Washington regulators on Friday veered away from requiring builders to install electric heat pumps rather than natural gas furnaces in new homes, apartments and commercial buildings they construct.
Instead, in an expected move, the Washington State Building Code Council settled on an overhaul of energy regulations aimed at beefing up incentives for choosing heat pumps and making a construction permit a little more difficult to obtain if builders don’t.
The proposed changes will undergo public review, with at least one hearing, possibly in November. They are now set to take effect March 15, 2024 barring unforeseen twists, such as a legal challenge.
In a three-hour discussion Friday in Spokane, backers on the council and from the public said the revised language will keep the state on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy efficiency in buildings.
“For public health we need to move away from gas appliances that pollute the air and this will improve the health of Washingtonians,” said Dr. Claire Richards of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
And though heat pumps are not mandated, their economic and environmental benefits should make them preferable to natural gas for most new construction, supporters said.
“I think if one technology is clearly superior to the other our job is to create a level playing field. I believe that these (changes) are a step towards doing that,” said Democratic state Rep. Alex Ramel, a non voting member of the panel. “And if we create a level playing field and it’s obviously more cost effective to use heat pumps then that will make sense.”
Opponents warned it will drive costs higher for builders, home buyers and renters.
“Let me remind you that we are in the middle of an undersupplied and unaffordable market for most Washington families. Nobody cares if we’re reducing emissions if their families can’t thrive,” said Andrea Smith, policy and research manager for the Building Industry Association of Washington.
“A vote for the options presented today is a vote for making homes more expensive for Washington families,” she said.
Second time’s a charm?
Friday’s decision culminates a rough few months for the Building Code Council.
Lawmakers set a 2031 deadline for slashing greenhouse gas emissions from homes and commercial buildings by 70% below levels envisioned with the 2006 building codes.
It put the panel, composed primarily of contractors, laborers, and local government leaders, in the hot seat of deciding how to get it done. Electric heat pumps are cleaner and more energy efficient but aren’t necessarily the appliance of choice for builders and homeowners.
The panel adopted rules mandating heat pumps in most new construction. Then in May, two months before the rules were to take effect, members hit the pause button, delaying implementation until late October.
The move came after a federal appeals court scrapped similar regulations in Berkeley, California, and as opponents to Washington’s policy filed their own legal challenge – which they later dropped.
In the meantime, the council directed a technical advisory group, or TAG, to recommend revisions that would align with federal law and still effectively force builders off natural gas in favor of heat pumps.
The TAG delivered 19 pages of additions and subtractions to the existing residential energy code. Another advisory panel came up with 46 pages for commercial construction. With one motion, the panel approved both Friday on a 10-2 vote.
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.
Almost the entire conversation Friday dealt with the revised residential regulations.
The council erased prior language mandating residential use of heat pumps for heating water and for space heating. 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 would 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.
For example, a builder could receive up to three credits for a system using a heat pump and zero credits for natural gas. The prior rules – which never took effect – would’ve dinged natural gas furnaces with a minus-three rating and provided up to 1.5 credits for electric heat pumps.
Another change the council approved adds an option, and a half-credit, for gas-fired heat pumps which are rare in use and more expensive. Utilities sought this change.
Craig Holt, a member of the council who works for a construction company, wondered if the rule changes create a viable path to building a home with natural gas.
“I saw examples where it was possible to spend so much on the skin that the house is no longer affordable,” he said. “I’d just like to know if it is still possible to use gas and afford to buy a house. Do you think that’s reasonably possible? Definitely possible?”
Kjell Anderson, the council member who chaired the advisory group, responded.
“I don’t think the TAG would have accepted this if it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s explicitly clear that it’s possible. If there’s a suggestion that it’s not possible we need to figure that out.”
The council ditched its earlier draft of residential and commercial energy codes 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 former rules crafted by the Washington Building Code Council weren’t a full ban on gas appliances, the panel opted to come up with a different approach to avoid a potential conflict with the federal law.
Anderson sounded confident Friday they’ll pass muster.
“The new codes are not more stringent,” he said. “It’s just the path you follow.”
But council colleague Daimon Doyle, a longtime builder, worried complying with what gets passed will be too complicated.
“I’ve been doing heat pumps for more than three decades. I get it, I mean I push for high performance,” he said. “We’ve got a code that has just gotten clunky and cumbersome. I fear this actually becoming code across the state.”
by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.