Stringent rules for building in Palo Alto this year reflect city's climate action goals | News | Palo Alto Online |

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Stringent rules for building in Palo Alto this year reflect city's climate action goals

A look at some new construction requirements for 2020

If a major renovation or construction project is on your agenda for 2020, some new requirements passed this year by the city of Palo Alto will affect how a project is designed and built — and even how existing buildings are removed.

The city adopted new building codes in 2019, following the state requirement that building codes are updated every three years, but took the opportunity to further aggressive climate goals. Here are some new, major changes in the building code in 2020 aimed at addressing climate change.

Energy Reach Codes & Electrification

For nearly the past decade, the city of Palo Alto has implemented more rigorous energy codes than those required by the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a city document. These tougher requirements are called reach codes. Electrification is a key component of the city's new reach codes. As a strategy, the city expects that electrification should account for 43% of the reduction in emissions in the next 10 years, according to a city staff report.

Electrification aims to move away from the use of natural gas in homes and buildings, and switch to the exclusive use of electricity from a renewable source, which the City of Palo Alto Utilities offers. Reducing natural gas use will help curb greenhouse gas emissions. "Emissions from natural gas use currently represent 25% of Palo Alto's remaining carbon footprint," according to the city's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Framework.

What this means for 2020: On Nov. 4, the city council made electrification the new standard in Palo Alto, banning natural gas and requiring that all new residential and commercial construction from April 2020 onward be designed for all electric appliances and climate control systems, with no gas hookups.

Another major component of the city's electrification plan is promoting conversion to all-electric for existing homes and businesses. According to an electrification explainer published by the city, in 2020 Palo Alto plans to roll out rebates on appliances and incentives for homeowners who install electric vehicle chargers and upgrade their electric panels at the same time.

Still in the works: Electrification standards for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and a clear definition of when a remodel must comply and when it would be exempted are still being developed.

Construction in 2019 related to electrification: From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, 2019* the city issued 45 permits related to "electric vehicle service equipment," including permits for new electric car chargers, often accompanied by an electric panel upgrade, which can facilitate further electrification measures.

In that same period, the city issued 10 permits for home battery backup systems for solar panels, which store power in the event that the electric grid goes down.

*The last date for which permit data was available.

For more information, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

Building Deconstruction

Demolishing buildings can often be a fairly speedy but haphazard process. When the old structure comes down, a lot of potentially reusable materials such as lumber and plumbing fixtures get lost in the dust — so goes the thinking behind a new city requirement that aims to keep construction-related waste out of the landfill. Starting in July 2020, the city will no longer allow demolition of buildings, but instead require that workers disassemble buildings, collecting any materials that can be recycled or reused. "Over 40 percent of the waste from Palo Alto disposed in landfills, about 19,000 tons, is from construction and demolition-related projects," according to a city staff report.

What this means in 2020: In June 2019, the city council decided that from July 2020 on, for projects where structures are being completely removed, demolition is not allowed. The deconstruction ordinance requires "Deconstruction of buildings and structures (instead of demolition) and source separation of materials for reuse, recycling, and reduction of disposal in landfills," according to a staff report, in addition to a survey listing reusable materials and use of the city's contractor, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, to provide containers for sorting.

The materials must be delivered to city-approved recovery facilities and proper documentation must also be provided.

Still in the works: At this time, the ordinance applies only to projects where the entire structure is being removed, but it leaves room for these same practices to be adopted in the future on smaller projects.

Demolition and deconstruction in 2019: From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, 2019* the city issued around 75 permits for demolition, on both residential and commercial properties. About 38 permits were on residential properties, and 15 of those were for the demolition of entire homes; the rest were for the demolition of elements on the property such as pools or garages. The bulk of commercial demolition permits generally focused on interiors, rather than whole buildings.

In that same period, the city issued five deconstruction permits — all five were for deconstruction of existing houses.

*The last date for which permit data was available.

For more information, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

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Comments

18 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 9:28 am

There is an irony in that the City wants us to become all electric but is doing absolutely nothing to make our electrical supply more reliable.

Is there any data on how many outages were in Palo Alto in the last year?

Is there any data on how much money has been lost by businesses due to power outages in the past year?

Is there any data on how much inconvenience caused to people who live in Palo Alto due to power outages?

And I am not talking about the ones caused by PG&E switching off power for fire safety reasons!

Mylar Balloons, squirrels, geese, seagulls, branches swaying into lines when it isn't raining or windy, are all causes of power outages that affect more than just a block of homes. The effects of a power outage is more than just the lights going out but lost revenue from not being able to run a business and the spoilage of refrigerated and frozen foods as well as partly cooked foods must be enormous.


7 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 9:34 am

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> Mylar Balloons, squirrels, geese, seagulls, branches swaying into lines when it isn't raining or windy, are all causes of power outages that affect more than just a block of homes.

I agree that we should have better statistics on the frequency of localized outages, and, on what it would cost to finish the undergrounding job that seems to have fizzled out.


15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of University South
on Jan 2, 2020 at 10:48 am

My understanding is that electric furnaces and other all electric appliances draw heavily on the electrical system, which potentially means a new meter upgrade and more expensive CPA Utilities bills. These dramatic new rules seem a bit impulsive to me...


2 people like this
Posted by Green Acres parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 2, 2020 at 3:05 pm

@Resident in University South

I share your concerns, but a heat pump is an alternative that's even more cost efficient than gas in our climate. The only problem is that they're expensive. Heat pumps can be used to heat water too. Combined with solar power, I think this is a good option for those who can afford it.

Getting rid of gas service entirely would save $13.35 per month at today's CPAU rates.


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2020 at 4:07 pm

Deconstructing seems like a tremendous amount of work.
All this does is waste people's time and makes things needlessly more expensive.
Considering that all these regulations are symbolic and for show -- they will literally do nothing to climate change -- seems really unfair to people who are affected by it.
The lack of objectivity is stunning. How do they get away with this?


9 people like this
Posted by GasVsNotGas
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2020 at 4:44 pm

Well, I have to say that I am glad that I already have gas. I have no intentions of getting rid of it.
And (curiosity question here), anyone know the basis for the Council being legally able to ban gas hookups? Could they have (legally) banned electric hookups instead?


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 5:24 pm

Posted by GasVsNotGas, a resident of Midtown

>> Well, I have to say that I am glad that I already have gas.

Gas isn't disappearing any time soon, but, why are you so glad you have gas?

If you were building a new building from scratch, why wouldn't you want to use the latest in energy-efficient electric appliances and not be committed to burning fossil fuels indefinitely?

>> And (curiosity question here), anyone know the basis for the Council being legally able to ban gas hookups?

The city isn't banning gas. It is not doing hookups for new construction. Other cities have done it. In fact, some cities have refused to do new water hookups due to lack of additional water supply. (Water is the most basic utility. Some people used to have wells around here. I'm not sure if SCVWD still permits that.) Anyway, why is gas so "special" to you?

>> Could they have (legally) banned electric hookups instead?

Presumably they could stop doing new electric hookups, but, nobody wants to do that. But, as far as I know, you can turn off your electricity and live entirely off your own solar if you want to. You would have to have urban-compatible sanitation typically via a sewer hookup, so, you can't live completely off the grid here in town.

I'm hoping to see someday that gas can be shut down entirely on the Peninsula and they can decommission those high pressure natural gas transmission pipelines that run under or near half of Palo Alto. I wonder what pressure they are today under Palo Alto? 337 PSI? Anybody know?


10 people like this
Posted by GasVsNotGas
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2020 at 6:13 pm

@Anon
Thanks for the reply. I was loose with my words; I understand that they are banning new hookups. But it is not a capacity issue and not an infrastructure issue (afaik, that was not the stated reason). So still curious as the the legal basis for doing so. Could PG&E refuse to hook up a new house if there were delivery capacity available (e.g. the houses on each side had gas and there was otherwise no delivery issue)? Not trying to be an a.h. here. But other than a feel-good pat-on-the-back policy statement, (how) can the City refuse to provide its (monopoly) service? This is probably not a good venue to ask this question, since many people assume there is a hidden agenda to a question such as this.

And BTW, I have electric appliances and a flash water heater, so I am not anti-electric. Only that having gas is pretty useful when the electricity is out. Maybe overall that is not the best reason.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident 2
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 2, 2020 at 6:57 pm

As for deconstruction: The only reason why CPA enacted this ordinance was so they can split the money between Zanker Landfill and the City. This is in regards to the mandatory, multiple, expensive, franchised, recycling bins.



I think a big juicy lawsuit is in order.


13 people like this
Posted by Remodhell
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 2, 2020 at 8:52 pm

Having just broken ground on a remodel after more than half a year of permits (in the city somehow losing all our plans which we have to replace at our cost because what are you going to do? Piss off the planning department that has all the power because they can just delay you to death at your cost), I'm thinking that there has to be more balanced in the system because it is substantially raising the cost of construction thereby putting any hopes of affordable housing even further behind.


7 people like this
Posted by Fairmeadow Dad
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 3, 2020 at 3:43 pm

serious question, but how many people who work at the City of Palo Alto live in Palo Alto and have to deal with all these decisions they make?


14 people like this
Posted by BGordon
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 3, 2020 at 4:26 pm

BGordon is a registered user.

I like having gas for cooking and hot water when the electricity is out.

As for deconstruction, who is going to reuse old, energy inefficient windows; who is going to reuse old wallboard; who is going to spend time cleaning an old 2x4 when a new one is less than 3$; who is going to do construction with a bunch of doors that don't match; etc.?

I have recycled old redwood, but it was very labor intensive and only good for a boutique application.


1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm

@Fairmeadow Dad -- you mean have to deal with all these decisions WE make.


1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 4, 2020 at 10:08 am

The energy densities of hydrocarbon fuels, gasoline and natural gas is very high. That's the main reason we use it and have used it so long. But, in today's world of spotty maintenance, accidents, natural disasters and terrorism it seems like a good design choice to move away from all of it. The military will tell us that one of the easiest ways to create a bomb is with gasoline or natural gas and the more dense our housing gets the more potential danger these chemical energy sources become.

I cook with natural gas, I like natural gas, but the benefits of switching over to electricity as the single main currency of energy exchange and transfer are many and are undeniable.

Really the only outstanding issue to me is power outages, and its a big one. A lot of people now are installing generators, but that is a huge inefficient investment that again depends on hydrocarbon fuels. If we are going to have distributed redundancy we need reliable high-capacity batteries, so it might have been nice to wait until we have them to make a new standard, but we all know where the trends are today.


Like this comment
Posted by Fairmeadow Dad
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 5, 2020 at 9:46 am

from @musical
to @Fairmeadow Dad -- you mean have to deal with all these decisions WE make.


I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. I do live in Palo Alto and am subject to dealing with the decisions of the city for many things ranging from the traffic adjustment decisions on Charleston and Arastradero (I have kids in schools around here) to the constant commercial growth decisions which increase traffic each year without increasing infrastructure and in fact, we are doing a home renovation in 2020 so I do expect to have to deal with this particular issue. Also, areas where inaction affect me such as the at-grade rail crossings should be included.

If I'm missing your point, please let me know.

Respectfully.

FD


1 person likes this
Posted by Fairmeadow Dad
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 5, 2020 at 9:49 am

@musical

I just re-read your comment and, sadly I read it too quickly and interpreted it as a rhetorical question vis-a-vis highlighting the "We" make the decisions as a "city", which I think you meant, sarcastically, that the City of PA makes these decisions to represent the citizens but we really aren't consulted so it's not really we making some of these decisions.

FD


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 5, 2020 at 1:31 pm

My understanding is that our city employees (wherever they come from) carry out decisions made by our City Council, whose members are elected by we Palo Alto voters.

If I were running things, I'd blame whoever put me in charge.


5 people like this
Posted by Oh well
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2020 at 3:56 pm

Completely absurd! Guess I'll hook up my 500 gallon propane tank (which is less costly then city gas rates) and leave the City of Palo Alto out of the equation.
Regarding demolition of building charges, well, plenty of other dumps to take my demo material to without having to fill out CPA documentation. The City of Palo Alto is a dying dinosaur whose "leaders" are encouraging the dismal end to a once prospering technological community. Good luck in progressing in absurdity.


2 people like this
Posted by Kevin Ohlson
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 6, 2020 at 4:15 pm

I have yet to see an economic comparison of gas v. electricity, but in upfront and recurring. In the few stories I've read, there is mention of the cost of buying electrical heat pumps, cooktops, water heaters. But no mention of whether this costs more or less on a monthly basis. Can anybody point to a reference?
I bring this up because when I purchased things like a dryer, it was worth it to spend more on a gas dryer because it was somewhat less expensive to operate. And the city has tiered electrical rates, encouraging resident to save electricity. LED bulbs have saved us a lot, but I can see an electric water heater wiping that out in the first month.
FWIW, the "go electric" insert was lame, at least in my opinion. Gas poisoning? No need to worry about electrical outages? In 40 years of living here, never really worried about, or experienced, either one.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 6, 2020 at 9:35 pm

^ What, never experienced an electrical outage, or never experienced worry?


4 people like this
Posted by spec builder
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Feb 19, 2020 at 10:03 am

Spec builder here. I've done 15 or so demolitions and deconstructions in Palo Alto and surrounding cities.

What you need to know about deconstruction is this: almost none of the deconstructed material is ever reused. It sits somewhere for a while and then ends up exactly where the demolished material goes. They already mandate recycling on any of the demolished material that can be recycled (i.e. concrete, into baserock) anyway.

Honestly, I wish deconstruction was a good option. It sounds good. The first time I did it, I thought we were helping. But no one actually wants the old stuff, outside of a few big wood beams and some retro windows. We stopped doing them a couple years ago.

Oh, also, the tax writeoff you get from doing it is a total racket. You pay an assessor to value these things that have no actual market value, and then claim a deduction based on the assessor's opinion. The assessor doesn't even need any license (or didn't at the time). Guess what - one assessor wanted to charge a lot, but guaranteed a high salvage value; the other one charged 1/3 the price but gave a value around 1/3 as high. Coincidence? I think not. Our accountant was super leery of us taking the deduction because he knew it was BS and wouldn't stand up to a challenge.

It's not a deal breaker on a spec build. Just dumb.

As for the all electric, the problem with this is (a) the technology is new and untested, particularly for heating water, and (b) all electric only works in mild climates. So even if banning new gas hookups stimulates technological advances, which may happen, it's not going to be a widespread thing.

I honestly think both of these measures are just feel-good political moves. But hey, so is a lot of what Palo Alto does.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2020 at 2:26 pm

Posted by spec builder, a resident of Palo Alto Hills

>> What you need to know about deconstruction is this: almost none of the deconstructed material is ever reused. It sits somewhere for a while and then ends up exactly where the demolished material goes.

>> Honestly, I wish deconstruction was a good option. It sounds good. The first time I did it, I thought we were helping. But no one actually wants the old stuff, outside of a few big wood beams and some retro windows. We stopped doing them a couple years ago.

Last year, I saw a couple of demolitions in town where redwood was turned into splinters. I agree with you that old pine or fir covered in stucco/plaster with lead paint probably isn't very useful. But, please, reuse/recycle the quality redwood.

>> As for the all electric, the problem with this is (a) the technology is new and untested, particularly for heating water,

Single-family home heat-pump water heaters are relatively new. Induction cooking has been around for quite a while now. Some citations are early (1906)**, but, about 2 minutes with Google Patents showed the 1929 patent US1731949A: Web Link. There were a number of patents and demonstrations (e.g. world's fair/expo) through the years. Commercial kitchen use in the 90's, mass consumer production around 2005. Today, go buy one at Home Depot or wherever. Even in the absence of a legal/building code push, induction cooktops have become quite popular anyway for reduced indoor air pollution, efficiency, and safety, while maintaining the quick-response of gas. I think safety is reason enough to go with induction:

"US fire departments responded to an estimated average of 173,200 home structure fires per year started by cooking activities in 2013-2017, or an average of 470 home cooking fires per day. These fires caused an average of 550 civilian deaths, 5,020 reported civilian fire injuries, and $1.2 billion in direct property damage per year."

Web Link

Home heat pumps came into widespread use in the 1960's-- in mild climates. Over 50 years. I note, though, that units vary widely, wildly even, with regard to outside noise. I would urge people putting in heat pumps to do the research to get a -quiet- outdoor unit. A starting point would be the Trane XV19 model 4TWL9036A with sound rating of 43-49 dBA.

>> and (b) all electric only works in mild climates. So even if banning new gas hookups stimulates technological advances, which may happen, it's not going to be a widespread thing.

Large areas of the southeast are already all-electric, with heat-pump/ A/C combined. Very popular in hot-humid, mixed-humid, and marine climates.

Single-family heat-pump hot water heaters have become much more prevalent recently, but, as with anything that goes mass-production, I'm sure that there will be some units that are much more efficient and reliable than others.

** UK Patent Application GB190612333, entitled "Improvements in or relating to Apparatus for the Electrical Production of Heat for Cooking and other purposes", applied for by Arthur F. Berry on 26 May 1906


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