Plumbing

Bay Space plan to bar pure fuel units sparks fierce pushback

The rules would essentially require all new housing developments to have electric water heaters by 2027 and heat pumps instead of stoves by 2029. More controversial would be that homeowners whose old gas stoves or water heaters break should also need to replace them with electric ones according to the schedule.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the regional air pollution agency, will vote on the mandate on March 15. He was responsible for Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and southern portions of Solano and Sonoma counties.

About 90% of the nitrogen oxides emitted by the Bay Area’s 1.8 million homes are produced by stoves and water heaters, which is why the district is focusing on those appliances, said Greg Nudd, the district’s assistant air pollution control officer. The rules don’t actually ban any specific device, but the district’s proposal would require that water heaters and stoves emit no nitrogen oxides or NOx by those deadlines — effectively a requirement to go electric.

Nitrogen oxides are gases that can contribute to the formation of smog and particulate matter and are linked to health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. The Air District estimated that the new home rules would reduce nitrogen oxides enough to prevent 89 deaths a year in the Bay Area.

Daniel Jacobo, employee of Henry Mechanical, installs a ventilation system for a heat pump in a residential building in Windsor. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has proposed that all new construction must use electric water heaters by 2027 and heat pumps in place of stoves by 2029.

Brian Feulner/Special for The Chronicle

Public comment was closed on February 6th. County officials said they received 530 letters or emails from people, businesses and organizations that offered feedback on the proposal. Of these, 160 opposed the proposal, 170 supported the proposal, and a further 200 letters of support were submitted by the Sierra Club. Out of the 96 letters available online for public inspection, the most common complaint came from local residents, who raised strong concerns about the cost and feasibility of the plan. “Do you really think it’s fair to tell someone whose water heater has blown they can’t have hot water until an electrician replaces the breaker box?” Mike Thompson of Palo Alto wrote.

“I’d have to gut my house and live somewhere else while contractors worked,” said Jennifer Huber of El Sobrante. “If I could even find a contractor.”

“Slower,” wrote Belmont’s Tom Tilden. “Start the new construction.”

Among the big concerns: A heat pump, an electrical device that extracts warm or cool outside air to heat or cool indoor spaces, can cost twice as much as a gas stove, according to several contractors who submitted public comments. The devices are more energy-efficient than gas-powered devices because they use the warmth of the air, which is also available in cold winters. But electrical systems in older homes will likely need to be upgraded to handle higher amperage — costing extra money and time.

“These proposed rule changes will devastate the lives of ordinary people (the rich will have no problem adapting, they never have),” said Oakland’s Lawrence Jensen.

The comments reflect the frustration of a population reeling from high electricity bills and inflation – and concerned about increasing reliance on electricity amid the risk of blackouts from storms and other extreme events such as heat waves or fires. Power disruption has become an important tool used by utilities to prevent power line-started wildfires during hazardous weather.

San Francisco’s Malcolm Post described a fictional scene from the future without a gas water heater: A person asks their spouse, “Can we have hot water tonight?” I want to bathe the children.”

“No, not tonight, honey. Power outages because it was too windy,” he wrote.

The rules do not apply to gas stoves.

Nudd said he understands residents’ concerns about the cost of upgrading, which is why the district has set the deadline several years into the future. Nudd said his colleagues have seen the technology improve significantly in recent years, and they believe it will be even more efficient and affordable in the years to come. Nonetheless, after consultation with an advisory group made up of affordable housing advocates, manufacturers and environmental groups, the district will be willing to consider extending the deadline for households.

Henry Mechanical employee Daniel Jacobo installs new plumbing for a heat pump at a home in Windsor on Friday.  Heat pumps would proliferate in the Bay Area under the new rules proposed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Henry Mechanical employee Daniel Jacobo installs new plumbing for a heat pump at a home in Windsor on Friday. Heat pumps would proliferate in the Bay Area under the new rules proposed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Brian Feulner/Special for The Chronicle

“While your single stove or water heater might not be a huge polluter, when you multiply that across 1.8 million households, it’s a big deal,” Nudd said.

He added that federal and state grants are available to help homeowners modernize.

Some commenters wrote to welcome the proposed rules as a precursor to Bay Area electrification. With renewable energy accounting for an ever-increasing share of California’s electricity generation, migrating devices to the grid should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which pose a major threat to life in California and everywhere else.

“That’s the right thing,” said Richard Probst of Los Altos.

Lafayette resident Brenna Shafizadeh, who said she works on her city’s environmental task force, said that “buildings are the second largest source of emissions in our city.”

Oakland’s father, Brendan Moriarty, urged the district to take the plunge and “take every opportunity to curb emissions.”

“As a father of two young children, this will have a major impact on the quality of her life for decades to come,” Moriarty said.

Contractors, plumbers and home heating contractors wrote with concerns that the industry is not ready for a large influx of customers seeking these electrical systems.

Thor Electrical employees Thor Cary (left) and Clint Petker work at the electrical panel and help install a heat pump at a home in Windsor.  Heat pumps can cost twice as much as gas stoves, several contractors said.

Thor Electrical employees Thor Cary (left) and Clint Petker work at the electrical panel and help install a heat pump at a home in Windsor. Heat pumps can cost twice as much as gas stoves, several contractors said.

Brian Feulner/Special for The Chronicle

About 90% of home water heaters are replaced due to emergencies, said Eric Truskoski, senior director of government and regulatory affairs at Bradford White Corp., a national appliance manufacturer headquartered in Pennsylvania.

Truskoski called the six-year timeline to ban these natural gas systems “overly optimistic” because the supply chain for these products is not ready to meet significantly higher demand.

Writing on behalf of the Associated General Contractors of California, Brian Mello said members of his group were wary of the idea given the power outages that can hit Californians.

But San Francisco resident Adam Buck believes the mandate would create just enough spark to prime the industry. It would, he wrote, “send a clear signal to the market that we are committed to this transition and can accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy alternatives.”

Details of the district’s proposal and March 15 vote can be found here.

Reach Julie Johnson: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @juliejohnson

Correction: A previous version of this article reported incorrect statistics for pollutants emitted by stoves and water heaters. About 90% of the nitrogen oxides emitted by the 1.8 million homes in the Bay Area are produced by stoves and water heaters, according to BAAQMD’s Greg Nudd.

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