Seeking to wean residents and local businesses off natural gas, Palo Alto on Monday night passed an ambitious new building code that requires every new building to be “all electric.”
The all-electric requirement, which applies to water heaters and space heaters and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, will also apply to large renovation projects where 50% or more of the walls are replaced or raised or where 50% or more of the roof frame area is replaced.
Hailed as a big step on the city’s path to carbon neutrality by local environmentalists, the new mandate is among a dozen amendments the council unanimously approved Monday as part of its update. of the city’s building code. It extends to the existing ‘all-electric’ requirement, which the council adopted in 2019 and which only applies to low-rise residential buildings, with exceptions for secondary suites. From now on, all types of buildings will have to be fully electric.
The new building code also prohibits the extension of gas infrastructure to pools, spas, fire pits and grills and requires homeowners to install heat pump water heaters when their existing water heaters are replaced as part of a renovation. a residential addition or modification project. It also strengthens electric vehicle requirements so that new homes, apartment buildings, hotels and non-residential buildings must provide “electric vehicle ready” spaces with panels, conduits, cables and taken. The prerequisite requirement only calls for “EV-ready” spaces — those with panels and ductwork — in single-family homes, hotels, and non-residential developments and EV-ready spaces in multi-family complexes.
The overriding aim of the changes is to help the council achieve its newly established goal of achieving total carbon neutrality by 2030. Buildings manager George Hoyt noted during Monday’s discussion that emissions from buildings accounted for about a third of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
“Because Palo Alto already has a carbon-neutral power supply, electrifying buildings reduces greenhouse gas emissions and also improves indoor air quality and reduces fire risk,” said said Hoyt.
An all-electric building, he added, is cheaper to build and operate for the life of the building.
For the council, Monday’s vote was the latest in a series of recent actions aimed at facilitating electrification. Earlier this month, council members approved a new program which would replace 1,000 gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters by the end of 2023. The Utilities Department will work with customers to facilitate the upgrades and allow them to finance them through grants. charges on their utility bills.
Some environmental activists have argued that even the new “reach code” doesn’t go far enough. Members of the sustainability-focused group Carbon Free Palo Alto and 350 Silicon Valley urged the council to use this opportunity to also mandate electric heaters as part of renovations. Utilities staff had urged the council to delay this step until the city updates its electrical grid and ensures it has the capacity to accommodate the new appliances.
Hilary Glann, part of the climate team at 350 Silicon Valley Palo Alto, didn’t buy that explanation and suggested that gas furnaces “will become the forgotten son-in-law in our efforts to go electric.” if the board does not address them during the current update.
“Gas furnaces last a lot longer than gas water heaters, so we can’t wait two or three years to focus on them,” Glann said.
Bruce Hodge, founder of the Palo Alto Carbon Neutral Group, which worked with staff and board members to launch the new programs, also suggested the impact of requiring electric ovens during renovations would be relatively small. Many homeowners already install heat pump heaters, which are both cleaner and cheaper in the long run than gas appliances.
“It looks like this requirement will only happen from regular upgrades anyway, so we might as well include it now with the expansion code instead of waiting years,” Hodge said.
But John Abendschein, deputy director of utilities, argued for a phased approach and suggested tackling staffing shortages in the utilities department before moving on to the furnaces.
“The concern is to avoid a situation where we put out a mandate and our engineering team is overwhelmed and that delays occupancy of projects while people wait for processors,” Abendschein said.
Not all updates were about durability. Some changes are aimed at making the laws clearer or more in line with state codes. We are targeting a relatively recent phenomenon: the “pod house”, a single-family house of more than ten inhabitants and assigns each a “pod” with two levels, the size of approximately a bed. One of these houses, rue Ramona, made headlines earlier this year when municipal inspectors discovered a host of code violationsincluding improperly installed electrical wiring and lack of smoke detectors.
City officials had also flirted with the idea of limiting the number of occupants in the pod house, but abandoned it after concluding that the city had no laws in place governing resident capacity. That’s about to change. A new provision places a limit on residents based on square footage, requiring a room used for sleeping to have at least 70 square feet of floor space. If more than two people occupy this room, the floor space must be increased by 50 square feet for each additional occupant.
With the layout in place, a house like the Ramona Street “Pod House”, which currently has pods for 14 residents, would be reduced to an occupancy of around eight people, planning director Jonathan Lait said. The goal, he said, is to avoid creating overcrowded conditions.
While the council supported adding a capacity limit, based on a San Francisco ordinance, council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone asked staff for assurances that the city would not penalize residents for having shared a micro-unit or invited family members to stay in their home. . Milk assured them that the city has no intention of enforcing the capacity limit in such situations.
“I’d rather have slightly overcrowded housing than force people to live outside,” Stone said.