New Solar Building Codes For Houston

We all remember last winter with the record setting cold temperatures. But what we remember most clearly were the power outages and lack of running water. It was one of the worst winter weather events in history. It impacted our communities with the loss-of-life and economic impacts that will take years to unfold. When disaster strikes, the flurry of political positioning and finger pointing can make it difficult to understand what really happened. This is especially true for the complex systems of infrastructure like the power grid that failed us last winter. Most people really need a little more context and background than was provided by those responsible for our electricity. Our Houston leaders have tried to address future power grid issues with a new building code, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Updated Houston code requires new homes to be ‘solar ready.’ Here’s what that means

Dylan McGuinness, Staff writer

Dec. 20, 2021Updated: Dec. 20, 2021 

Beginning in January, the city will require builders of many Houston homes to make accommodations for solar panels in their designs.

The change will not require new homes to have solar panels, but it will mean developers must incorporate the potential for their installation in the future into their plans. They will have to identify where on the roof the panels could go, ensure ventilation pipes or other hardware do not impede that space, leave a conduit from the roof to the electrical box for wiring, and allow space in that box in case a homeowner decides to pursue panels later.

The change stems from a 13-3 City Council vote earlier this month to upgrade several of Houston’s development ordinances, including adopting the 2015 uniform building, residential, fire, mechanical and electric codes developed by the International Code Council. Councilmembers Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh and Letitia Plummer voted against the codes; Councilmember Greg Travis was absent.

The city mostly had been using the 2012 uniform codes, and Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was past time for an update. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was among the entities encouraging the city to update its codes, Turner said.

“We’re going to have to change our standards, we can’t stay in 2012,” Turner said. “I’m sensitive to costs too, but the city hasn’t implemented 2015 standards, we didn’t implement 2018 standards, we’re now at 2021.”

The new codes take effect Jan. 2, and the city now will begin engaging industry stakeholders in a process to adopt the uniform 2021 codes, the mayor said.

The changes came over opposition from the development industry, which said the new rules have onerous costs that will price less affluent home-buyers out of the market. The so-called “Solar Ready” provision garnered much of the industry’s scrutiny leading up to the vote.

Some builders have complained the solar requirement will cost between $1,000 and $2,000, which will be passed to the consumer.

“No one does anything for free. So, if it costs $1,000, we’re going to charge the buyer a little more than $1,000, that’s just what you have to do,” said Mike Dishberger, chief executive officer at Sandcastle Homes. “This (rule) is based on today’s technology, and solar panels and systems have changed dramatically over the last 15 years… In 10 years, when somebody wants to (put them in), it may not be what they need at the time.”

Houston first adopted the Solar Ready provision, called Appendix U, in 2016, but it included broad exemptions and did not enforce most of its requirements. It will do so now for homes with roofs of a certain size and orientation toward the sun.

City officials estimate it will affect about a quarter of all new homes. Dishberger said it will be more like half.

The changes aim to ensure homeowners do not have to make dramatic renovations or pay for costly studies to install solar panels in the future.

The choice reflects a modest step toward green development for Houston, a city long tied to its oil and gas industry roots. The city’s Climate Action Plan calls for generating 5 million megawatt-hours of solar electricity per year by 2050, about half of its solar potential for small building rooftops. Solar permits have spiked in recent years — from fewer than 100 in 2015 to more than 500 in 2018 — but remain uncommon.

City officials say the costs of complying with the provision will be negligible for builders.

“The builders/designers are very knowledgeable on the intricacies of each model and plan they produce and can easily identify unobstructed roof areas,” Mark Savasta, the city’s chief building official, wrote in a guidance about the updated code.

“This will save building departments and solar designers time and effort when installing future solar systems. If a homeowner wishes to install a solar energy system later, this documentation can save thousands of dollars in research, installation, design and integration of the solar system into the house.”

The solar-ready rules should be a statewide policy, said Stewart Masterson, president of Texas Solar Outfitters.

“Solar ready saves the homeowner money by roughing out the house for solar during construction,” Masterson said. “It is a good selling point for the builder.”

District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who has advocated for stronger action on climate issues since her election, argued the change represents cost savings for residents who pursue solar.

“All of this is to say: If you couldn’t put solar on your roof and afford that installation, this just makes it cheaper to be able to do it down the road,” Kamin said.

Dishberger, a former president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, said he thinks the city could have made other accommodations. Some builders asked for exemptions if they get certain green certifications, such as LEED or ENERGY STAR, or put in chargers for electric vehicles. The city did not adopt those recommendations.

Developers also complained about the process, saying they have had more say in past iterations. The mayor said the process to adopt the 2021 codes will take that into account.

“To avoid that conversation that we heard from many people, that their voices were not heard, that they were not included, I want to establish that engagement piece from the very beginning, so no one can come and say you didn’t hear from us,” Turner said.

Other updates include a more stringent requirement for separating homes. The current rule allows for dwellings at least three feet apart. That has been updated to five feet, unless the homes are outfitted with certain fire-wall protection or sprinklers. Dishberger said that could cost up to $5,000.

Fire Chief Samuel Peña has said it is a public safety issue and the minimum requirement in the new code.

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