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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington council significantly restricts use of natural gas heating in new commercial buildings

UPDATED: Fri., April 22, 2022

A new roll of natural gas line is driven into place for installation by NPL crews on Seminole Drive, Sept. 24, 2014, in Spokane. The Washington Building Code Council approved on Friday, April 22, 2022 significant restrictions on the use of natural gas to heat new commercial building.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
A new roll of natural gas line is driven into place for installation by NPL crews on Seminole Drive, Sept. 24, 2014, in Spokane. The Washington Building Code Council approved on Friday, April 22, 2022 significant restrictions on the use of natural gas to heat new commercial building. (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

The use of natural gas or electricity in future commercial building heating systems in Washington will be significantly restricted after the State Building Code Council adopted two new revisions to the state’s energy code. Starting next year, new businesses and apartments will mostly use heat pumps to warm air and water.

On an 11-3 vote Friday, the council approved the commercial energy code, which goes into effect on July 1, 2023. The vote followed a nearly seven-hour meeting marked with delays caused by a few members of the public who were attempting to disrupt the virtual meeting by screaming, shouting expletives, using a racist slur and interrupting speakers. The meeting also was extended as a result of several procedural delays and lengthy debates on how the revisions would impact construction.

Board member and Spokane County Commissioner Al French opposed the heat pump provisions and made a number of motions to defer the code’s adoption to a future meeting, citing different procedural issues. In voting against the code, French said it should ultimately be up to the Legislature to set the code.

“One of the criticisms I’ve had of this board for a long time is it’s not accountable,” French said at the meeting. “It’s not accountable to the Legislature, it’s not accountable to the public, and yet they make decisions that are far reaching.”

Board member and executive director of Spokane’s Community Building Foundation Katy Sheehan voted to approve the code revisions, citing the need to address climate change and a state-mandated goal of improving energy efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to consider what our definition of risk is when we’re talking about climate change,” she said at the meeting. “Burning more fossil fuels is risky behavior. Taking a small step forward in reducing our natural gas usage is one way to reach our goal that we’re mandated to get to.”

Under the revised code, new commercial buildings would have to use heat pumps for space heating. The plan would effectively ban HVAC systems that use fossil fuels like natural gas – including most standard furnaces – or systems that use electric resistance, such as baseboard heaters, wall heaters, radiant heat systems and electric furnaces. Certain exceptions allow electric resistance to be used in specific situations as approved by a code official. Some exceptions also would be allowed for space heating using a fossil fuel, but to a lesser extent than electric resistance.

For water heating, 50% of water must be warmed by a heat pump system, while the rest can be heated by an additional source like electric resistance or fossil fuels. A previous draft of the energy code required all hot water to be produced primarily by a heat pump, supplemented by electric heating in certain situations.

The revisions drew a significant amount of public input, with over 6,800 written comments submitted to the council and over 100 individuals testifying at public hearings, according to council staff. Associations representing builders opposed the limitations, citing challenges it would impose on construction and the electrical grid, while environmental advocates saw the changes as necessary to combat climate change.

Similar heat pump proposals are being made for the residential section of the state energy code, and will be considered by the council over the next few months. Anyone interested in reviewing the residential proposals or providing public comment on them may do so through the building code council’s website at sbcc.wa.gov.

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