Plan to Encourage Solar-Ready Homes in Austin Sheds Light on Plumbing, Construction Costs

Feb 2, 2017

Imagine a house. Now imagine the roof. What do you see? Some shingles. Maybe a chimney? But really there’s so much more.

District 7 City Council Member Leslie Pool has sponsored a resolution to make more Austin homes solar-ready. Part of that means leaving roof space on new construction without the pipes and vents that prevent solar panels from being installed.

“It’s kind of like when you buy a house and they tell you the place for the refrigerator is already plumbed for the ice maker,” she said.

But the measure could add to the cost of building, something that concerned the Austin Homebuilders Association. The association, a developers’ trade group, agreed to support the measure if city council considered a separate item to changing Austin’s plumbing code. Why?

“Adopting the [new code] would neutralize the extra cost adopted by solar-ready,” said Glenn Coleman, a lobbyist working for the home builders on the issue.

Coleman says the new code, called the International Plumbing Code, makes creating that extra roof space easier, and has other benefits, including smaller piping, more flexibility, and the ability to tie multiple devices together and vent them simultaneously.

“All of these thing allow water conservation initiatives and solar initiatives to be more easily adopted in a house,” he said.

But Austin plumbers disagree.

T.J. Dodd is business manager for the local plumbers and pipefitters union. He said, in fact, that “there’s nothing further from the truth.”

Dodd says the union prefers the current code, called the Uniform Plumbing Code, and that they have already fought back two attempts at a code switch in the last year. And they fought back this one as well. They got Pool to pull the item.

“The plumbers here, they want the Uniform Plumbing Code. They’ve been trained in the Uniform Plumbing Code," he said. "It’s a superior code and, for some reason, somebody won’t let [the idea of changing codes] go.”

Proponents of each code argue of their relative safety, flexibility and cost of each system, but that debate will have to wait for another day.

When the plumbing item got pulled, the Austin Homebuilders Association pulled their support for the solar-ready item, and at a council work session on Tuesday, Mayor Steve Adler also asked for more time to look at the solar resolution.

The quick turn of events left Council Member Pool trying to take the long view.

“It did seem like everybody was moving along in alignment and now they’re not," she said with a laugh. "That happens sometimes at the city.” 

Pool now expects the solar ready item to be postponed. Though she’s sure it will return for a vote within a couple weeks.

As far as the plumbing code goes, both Coleman and Dodd think that debate will probably resurface as well.

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.