Politics & Government

Home improvements will trigger new rule on replacing plumbing fixtures in 2014

California homeowners saving up to overhaul that 1980s-era kitchen or build a porch off the family room face an additional cost in the new year: replacing plumbing fixtures throughout the house.

Starting Jan. 1, any improvement or alteration to a single-family home more than 20 years old will trigger a 2009 state law mandating the installation of water-saving toilets, shower heads and faucets.

Local government building officials, contractors and would-be home remodelers only recently started becoming aware of the rule. The exact impact is uncertain, with jurisdictions likely to interpret the replacement requirement differently. Some officials predict a run on building permits before year’s end.

“We go down to the Capitol and ask them not to legislate our building code. And this is exactly why we do it,” said Gene Paolini, Roseville’s chief building official. “The way it reads is not real clear.”

Water agencies were the main supporters of the 2009 law. Officials said the upcoming rule will, at relatively low cost, make a huge dent in the state’s urban water consumption and help the state meet a goal to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020.

“This is part of a larger effort to double-down on water conservation,” said Dave Bolland of the Association of California Water Agencies. People will save money in the long run as water becomes more expensive in California, he said.

Contractors and building inspectors, though, warn that the requirement poses a major headache. Homeowners could rebel against the rule, either because they object to the look of low-flow fixtures or because of the requirement’s potential cost, and do the work without going through the permitting and inspection process.

Darius Baker, CEO of D&J Kitchens and Baths in Sacramento, said the rule could set back a remodeling industry still recovering from the recession.

“From a remodeling perspective, it’s huge. People don’t want to do something they’re told they have to do, particularly when it costs a lot of money,” Baker said, adding that he’s mentioned the upcoming rule on sales calls. “I’m just the messenger. And I’m going to get shot like a hundred times.”

The upcoming rule is the the latest government attempt to improve water conservation. Since the 1990s, new homes have had to include various water-saving features. Over subsequent years, the Legislature has approved laws setting low-flow standards for toilets, faucets and other products.

Largely untouched, though, are aging, water-guzzling fixtures in many of the more than 11 million single-family houses and apartment buildings around California built in 1994 or earlier – roughly 80 percent of the state’s housing stock, according to U.S. census estimates. The state’s population continues to grow, and experts say climate change will reduce the Sierra snowpack that is the foundation of the state’s water supply.

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, introduced Senate Bill 407 to address the issue. Modeled on ordinances in San Francisco and other cities, it created several triggers to require the installation of low-flow fixtures in homes, apartments and commercial buildings built before 1994: home improvements starting in 2014; all homes in 2017; and commercial and apartment buildings in 2019.

Padilla’s bill cleared the Legislature on the final day of the 2009 session after initially falling several votes short. Almost every Democrat backed the bill, which was opposed by almost every Republican. Groups supporting the measure included the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the U.S. Green Building Council, and Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of California. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had set the 2020 water-saving goal, signed it a few weeks later.

“Many people in Southern California have already done this type of retrofit. This is completing the loop,” Metropolitan Water District spokesman Bob Muir said of the law. “Conservation is going to be a prime source of water.”

Local building officials and contractors say they learned about the upcoming rule only recently. It’s been more than four years since SB 407’s approval, and the law bypassed the months-long building-code process. Instead, the law went straight into the California Civil Code, which covers subjects ranging from medical records confidentiality to gift certificates.

“Once we figured it out, folks were saying, ‘Oh no,’” said Kelly Sherfey of California Building Officials, a statewide group.

Sherfey’s group recently issued its interpretation about when the plumbing-replacement rule applies. Building permits for projects deemed to be repairs or maintenance – such as re-roofing, replacing a hot-water heater, or new windows – will not trigger the rule. Projects viewed as improvements or alterations will.

Contractors say they are still left with questions. “I’m faced with a different interpretation of this everywhere I go,” said Dale Nichols, owner of Granite Bay-based Artisan Remodeling, Inc.

Muir and others say qualified faucets, showerheads and toilets can be purchased and installed at a relatively low cost. On Home Depot’s website last week, for example, an eligible toilet sold for $98, a low-flow faucet for $29, and a “luxurious” multispray showerhead for $60.

But Sacramento-area building officials and contractors said the requirement likely will be significantly more complicated and costly than an existing rule mandating people to install smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors on any home improvement.

In older homes, plumbing projects sometimes involve tearing into walls, replacing obsolete galvanized pipe, and other costly work, they said. Bill Carter, a Sacramento remodeling contractor, added that the sewer lines in some older neighborhoods have minimal incline. Water from low-flow fixtures won’t be enough to carry waste to the city system, causing backups.

Ryan DeVore, Sacramento’s chief building official, and others said they worry that the rules could discourage people from pulling building permits. DeVore estimated that about one-half of the 15,000 or so building permits issued this year in Sacramento would trigger the 2009 law.

“This is exactly the kind of legislation that motivates people to not obtain a building permit and to do work that may endanger themselves or their property,” said Jay Salazar, Vacaville’s building official.

Padilla, the author of the law, was unavailable to comment on the upcoming rule, a spokesman said. In an October 2009 statement after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the measure, Padilla said the bill would ensure that “plumbing fixtures throughout the state will systematically be modernized, saving billions of gallons of water in the process.”

Sacramento contractor Kent Eberle said he agrees with the need to save water but expects a backlash to the cost of complying with the upcoming rule.

“There are people who are clients who are going to say, ‘I don’t want to get a permit because I’m going to have an out-of-pocket cost of $2,000 for a couple of bathrooms,’” he said. “They are going to be outraged, I think.”