The Massachusetts Legislature raised the bar for licensed builders last July when it passed new rules requiring continuing education credits for persons holding a construction supervisor’s license (CSL). Such licenses are mandatory for anybody in the state who builds, remodels, alters, repairs, or demolishes a one- or two-family dwelling or related structure (unless he’s the homeowner). The rule is expected to go into effect midyear.
Massachusetts isn’t blazing new ground with these regulations; several other states already have similar programs in force. In fact, the ad hoc council that developed the new requirements used Minnesota’s continuing education program as its model.
Under the new rules a certain number of continuing education hours will be a prerequisite for license renewal, which happens every two years. Unrestricted licenses will need 12 hours of approved course attendance, while specialty licenses (masonry, roofing, windows/doors/siding, demolition, solid fuel burning, and insulation) will require six hours. Although passing a test is necessary to obtain a CSL, no such testing will be involved with the ongoing classes.
Positive feedback. Most builders in the state seem to support the legislation. Brewster building commissioner Victor Staley, for one, considers it long overdue. “Even building inspectors don’t know the code inside out,” he says, “but this will help ensure that license holders understand that they are responsible to perform according to the code — to refer to the book — and that’s what licensing is all about. So that’s one benefit. Builders are also going to gain more of an understanding of how building officials are reading and interpreting the code.”
Home builder Liz Kovach, who served on the ad hoc council, says the rules are good for the industry. “I think it’s good for everybody to stay up on the latest technology and the latest amendments to code,” she says. “One of the required courses will be a code review. The NAHB and NARI both support this legislation, the building inspectors like it, and every builder we’ve talked to seems to think that it’s a positive development.”
Experts needed. For some builders the new legislation may present an opportunity to teach what they know. Course instructors will need to have at least three years’ experience in the subject being taught or, in some cases, five years of more general experience. — D.H.
Insurance Rates Rise as FEMA Redraws Flood Maps
A FEMA effort to update its flood maps may end up costing some property owners thousands of dollars for additional insurance coverage. That’s because the new maps are creating new flood zones, expanding or revising existing ones, and changing base flood elevations in both coastal areas and along inland waterways. FEMA uses the maps to assess risk and set flood insurance rates, and local governments use them to establish building code elevations.
FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which was created in 1968 to encourage communities to adopt floodplain management ordinances and to help offset rising disaster assistance costs to the federal government. While the program is voluntary, residents of nonparticipating communities located in Special Flood Hazard Areas, or SFHAs (also known as the “100-year floodplain”), can’t buy flood insurance or receive certain types of federal disaster relief if there is a flood. They also probably can’t get a mortgage to buy or renovate property, since federally backed lenders and many private lenders require flood insurance for properties located in these areas. According to FEMA, property in an SFHA has at least a 1 percent chance of being flooded in any given year, or a 26 percent chance of being flooded during the term of a 30-year mortgage.
Better risk assessment. Although flood insurance is sold by private insurers, the rates are set by FEMA and are based on a property’s hazard zone designation, which can be found on a participating community’s flood insurance rate map, or FIRM. Essentially, homes built above flood level — the base flood elevation — pay lower rates or may not require any insurance, while homes built below it pay more, according to a risk-based sliding scale.
The process of replacing old and outdated paper topographical FIRM maps with digital versions began about six years ago. FEMA says that replacing decades-old data with information generated by aerial laser surveys and new computer models will allow the agency to more precisely identify flood-prone areas. The digital maps should be easier to access and update, too (see examples).
FEMA is replacing its largely outdated flood maps — used to establish insurance rates — with more sophisticated digital versions.
The new maps, says the agency, do a better job of assessing flood risk — but because they create new floodplains and expand many old ones, the maps will also increase flood-insurance rates for thousands of property owners around the country. Sections from an old flood map and its new and improved digital twin (shown) illustrate the change in level of detail; the roughly 1/2-square-mile region depicted is in Sweetwater, Fla.
Focus on levees. FEMA is also paying close attention to man-made flood-control systems, and its updated requirements for dams, dikes, and hurricane barriers will create new or expanded floodplains. In New Bedford, Mass., for example, a 3 1/2-mile-long hurricane barrier built in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers faces decertification as the city wrestles with the estimated $1 million cost to inspect it. No one knows who will foot the bill if weaknesses are found and repairs are needed, since the barrier is co-owned by New Bedford, Fairhaven (the adjacent town), and the Corps. If the barrier isn’t recertified by FEMA’s August 2010 deadline, more than 2,500 homeowners in New Bedford and Fairhaven will be forced to buy flood insurance.
A flawed system. Not everyone agrees that FEMA’s new maps are better than the old ones. The city of Castroville, Texas, plans to challenge the agency. It performed its own survey and discovered that some areas submerged during recent flooding aren’t within the new flood boundaries, while other areas that escaped inundation are. And a Florida city that invested millions to upgrade its stormwater drainage system learned that large sections of previously unclassified land had become high-risk flood zones on the area’s new rate map. Sweetwater mayor Manuel Maro±o told the Miami Herald that it was “extremely ironic” that lowering the risk of flooding for thousands of residents resulted in higher insurance premiums.
FEMA has formal appeal processes that allow communities and individuals to challenge the new flood maps, but the procedures require data. As Castroville mayor Bill Lee explained in an interview with the San Antonio Times, “We said, ‘Prove your data is accurate; they [FEMA] said, ‘Prove that it isn’t.’” Appeals can cost money, too, not only for gathering information and performing surveys but also for fees. Filing a “letter of map revision based on fill” (LOMR-F) for instance, costs $425. (Filing a “letter of map amendment” — LOMA — however, is free.)
Critics of the federal flood insurance program have long complained that it doesn’t effectively discourage development in vulnerable flood-prone areas, one of its original goals. They point out that property owners are now eligible to receive both disaster aid and insurance compensation, instead of being penalized for building where they shouldn’t. And losses in recent years for the program have skyrocketed as storms like Rita and Katrina demonstrate just how vulnerable coastal areas can be, with or without flood insurance.
With debt now approaching $20 billion, FEMA hopes that the redrawn maps — and what it hopes will be better and broader program participation — along with a recently announced 8 percent hike in flood insurance rates will help stem the tide of losses and reduce the agency’s mounting deficit. Of course, Mother Nature may have something to say about that, too.
For information about the program or to view the rate map in your area, visit fema.gov. — A.W.
California Grapples With Net Metering Policy
Two bills that went before the California Legislature in 2009 could have a major effect on the renewable-power industry in that state. Both concern “net energy metering,” an arrangement that allows utility customers with wind and photovoltaic (PV) power systems to use the electrical grid like a battery — feeding power in when they generate a surplus and drawing it out when they need it.
Paying for power. The first of these bills, AB920, was passed and signed into law in October. It requires investor-owned utilities to pay the owners of wind and PV systems for excess electricity they feed into the grid. Under current regulations, customers are not compensated for generating more power than they consume on an annual basis.
The ultimate effect of the new law will be determined by the Public Utilities Commission, which sets the rate the utilities must pay. Solar advocates want customers to be compensated at the “full retail rate” or higher; they believe high rates will provide utility customers with an incentive to install new PV systems and encourage the owners of existing systems to conserve electricity.
Utilities are pressing for lower rates, arguing that the full retail rate is well above the cost of the generated power — typically about a third of a residential customer’s bill (the other two-thirds covers transmission and distribution). According to the utilities, having to pay full retail to net-metering customers pushes distribution costs onto other rate payers, forcing them to subsidize the owners of wind and PV power systems.
Raising the cap. The second bill, AB560, failed to pass before the end of the 2009 legislative session but is expected to come up again in 2010. It would force California’s investor-owned utilities to double the amount of electricity they accept from net-metering customers, raising the limit from 2.5 percent to 5 percent of peak demand. (Currently, there are net-metering laws in 42 states and the District of Columbia; in 18 of those states, there are no caps on the amount of energy utilities must accept.)
Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves Northern California, is expected to reach the 2.5 percent cap in 2010. If that happens — barring passage of AB560 — the utility will not have to accept new net-metering customers. This could have dire consequences for the renewable energy industry in the PG&E service area — the nation’s largest in number of customers — because without net metering, most wind and PV power systems do not make economic sense. Reaching the cap would have no effect on the owners of existing wind and PV systems.
Opposition. AB560 appeared to be on its way to passage but was scuttled by the last-minute addition of an amendment advanced by an ally of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The amendment would have restricted the installation of large PV systems, those generating more than 250 kw, to contractors with C-10 electrical licenses. Under current law, contractors who hold C-46 solar licenses — most of whom use nonunion labor — are permitted to install any size PV system. But the Contractors State License Board argued that it made no sense to favor C-10 electrical contractors: According to the board, the C-46 licensing exam does a far better job of assessing competence on PV systems than the exam for a C-10 license does.
AB560 is expected to be taken up again when the legislature reconvenes in January 2010. In the meantime, PG&E has agreed to raise the net-metering cap to 3.5 percent until the state law is changed. — D.F.