Building a New Home? Better Make It Solar Ready

Palo Alto celebrates Earth Day with green building codes targeting solar energy use and water conservation

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Building a New Home? Better Make It Solar Ready
Photo: Getty Images

Some communities celebrate Earth Day with a park cleanup, a reading of The Lorax, or a Frog Watch.

This year, Palo Alto, Calif., celebrated by passing new building codes. On Tuesday evening, in a session almost exclusively devoted to environmental topics, the Palo Alto City Council agreed that new single-family homes would have to have rooftops designed to accommodate 500 square feet of solar panels, as well as wiring (or at least wiring conduits) for these future solar panels. The new codes will also require a three-way diverter valve in the water drain line running from the washing machine location, to enable the future use of laundry water for irrigation.

Such readiness rules are nothing new in Palo Alto. The city in 2013 passed a mandate requiring that all new single-family dwellings include the proper connections for installing electric vehicle chargers—that is, a conduit or wiring for a 50-amp circuit out to the garage. The new solar readiness regulation is similar in approach: it doesn’t require installation of the solar panels, just that the infrastructure be put in place during construction, when it is easy to do so. Taking away a major barrier to solar panels—running new wiring—clearly will make installation more attractive to many.

As is fitting for a city named after a tree (Palo Alto means tall tree), there is an exception to the solar readiness clause: if tall trees are shading your house. The tree vs. solar question has come up for debate in other California communities. And though, in terms of environmental impact, solar wins, in California, generally speaking, pre-existing trees trump solar.

The city hopes to be a model for the rest of California, in the same way that California’s environmental initiatives are often a model for the country. According to the city’s Earth Day report, released 20 April:

the City is in the position to establish new goals that not only generate cost savings but set the conditions for Palo Alto to take a global leadership position, commit to a low- or zero-carbon future, and create a roadmap to that future….While cities around the world ratchet up their own sustainability initiatives, Palo Alto will need to act boldly in order to maintain its legendary leadership position and to ensure the well-being of this community in the face of the challenges ahead.

This week Palo Alto also adopted a so-called “energy reach code,” requiring that new local buildings exceed the state’s energy-saving requirements by 15 percent. Having recently gone through a home remodel that needed to hit those energy-saving goals, I can say that, while mainly reasonable, the requirements don’t always make sense for northern California, and need a little local tweaking. (For example, the rules favor installing an efficient air conditioner over eliminating the need for air conditioning all together.) I encourage Palo Alto to be a model here as well.

Happy Earth Day from Palo Alto.

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