The Ecphorizer

But Me No BTUs
Gareth Penn

Issue #22 (June 1983)

Everybody knows that California is the epitome of enlightenment. Name anything progressive, and we did it first. Upton Sinclair, freeways, be-ins, hot tubs: it was always California that led the way. Or take our legislative commitment to the promotion of solar heating. Please.

[quoteright]The forward-looking California legislature has given a tax credit of 55 percent on the cost of installation of solar heating in homes. The Franchise Tax Board coughs up cash not only for active solar heating, but also for passive.

Active solar heating comes from those glass-covered (advertisementese: "skylight-look") panels that you see on some people's roofs. To provide an average house with 100 percent of the heat it needs from an active solar installation, Means Cost Data, the Bible of construction estimators, says you have to shell out about $30,000. You can buy a lot of natural gas for 30 grand.

Passive solar heating works this way: you put a whole lot of glass on the south side of your house. The glass traps the infra-red rays inside the house, warming it up. The only moving part is the sun. A "thermal mass," such as a thick concrete slab, takes up heat during the day and releases it after nightfall.

I designed my passive solar-heated house on the basis of much research and calculation. I had read all the books and articles. I dreamed in solar-heating jargon. I could have gone to an ASHRAE* office party and chatted about things like "Delta-T" until the cows came home. I thought I had all the answers.

That was before I ran head-on into Title 24.

The building inspector who was doing the plan-check on my house asked my where the heater was. I said, I have 109 square feet of glazing on the south side. Each square foot gains 1800 BTU from the sun on the 21st of December. . . He butted in, what if the sun doesn't shine on the 21st of December? Unfazed, I shot back, that's what the woodstove is for. I didn't say the "stupid" out loud. He asked, where's the firewood supply for the woodstove? I panicked. I hadn't thought of showing firewood on my building plans. I guess I'll just stack it up in the solarium, I said. YOU'RE GOING 10 STACK UP 30 YEARS' WORTH OF FIREWOOD IN THIS GREENHOUSE?

Solarium, I corrected, weakly. Title 18, California Administrative Code, says that an attached greenhouse is a "solarium." Title 18 also sets the standards for passive solar heating, all of which are incorporated in the plans we are talking about, namely mine. Title 18? That's Franchise Tax Board, he said. We're Title 24.

They might as well have called it Catch-24. Our wise, progressive, forward-looking Legislature has written into law voluminous regulations concerning passive solar heating to allow taxpayers to raid the treasury, but nothing to guide building-code enforcers. Mine really did his best. He got on the wire to Sacramento and spent hours on hold, being shunted from one extension to another. The only interesting thing that he found out was that our tax moneys are supporting a Wind Office. That's something every government ought to have.

The upshot was that Title 24 requires the installation in new construction of a fossil-fuel heating system - or a $30,000 active solar system -- equal to the task of keeping the temperature at a cozy 70 inside when 31-degree winds are howling about the eaves, plus an extra capacity of 30 percent above that. The tax credit you get back from the FTB may pay for the oversize gas furnace you have to put in to satisfy your building inspector because of this conflict between two parts of the Administrative Code.

There is one out: use a woodstove. But Title 24 says that for a woodstove to qualify as a primary heat source (which mine is, because solar heating doesn't count), you have to have a 30-year firewood supply rooted in your lot at the time of construction. Oddly, for a law that puts as many obstacles in the path of the conservation-minded as Title 24 does, it doesn't say anything about how you are to document this 30-year supply. It's between you and Jimminy Cricket.

I built on ten acres of hillside covered with oaks. I went to the library and got a book on woodheating, which has a table of heat content per cord, listed by botanical species. Unfortunately, books of this sort are written for Vermonters, who have other species of trees. I picked "white oak" as my standard. Visitors from back east have sneeringly informed me that our oaks out here are not "true" oaks. What the hell are they, then -- false oaks? Anyway, "white oak" would have to do. I was fresh out of larch and spruce.

I trudged and clambered all over my slopes, censusing my trees. I graded them a la Proctor and Gamble into three sizes: Large, Family Size, and Majestic. Then Walter Mitty took over. I chainsawed them in my mind and stacked them up in fantasy-cords. By dint of much imagination, I settled on 1/2 cord for Large, 1 for Family Size, and 2 for Majestic. When I had added up my imaginary cords, multiplied them by the 31 million BTU content of a cord of white oak, then divided by the annual heat-loss "calc" (I told you I know the jargon) at the bottom of my State worksheet, the quotient was 41 years. This meant that there would be no wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Outer Darkness.

One thought nagged at me. What if they check up on you? The strains of "The Ride of the Valkyrie" came up under a dot on the horizon, which resolved as it approached into a black helicopter. Sunlight glinted off distant binoculars as Wagner reached an orgasmic crescendo. It was the California State Firewood Compliance Unit (Airmobile). Cylon-voices croaked over the intercom. Family. Check. Large. Check. Majestic. Check. The guy with the binoculars was wearing a Smoky Bear hat. The one with the clipboard was wearing Steve Canyon shades. Majestic? Hell, that's only a Family Size! OK, Charley (this to the door gunner), show him what we do to cheaters! Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

My paranoia was unfounded. My tree census was accepted without a cavil and filed along with my plans and permit, my heat-loss calcs, my National Weather Service Degree-Days of Heating data, my Life Cycle Cost Analysis for the water heater - about two inches of paperwork altogether - and I went on to build a passive solar/woodstove heated house. I was lucky to have all the trees. But most people don't have a built-in excuse like that. Something has to change.

Here's a progress report, as of 1982. The 1500-square-foot house I built has never drawn more than $24 worth of current from PG&E in any month over two years of occupancy. The woodstove gets cleaned out once a year, yielding about seven pounds of ash (the equivalent of about 1/3 cord of oak). The recording thermometer shows an all-time overnight low of 62 degrees in the kitchen. I haven't paid any state income taxes in four years. Nobody has contracted pneumonia yet.

Write your Assemblyman.

* American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning EngineersĀ 

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