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Washington makes another run at heat pump rules

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Washington makes another run at heat pump rules

Nov 28, 2023 | 8:48 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
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Washington makes another run at heat pump rules
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Washington state regulators want builders to install electric heat pumps, like the one pictured above, in new homes. (Getty Images)

Controversial requirements aimed at getting electric heat pumps installed in newly constructed houses, apartments and commercial buildings cleared a final regulatory hurdle Tuesday.

The suite of changes, approved by the Washington State Building Code Council, is part of a broader effort by the state to slash carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency in residential and commercial construction.

The new rules will take effect March 15, 2024 barring unforeseen twists, such as legal roadblocks – which could arise.

The Building Code Council had approved new codes mandating the use of heat pumps in most new construction. But it paused them in May after a federal appeals court scrapped similar regulations in a California city, and as opponents to Washington’s policy filed their own lawsuits. One of those cases remains pending in Thurston County Superior Court.

What the council enacted Tuesday offers builders incentives in the permitting process for choosing electric heat pumps – which provide both heating and cooling in the same unit – instead of natural gas furnaces. The appliances are more energy efficient and result in less pollution than gas furnaces.

But months of discussion culminating with Tuesday’s four-hour meeting didn’t end divisions over the heating technology or the council’s regulatory undertaking.

Backers hailed the new codes as among the most climate and health friendly in the nation and said they would help to keep Washington on course to meet its goals paring greenhouse gas emissions from homes and commercial buildings.

“Ultra-efficient buildings powered by clean electricity in Washington state are a climate and public health imperative, and these energy codes use proven technology to get us there,” said Rachel Koller, managing director of Shift Zero, in a statement. “The council’s energy codes for new construction are a critical part of the solution to cleaner air for our communities.”

Opponents warned the changes will result in higher costs for builders, home buyers and renters, and said they will put the state out of compliance with federal regulations. 

“I find it’s going to make things way too expensive,” said Tom Handy, a Whitman County commissioner and council member. “I think it’s going to hurt affordable housing. I think it’s going to hurt small builders.”

Turning the page

Tuesday’s decision ends a turbulent chapter for the Building Code Council.

State lawmakers set a 2031 deadline for slashing greenhouse gas emissions from residential and commercial development by 70% below levels envisioned with the 2006 building codes. 

It left the panel, composed primarily of contractors, laborers, and local government leaders, to make it happen. Electric heat pumps are cleaner and more energy efficient but aren’t necessarily the appliance of choice for builders and homeowners.

The council ditched its earlier code changes due to questions about whether they complied with the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

Their concern stemmed from the California case – California Restaurant Association v. City of Berkeley – in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the federal law “expressly preempts State and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances, including those used in household and restaurant kitchens.”

While the version of Washington’s codes the council had been moving ahead with didn’t fully ban gas appliances, the panel opted to come up with a different approach to comply with the federal law. It still effectively steers builders to choose heat pumps.

Still a ‘ban’

Washington’s building code contains energy efficiency requirements for residential and commercial construction. It establishes a scoring system used in the approval of building permits based on the size of a dwelling unit or building and different construction options.

One of the biggest changes from May is the council erased language mandating heat pumps for heating water and rooms in homes. And it revised how credits that builders need to comply with the state building code are awarded under the scoring system in hopes of spurring greater use of low-carbon building solutions.

Different amounts of credits are available for installing various appliances and employing building treatments to reduce energy use. The credits are available for such things as heat pumps, solar panels, and upgraded thermostats or ventilation systems.

Under the new rules, a builder will need five credits for a home of less than 1,500 square feet. That’s double the sum they need today. For a home between 1,500 and 5,000 square feet, they will need eight credits, up from five.

There are new credit values under the plan for different appliance options and building practices. Not surprisingly, more credits are awarded for use of an electric heat pump than a natural gas furnace.

The Building Industry Association of Washington, which challenged the earlier version of the codes, says the latest one may put the state at an even greater risk of running afoul of the federal law. 

Greg Lane, BIAW’s executive vice president, described the council’s action as “a de facto ban on natural gas in new homes.”  

“These new rules clearly continue to violate the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which expressly preempts state and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances,” Lane said.