Fossil fuel-powered outdoor snowmelt remains heated topic

Second reading of city building codes set for Oct. 10

Steamboat Springs Architect Brian Adams, a volunteer on the Routt County Climate Action Plan's Energy Working Group, provided this photo of his home design in Steamboat Springs that did not need any exterior snowmelt or heat tape because the roof design diverted snow and water away from the entry walk and garage doors.
Brian Adams-APEX Architecture/Courtesy photo

As a Routt County home builder for 24 years, Marc Lyman at Crestone Construction works to inform clients about the high cost of using outdoor heating systems.

“I try to educate them on how much energy it’s really going to take,” Lyman said. “Heating 100 square feet of outside patio is the equivalent of heating 1,000 square feet indoors. More often than not, when people get that education, they say, ‘That’s a lot,’ and it makes them think twice if they really want to do it or not.”

Because 450 square feet of outdoor heating can be equivalent to heating a 4,500-square-foot home, Lyman said when he builds a 3,000-square-foot home, it could cost more and use more energy to heat a 450-square-foot driveway than to heat the home itself.

During the Sept. 19 Steamboat Springs City Council meeting, council members split in a 4-3 decision on first reading to cap residential outdoor fossil fuel snowmelt systems at 450 square feet. The Routt County Building Department and the Routt County Climate Action Plan’s Energy Working Group had proposed more strict options.

The CAP Energy Working Group recommended six prioritized actions this summer, including, “All CAP governments approve the International Energy Conservation Code 2021 building code and adopt planning/zoning regulations that minimize outdoor energy use unless it is provided by a low/no-carbon energy source or offset by 100% renewable energy.”

For residential construction, options presented by county Building Official Todd Carr to City Council included completely restricting outdoor heated snowmelt systems powered by fossil fuel, or limiting the size to 250, 350 or 450 square feet powered by fossil fuel.

Many of Lyman’s home-buying clients — who usually contract for a 3,000-4,000 square-foot home — decide to skip an external snowmelt system. The builder said some more affluent clients may keep external snowmelt. For lots with enough room, he suggests a geothermal-powered snowmelt system.

The builder said the most common concern voiced by clients when considering snowmelt is to clear snow immediately outside the garage door. He said good home design and construction techniques can help lessen snow-removal tasks such as house orientation on the lot for optimal solar gain, a well-designed and well-draining driveway and covered porches and patios.

For the past year, Building Department officials have been working with contractors and design professionals and hosting public forums toward the new building code adoption, with outdoor snowmelt being one of many items under review. Carr told council members that a contractor forum with 100 attendees showed approximately one-third of attendees preferred only renewable energy use for outdoor snowmelt, one-third preferred square footage restrictions and one-third supported no restrictions on fossil fuel use.

The options presented to City Council for limits to outdoor fossil fuel use for commercial construction included a full ban or caps at 1,000, 1,350 or 1,750 square feet.

Council voted not to set any limitations on the size or the energy sources for outdoor snowmelt systems for commercial construction. The systems are allowed for properties in the city’s downtown commercial zone district, Gondola-1 and Gondola-2 districts, and R-1 and R-2 occupancy types such as hotels, motels, dorms, apartment complexes or vacation timeshare properties.

During last week’s meeting, council members asked a variety of questions such as the availability of local contractors to install 100% renewable energy snowmelt systems. The four council members not in favor of a “100% renewable energy” mandate called the measure premature in today’s market and said the outdoor-use restrictions could be looked at again during the next building and energy code adoption cycle in three years.

“To the extent that we wait three more years, we are just digging a deeper hole that we have to get ourselves out of,” Council member Gail Garey countered. “At this point we need to take action that reduces our carbon emissions rather than adding to it.”

Leaders at nonprofit Yampa Valley Sustainability Council say they are “disappointed” with City Council’s decision that contradicts recommendations in the Climate Action Plan that all the municipalities in Routt County adopted.

“I am disappointed in the council’s vote to support unlimited commercial fossil fuel snowmelt given the pipeline of snowmelt projects that will be coming to the ski area in the near future,” said Paul Bony, YVSC energy and transportation director. “This is a step backward for the implementation for the CAP and treats snowmelt as a necessity, not a convenience.”

A Sept. 19 letter from YVSC to City Council noted, “The technology exists today to use electricity to melt snow at the same or lower operating cost than using natural gas.”

YVSC listed alternative choices to fossil fuel snowmelt such as biomass and biofuel boilers, electric resistance boilers, solar thermal or heat pump systems, or clean energy offsets for the electricity supply via the Green Choice Program through Yampa Valley Electric Association.

Contractor Dan LeBlanc, chair of the Energy Working Group, explained that “finding a mechanism to limit outdoor heating with fossil fuels is a big opportunity for emissions reductions because these systems tend to be both energy-intensive and inefficient.”

“Over the last 20-30 years, building codes have effectively improved the efficiency of buildings,” LeBlanc explained. “However, outdoor heating systems, which are largely unregulated, can easily offset all of these gains, increasing overall building energy use by two times, three times or more.”

The second reading for City Council regarding snowmelt rules is planned for Oct. 10, and other jurisdictions in the county will review the codes during meetings Oct. 10 through Nov. 16. If approved, updated building codes would become effective Jan. 1.

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