Qualifying for the Energy Star label on homes is likely to become much more difficult in 2011. The Department of Energy is seeking comments now on proposed significant increases in Energy Star specifications.

“They are much stricter, intentionally,” said Sam Rashkin, national director of Energy Star for homes, of the new specs. “It should be a bit of a stretch for builders.”

While adding between $2,000 and $4,000 to a home’s cost, roughly $10 to $20 a month more in mortgage costs, the changes should save homeowners between $30 and $50 a month on their utility bills, said Rashkin. In the long run, the change in specs will be good for builders of new homes because it “substantially increases the differential between the new product and their competition, a used home.”

That angle has not escaped the notice of builders who have been signing up for the program in droves since the market deteriorated, said Rashkin. “Since the market went soft and the downturn has occurred, the number of builders joining is up a thousand percent, from 30 a month (19 to 20 months ago) to 300, plus or minus. So timing for the spec changes is pretty good.”

That increased participation has already begun to show in the numbers of homes that qualify under the program. In 2008, 17% of new homes built qualified for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, a 5% jump over 2007. There have been nearly 940,000 Energy Star-qualified homes built to-date, with more than 100,000 built in 2008.

And those numbers look to climb dramatically in 2009. This year, roughly one in every five houses is expected to be built with the Energy Star rating, said Rashkin. In 2008, the Energy Star market share was already 20% or greater in 15 states: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Vermont.

The proposed changes include:

--Completing the thermal envelope system by making sure that everything from the windows to the insulation, to the caulking and other barriers, form a completely sealed envelope sound enough to stand up to an infrared camera test.

--Treating the heating and cooling elements as a system where all the components are designed and sized to work together efficiently and are installed correctly.

--A more comprehensive set of measures to manage water to make sure it stays out of the home’s envelope.

--More energy efficiency requirements for the appliances in the home such as fans and lighting.

For more details on the proposed changes see: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=bldrs_lenders_raters.nh_2011_comments

Comments are being accepted until Friday, July 10. Depending on the comments, the new specifications should be finalized either in late August or late October and will go into effect Jan. 1, 2011.