has been standard since 2020.
Hoping other builders will replicate
Ivory estimates the rebates and tax credits will roughly cover the higher costs of Energy Star and heat pumps, and that’s important because they want to see other builders join them. The Utah Legislature in recent years has resisted upgrading residential building codes to reflect modern energy-efficiency standards. Without that, the rebates and tax credits, combined with growing customer interest, become a primary driver of reducing air pollution from housing.
“Our cars and fuels are getting cleaner, which means mobile sources are accounting for less of our overall emissions. We need to put more focus on our area sources, which include our homes and buildings and account for 39 percent of our air pollution,” said Kim Frost, UCAIR executive director. “That’s why we are proud to partner with Ivory Homes and encourage others to follow their lead. Their energy-efficient home elements are what will make an impact on our air quality.”
According to Ivory, only about a third of 15,000 single-family permits issued in 2021 went to energy-rated homes, in part because of the large number of smaller builders who are unaware of the rebates and credits or are wary of the administrative overhead. “The state, Utah Homebuilders Association and UCAIR should lead this with the support of the utilities,” Ivory said.
He also said Ivory homes built in areas served by municipal electric utilities that don’t have the rebate programs still will have the new features, but the lack of rebates may hinder other builders.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.
Editor’s note • The Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation is a donor to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab.