Seeking to persuade more residents to transition from gas to electric appliances, Palo Alto approved a series of rule changes on Oct. 2 that aim to make it easier for residents to install equipment in their yards.
The changes that the City Council approved to the Municipal Code by a 6-0 vote, with Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims recusing, target two areas that often pose a hurdle for residents looking to install electric appliances: space and noise. They allow residents to install things like heat pumps, energy-storage systems and charging stations for their vehicles in their side yards, provided they maintain a 3-foot clearance to the side and rear of property for access.
Residents will also be allowed now to encroach into required parking spaces when installing such equipment.
On the noise front, the council agreed to adopt new rules for electrification equipment, with different standards for properties east and west of Foothill Expressway. The difference is based on existing ambient noise levels, which tend to be higher east of Foothill than in the west. Under the new law, areas east of Foothill have a compliance standard level of 50 decibels (dBA) at the property line, which is roughly equivalent to a humming refrigerator or a quiet conversation. West of Foothill, the threshold for electrification equipment would be 40 dBA.
In either region, residents would be able to exceed the standard by up to 5 dBA when they are installing heat pumps with inverter compressors, motors that regulate speeds and allow the heating equipment to run at less than 100% capacity when the weather is not fluctuating (they thus tend to be quieter and more efficient than traditional heat pumps). The threshold for heat pumps without inverters would be 3 dBA.
Louder equipment would still be allowed, though it would need to be installed farther from the property line to comply with the new noise restrictions.
The objective of the ordinance is to help the city meet its 80x30 goal, which calls for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline. A key component of the strategy — one that the city is prioritizing above all others — is electrification. Earlier this year, the city debuted a program to encourage residents to install heat pump water heaters and to finance these appliances with on-bill payments over time. The city wants to facilitate 1,000 such conversions within a year.
Another goal, and one that the new zoning ordinance tried to achieve, is facilitating these conversions without causing friction between neighbors over humming equipment too close to the fence.
"There is this balance we're trying to achieve between trying to advance electrification equipment and help achieve our sustainability and climate action goals with the expectation of the quiet enjoyment of residential properties," Planning Director Jonathan Lait said at the Oct. 2 meeting.
Some suggested that the city go further in relaxing noise restrictions, particularly for heat pumps that use inverter compressors.
Brett Andersen, board member at Carbon Free Palo Alto, was among them. Andersen said he had been shopping for a heat pump for the last few years but was told he couldn't install one in his side yard because of the noise ordinance. In support of the city's effort to ease restrictions, he suggested looser standards for heat pumps with inverters, which he said are about 10 dBA lower than traditional models.
"We need to address the side yard issue and I think the (noise) levels that we have here just aren't appropriate for what's available there," Andersen said.
Bruce Hodge, founder of Carbon Free Palo Alto, also argued that the new standards proposed by staff are too stringent and would still keep many people from installing the equipment in their side yards.
Heat pumps with inverters are very quiet most of the time, Hodge said. He suggested that residents be allowed to exceed ambient noise levels by 12 to 15 dBA when they are installing such pumps in their side yards and 8 dBA for other technologies.
"It's not clear that the creation of two arbitrary noise zones that mandate either 40 or 50 dBA at the property line is a step forward since it is more stringent in some cases and less stringent in others, compared to the current code," Hodge said.
But resident Hamilton Hitchings fully supported the proposed change, which he said will allow him to install an electric HVAC heat pump in his home. He noted that the Planning and Transportation Commission had approved the revisions unanimously and urged the council to approve them too.
"These enable more homes in Palo Alto to convert their gas, heating and cars to run 100% on Palo Alto municipal utility's renewable electricity," Hitchings said.
While the council generally supported staff's approach, council member Pat Burt proposed a modification to allow residents to exceed noise standards by 5 dBA for heat pumps with inverters and by 3 dBA for the traditional variety. The council unanimously backed the suggestion.
Burt suggested that such an increase would be barely perceptible, particularly in side yards, which aren't known for being popular gathering spots. The city, he said, should focus its efforts on protecting residents from the impact of noise when they are in their homes or in their yards, he said.
"We're not trying to accomplish active peaceful use of our side yards, which is not what any of us do. … I never have. My neighbors don't," Burt said.