How a California State Agency Is Dropping the Ball on Water Efficiency During an Epic Drought

Earlier this week, a state agency tasked with revising green building codes that aim to ensure new buildings are water and energy efficient presented proposals for new code language to a green code advisory committee. The proposals not only fell far short of their goal, but staff also refused to accept many of the recommendations on how to improve the proposals from both the panel of experts to whom they were presenting and other stakeholders in the room. Here's the background:

California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is the agency that writes our state residential building code. In California, the state develops both a base code and a green building code called CALGreen.

CALGreen is a more stringent building code that requires, at a minimum, that new buildings and renovations in California meet certain sustainability and ecological standards. CALGreen has two components: mandatory measures and voluntary measures.

The mandatory measures are exactly what they sound like - minimum baselines that must be met in order for a building to be approved. There's no choice in these matters; they range from water efficiency, indoor air quality, and sustainable building materials. Above and beyond these, however, you can opt to achieve the voluntary measures laid out in the code. These voluntary measures can be adopted by local jurisdictions if they decide they want to try for the more stringent Tier 1 and 2 requirements. On Tuesday, August 25, 2015, HCD presented its proposed CALGreen revisions to the Green Code Advisory Committee, a group of appointed green building experts.

Given the extreme drought in California and the fact that Governor Brown has directed state agencies to do everything possible to help Californians use water more efficiently, you would think HCD would listen when stakeholders advise them that there are major flaws in the proposed 2016 CALGreen Code. But they haven't. In fact, they have outright ignored many of the recommendations put forth by NRDC and other stakeholders over the past eight months. At the August 25th meeting, HCD staff not only refused to make simple changes that would significantly improve the water efficiency of new buildings, they acted as though this was their first time hearing many of our recommendations, and for others their response for not accepting them was simply "we have our reasons."

We understand that HCD staff has been busier than usual with trying to implement emergency rulemakings in response to Governor Brown's Executive Order while also trying to maintain the schedule for the regular CALGreen code revision, but that is why having the participation of knowledgeable stakeholders is so important. Throughout this process, NRDC and other stakeholders have provided HCD staff with recommended code language that could be immediately incorporated into its proposal along with background information to support the recommended changes. And throughout the process, our recommendations appear to have been ignored.

So what is wrong with HCD's proposed CALGreen code?

  1. Preserving a minimum flow rate requirement that prevents the voluntary installation of higher efficiency faucets. HCD has proposed to incorporate the California Energy Commission's (CEC) new product standard for residential lavatory faucets (your bathroom sink), which we fully support. The product standard adopted in April 2015 and re-affirmed in July 2015 sets the maximum flow rate of a new bathroom faucet at 1.2 gallons per minute (gpm) at a water pressure of 60 pounds per square inch (psi). But the CEC didn't just set a maximum flow rate. In order to ensure that even more efficient faucets could be installed in the future, they eliminated a minimum flow requirement the faucets of 0.8 gpm at 20 psi. Unfortunately, HCD is keeping this language despite the fact that 0.5 gpm faucets are the requirement for faucets in commercial buildings and any public areas of multi-family buildings. HCD should remove this language and allow homeowners and developers the option to install more efficient plumbing fixtures.
  2. Refusing to harmonize with the commercial requirements for metering faucets. What is a metering faucet? When you go into a public bathroom and you place your hands under an automatic faucet that dispenses a set volume of water and then shuts off. A few years ago, the Building Standards Commission changed the non-residential building code to require that metering faucets would be limited to only 0.20 gallons during a cycle. HCD declined to make the same change so the codes are not harmonized and metering faucets in residential buildings can still use 20 percent more water that a nonresidential building. When asked by the Code Advisory Committee why HCD chose not to make this simple change, a staff person from HCD responded, "we have our reasons."
  3. Not providing options for reducing hot water wait times. In the voluntary section of the CALGreen code, HCD has proposed that developers install a hot water recirculation system. Recirculation systems save water by recirculating the water in the hot water pipes when they cool down so that you have hot water on demand. No more wasting water while you wait for it to warm up. Recirculation systems are a great option, particularly for larger buildings, but not as effective as compact design (for example, limiting the length of pipe from the hot water heater to the end use - faucet, shower, etc) for smaller buildings. Building owners and developers should have the ability to decide which method is most cost-effective and would save the most water and energy for the building they design. Although this is a voluntary measure in CALGreen, if a local municipality chose to adopt this as a mandatory requirement, many buildings would be wasting money and energy by pumping hot water through recirculation systems that aren't as cost effective as other options. NRDC would like to see HCD follow the City of Los Angeles' lead and provide multiple options for reducing hot water wait times, including both recirculation systems and compact design.
  4. Risking scalding and thermal shock by not changing the mixing valve code. There are few things more irritating than thermal shock (when the water in your shower rapidly shifts from a soothing warm to scalding hot). And what stands in the way between you and a first-degree burn? A properly rated mixing valve.

    Mixing valves are located in the wall behind your bath tub spout and/or showerhead and they work to mix the hot and cold water, which come from separate pipes, and adjust the temperature of the water spraying from your showerhead or tub spout based on user control. If the mixing valve is not rated at or below the maximum flow rate of the showerhead, there is a greater risk for unwanted temperature shifts. Once a mixing valve is installed you have to tear through the wall to change it, so it's best to install a mixing valve that not only works with the current showerhead but a more efficient showerhead, which may be installed in the future. Starting next year, the highest flow showerhead that can be installed is 2.0 gpm, but in 2018 that will reduce to 1.8 gpm - and there are already tons of 1.5 gpm, 1.0 gpm, and even 0.8 gpm showerheads on the market that have shown high customer satisfaction. NRDC has recommended that HCD modify the mixing valve code language to require the installation of a mixing valve that is rated at the maximum flow rate of the installed showerhead, or 1.5 gpm ± 0.1 gpm, whichever is less.

    As technology improves, showerheads will use less and less water while maintaining customer satisfaction. Incorporating NRDC's recommended language into the code will ensure that fewer people experience temperature shifts while trying to enjoy a few moments of solitude in the shower.

HCD staff has until October 9, 2015 to make additional changes to its CALGreen proposal and we will continue to advocate for these changes. Even a "Godzilla El Nino" won't save California from this drought and we need to do everything we can now to ensure that we are building water-efficient homes and creating sustainable communities - and it starts with the building code and this CALGreen revision.

Related Issues
Climate Adaptation

Related Blogs