Most of his “green” clients, says Michael McCutcheon, owner of McCutcheon Construction, in San Francisco, are “true believers.” These high-end clients aren’t jumping into “green” simply for the tax breaks, and they are early adopters. One current client, who has two high-end electric cars, is interested in trying a variety of energy-efficient products, including a hydrogen fuel cell for his 7,000-square-foot single-family home. “He likes to experiment,” McCutcheon says, “and he knows it may not work. He’ll be the third person to have this in a residential application in the state of California.”

But in this case the early adopter is a bit too early, and that’s causing delays. The bright side is that the delays give McCutcheon and project manager Heather Allison time to learn and prepare.

Permit Permitting

The client has solar apparatus on the roof of his business and wanted to do it on his home as well, McCutcheon says. “But he got flummoxed. The house orients north-south with a long axis of roof facing east and west and not much facing south. And, the wife didn’t want PV [photovoltaic] panes on the roof or on a trellis [that could be installed facing south].”

The client heard about a 5 kW fuel cell powered by natural gas that provides 5 kW of electricity and can also generate heat that can be used to heat the home and/or water. He asked McCutcheon, who has done several remodeling projects for the client, to “Put the thing in," and McCutcheon agreed to do it.

It’s been nearly a year, and the manufacturer still has not been able to deliver the product. “They’ve had quality-control issues with the inverter and have not been able to fix the bug,” McCutcheon reports.

The biggest hurdle with getting a permit is that the product, which is a little bigger than an air conditioning unit, is not currently UL-rated. “We’ll have to go through an independent source and have them field-approve it," McCutcheon says. “The process [of installing hydrogen fuel cells for residential applications] just hasn’t been done yet,” says Allison, who has been handling the site preparation and planning. “We’re going through the process with the City of Berkeley to see that it gets approved and field-stamped. The city has been wonderful working with us. They’ve met with everyone. They’re interested and ask good questions.”

Planning Ahead

Allison and McCutcheon also discovered fairly late in the game that the product's fan generates 60 dB of noise 24 hours per day. “It’s not super loud, but it's like the compressor on an air conditioner,” McCutcheon says. Berkeley’s noise ordinances maintain that this sound is different than others “because it runs 24 hours a day,” McCutcheon points out. “Now we have to build an enclosure because there are different rules about noise levels at certain hours.”

McCutcheon Construction won’t be doing the fuel cell installation -- the manufacturer will -- but Allison will be coordinating the installation, providing a pad, the mechanical, natural gas, electrical. “The requirements are strict. There are definite guidelines about where it can sit, if it’s enclosed, the venting, the size of the structure,” Allison says. “We will get the plans and permits and will plug it into the electric and gas utilities, and we have another sub who interfaces it with the home’s heating system.”


McCutcheon estimates that the cost of this product and its installation may reach six figures. “It costs two or three times as much as PV right now. It’s not a bargain. But if you have a bigger home and you can get the device and jump through the hurdles, it becomes a viable option.

“I think it could catch on if they could get the installed price of the 5k system down. The City of Berkeley is interested in seeing if the darn thing works.” And since the home is connected to the grid “the clients won’t be dead in the water if it doesn’t work.”