Vancouver ‘greenest city’ plan alarms industry

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By Simon Blake

The City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan and related changes to the Vancouver Building Bylaw are raising alarm in both the HVAC/R and plumbing industry with energy and water efficiency requirements that go far beyond national code requirements.

“The Vancouver city council is pushing forward a lot of green initiatives. They want to be the greenest city in North America and they are pushing through lots of things to get there,” remarked Robert Waters, technical adviser, codes and standards, for the Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating (CIPH).

The changes have the potential to result in significantly higher costs for Vancouver consumers and building owners as manufacturers are compelled either to make special products for the Vancouver market or opt out of it, remarked Martin Luymes, director of programs and relations for the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI).

Both HRAI and the Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating have written letters to the City of Vancouver objecting to the proposals and the lack of consultation with industry.

Aggressive changes

The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan will require that by 2020 new homes must be carbon neutral and use 50 percent less energy than homes did in 2007.

Some areas of the city have been designated for the establishment of neighbourhood energy systems that supply thermal energy for heating, hot water, and in some cases cooling. These areas have specific thermal requirements for buildings to connect and use neighbourhood energy services.

As well, all existing and new larger (Part 3 and Part 9 non-residential buildings) must meet energy reduction targets 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2020 and be “carbon neutral” by 2030.

For existing buildings, the new bylaw requirements were added to the existing upgrade mechanism process used in Part 11 for Life Safety, Structural, and Accessibility.

“Although HRAI typically maintains a “fuel-neutral” stance in these sorts of discussions, the association always guards against policy initiatives or regulatory changes that force market changes at a pace that may create hardship for consumers and the industry that supplies products for comfort conditioning.  The timeframes adopted are aggressive and may create product shortages leading to confusion, hardship and unnecessarily high costs for consumers,” said Luymes.

Plumbing changes

On the plumbing side, CIPH has objected to the pace at which changes are being made, the lack of consultation with industry and the expense to home and building owners. They have urged the city to co-ordinate the Vancouver Building Bylaw with planned national and provincial building and plumbing code changes.

Vancouver’s planned changes include making 4.8 litre flush toilets mandatory with no accommodation for retrofits where the plumbing system may not function properly with such low volumes.

The plan would also reduce showerheads – including multiple installations – to 7.6 litres per minute (L/min) for each 1.7 metres square of floor area. This effectively kills any vertical spa installation, notes CIPH. The bylaw requires that showerheads be certified to the U.S. WaterSense standard, but many of those listed cannot be WaterSense certified.

CIPH has asked that kitchen faucets be removed as well; it still takes the same volume of water to fill a pot or sink regardless of flow rate.
CIPH also opposes a proposed ban on sink food waste grinders, noting that this may also affect residential and commercial dishwashers that often have these devices built in.

CIPH has sent three letters to the City of Vancouver since last June with little response, noted Waters. “There’s no indication on their part that they are going to change what they are doing.”

Impractical objectives

Some of the Vancouver initiatives are simply not achievable. They want to ban conventional natural gas and replace it with renewable natural gas – methane from landfills, etc. The gas utility, Fortis B.C. has pointed out that this is virtually impossible.

It currently operates four renewable gas methane facilities – two landfills and two agricultural operations. Combined, they produce one quarter of one percent of B.C.’s natural gas needs. Getting to 100 percent would require approximately 100 landfills, the company reports, and the cost of production would erase any cost advantage over heating with electricity. Currently in B.C. heating with natural gas is about one third the cost of heating with electricity.

And even if they wanted to switch everyone to electricity, they don’t have the grid capacity, noted Waters.

In a letter to city council, Fortis B.C. said it would cost the average family of four $1,500 per year in additional energy costs. The utility has 108,000 customers in Vancouver, with up to 1,400 new ones each year.
“This policy is impractical and has the potential to increase costs for energy users in the city and stifle innovation over the long-term,” wrote Fortis B.C. president and CEO Michael Mulcahy in the letter.

“The city keeps saying they are not banning natural gas…but ultimately they are by their policies making natural gas less and less a part of new builds. If you get new infrastructure that is put in without gas lines, you are effectively banning natural gas because you’ve made it so difficult through the codes,” added Waters.

Vancouver politicians, like many, use the term “carbon neutral” – political buzzwords that appear to have no clear meaning. Wikipedia defines it as: “Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.” However, in essence, it may simply mean a ban on the use of natural gas (or other fossil fuels) for heating, remarked Luymes.

Unique powers

The changes Vancouver is planning couldn’t be done by most other Canadian cities as building codes fall under provincial jurisdiction. “The biggest challenge is that Vancouver is a charter city, so they’re well within their rights to do what they are doing,” noted Waters.

The Vancouver Charter allows the City of Vancouver to adopt bylaws to regulate the design and construction of buildings.  The Vancouver Building Bylaw does just that and also includes administrative provisions related to permitting, inspections, and enforcement of these requirements. 

This unique ability allows city council to quickly respond to issues that have an impact on building safety within the city and more significantly to be (in their own words) “a leader with respect to building regulations” in a variety of ways including energy performance, reported Luymes.

Vancouver’s “greenest city” goals go beyond what it already an aggressive national plan, noted Waters. “There is a federal and provincial push to get to net-zero ready housing standards by 2030. New and tighter building codes and construction standards are going to become a norm everywhere. It’s just that Vancouver has taken that extra step to say we don’t want any fossil fuel at all.”

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