San Diego’s political leaders are contemplating a new Climate Action Plan that would try to slash city greenhouse gas emissions by half within 20 years.

One way it would get there: Force property owners to make their homes more energy efficient before they can be sold or remodeled.

The city hasn’t written a specific provision yet, it’s only said the plan should include an ordinance that puts in place a “retrofit mandate.” How it would work and what it would require is still an open question.

Even so, the Chamber of Commerce and many local real estate organizations have already said they are not down.

But without an actual ordinance to examine, it’s hard to say whether their opposition is legitimate.

One example San Diego could look to as a rough template is the city of Berkeley, which passed its own retrofit requirement back in 1992, advocates for San Diego’s ordinance said.

So that’s where we started: We took Berkeley’s requirements and tried to get a sense of what they’d cost homeowners if they were applied in San Diego.

The Retrofit Ordinance We Already Have

San Diego already has three of the requirements in Berkeley’s ordinance.

San Diego homes need to have water-conserving toilets, shower heads and faucets before they can be sold. That’s part of the city’s Plumbing Retrofit Upon Re-Sale Ordinance, passed in 1991.

The requirements aren’t particularly strict: Based on state efficiency standards, you can’t even buy new fixtures in the state that don’t meet the city’s threshold. (Toilets can’t exceed 1.6 gallons per flush; showerheads need to be below 2.5 gallons per minute; faucets 2.2 gallons per minute.)

The natural life-cycle of replacing fixtures would eventually take care of the problem, but mandating the changes when a home is sold speeds up that process. That also means new homes, or homes sold recently, already probably comply.

Homeowners end up spending a few hundred bucks before they can sell a house that isn’t already compliant. That’s partly because of a rebate program — SoCal Water$mart — available through the Metropolitan Water District, that cuts down on costs.

The cheapest toilet on sale at Home Depot costs $98. There’s a $50 rebate when buying the low-flow toilets (high-end, dual-flush toilets could be $300 a pop). So if your house has three bathrooms, and you’re just meeting the bare-minimum standard, you’re looking at spending $150 on compliant, low-flow toilets. Many could install the fixture themselves, but you might be looking at another $90 or so if you need to hire a plumber or handyman.

Showerheads and faucet replacements are cheaper still. And with those, you can duck the cost completely by taking part in the city’s residential water survey program. A city employee comes to your house to identify water-saving opportunities, and gives you free low-flow showerheads and a modifier for your faucet.

Altogether, the ordinance has produced 328,000 retrofits of older toilets and urinals, resulting in savings of 10.27 million gallons of water per day, according to the city’s annual water conservation report, presented to the City Council’s environmental committee last month.

The plumbing retrofit mandate was opposed at the time, as well.

Luis Generoso, water resources manager for the city of San Diego, said it was implemented during an early-’90s housing market recession, and the local real estate industry was concerned it would make things even worse.

Expanding the Mandate to Energy Efficiency

The new retrofit mandate would deal with energy efficiency.

Berkeley’s ordinance has seven specific requirements on energy efficiency, some of which are very cheap and others that can get pretty pricey.

To see what those requirements might cost San Diego homeowners, we got rough estimates from one of the people who worked on the Climate Action Plan (Douglas Kot, former executive director at the San Diego Green Building Council and chair of the city task force that helped develop the plan), and from a local architect and general contractor, Francisco Garcia, with The Building Workshop Inc. A compliance guide from the city of Berkeley also offers some answers.

All put the cost at roughly $2,000 to $3,000 for a few-decades-old home of less than 2,000 square feet.

“In general, (Berkeley’s) ordinance has manageable changes that aren’t too expensive,” Garcia said.

Not everyone will agree. The mere notion of a city-mandated retrofit will upset plenty of residents, regardless of price.

Berkeley’s ordinance also has a maximum spending limit: 0.75 percent of a home’s sales price, or 1 percent of total renovation costs. Any unfinished repairs above that limit carry over to the next time the home is involved in a transaction.

For the median-priced home sold in San Diego last month ($470,000), that’d mean a cap of about $3,500.

But Nicole Capretz, who helped write the plan for former interim mayor Todd Gloria, said San Diego could always adopt a lower cap, or allow for more exemptions that keep prices low.

“Of course, obviously, there needs to be dialogue with stakeholders for agreement on the best approach,” she said. And since the local industry is already accustomed to the requirements that kick in when a home is sold, thanks to the plumbing ordinance, she says it makes sense to build on what’s in place.

Here are some of the requirements outlined in Berkeley’s ordinance:

• Insulate water heaters to prevent heat from escaping. New water heaters come insulated, or old ones can be improved with a special blanket that should cost less than $50 and that many homeowners will be able to install themselves. Berkeley’s guide pegs the cost at $10 to $17 and says the annual savings could range from $20 to $66. It’d cost another $5 or $10 to meet another requirement to insulate a couple feet of piping right next to the water heater, and could save between $5 and $40 a year, according to Berkeley’s guide.

• Insulate hot water piping for certain heating systems. The parts to meet that standard are cheap, but the labor might be expensive, particularly for old, craftsman-style homes with tiny crawl spaces. Garcia estimated costs and labor at $150, but said it could be as much as $250 for homes where the piping isn’t accessible.

But dealing with the peculiarities of certain homes, Kot said, is something a well-written ordinance could address.

“A reasonable policy would look at technical feasibility of implementation,” he said.

• Add weather-stripping to all exterior doors, which keeps heat in the home and reduces wasted energy. San Diego Gas & Electric will make those repairs to your home for free if you sign up for its Energy Savings Assistance Program. Or, it could cost $15 to $20 for 17 feet of weather-stripping material that could be a manageable DIY project.

• Seal and insulate furnace ducts. Garcia said this could cost up to $170 for a home, though older homes without air ducts wouldn’t need to worry about it; Kot said the materials are cheap, but certain homes could make labor expensive.

Again, this is an area where the city could structure the ordinance to exempt homes based on economic feasibility.

• Install dampers for chimneys. Most chimneys already have dampers (not exactly new technology), and not many San Diego homes have chimneys. It’s conceivable this requirement wouldn’t even make sense in San Diego. But assuming it did, compliance might cost around $200, according to Berkeley guide, and for home with a gas furnace, they may save $165 a year.

• Finally, Berkeley’s ordinance requires ceiling insulation to meet a certain standard.

“This is the smartest recommendation in (Berkeley’s ordinance) because the roof is the biggest source of heat gain or loss, but also the most expensive,” Garcia said.

He said it could cost $1,000, plus an extra $500 or so if the ceiling requires patching. But the price could vary widely based on the type of roof or whether there’s an attic. Flat roofs would be more expensive.

Berkeley provides exemptions for some homes without attics, or which otherwise make the repairs unfeasible.

This could be an area where the city defrays some of the cost by providing rebates or other packages to make it more financially manageable. In any case, it could cost between $1,000 to $2,000.

“We’re starting to talk real numbers here on this one,” Kot said.

Altogether, a typical homeowner could be looking at $2,000 to $3,000 in costs before they can sell their home, and there’d likely be a cap that would keep the costs from being much more than that.

“I don’t want to be flippant about $2,000, because that’s a lot of money, but that’s in the noise of a large transaction,” Kot said. “That’s the whim of the housing market from day to day. In terms of encumbering a transaction (keeping a sale from going through), it’s comparable to termites.”

Update: This story now includes additional information on financial savings possibilities for chimney dampers and piping insulation. 

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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