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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New dwellings in Washington state must be warmed by heat pumps, rather than furnaces, beginning in July, state board rules Friday

Nov. 4, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 8, 2022 at 4:17 p.m.

Karl Johnson shows the digital interface he uses on his phone to control his heat pump on July 15 at his home in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Karl Johnson shows the digital interface he uses on his phone to control his heat pump on July 15 at his home in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

New homes and apartments built in Washington state beginning in July must use heat pump systems, an effort to reduce carbon emissions by pushing home heating off of natural gas and onto the electrical grid, a majority of the Washington Building Code Council ruled Friday. 

A 9-5 vote of the panel followed months of contentious public testimony about the change, part of a carbon reduction effort mandated in state law and pushed by Gov. Jay Inslee to reduce emissions and increase energy efficiency. The council voted in April to require new commercial construction to switch to heat pumps, devices that primarily use electricity to heat a home in a method that is the reverse of an air conditioner in the summer. Now, home builders will be required to follow the same rules with new construction.

“It’s an exciting step forward toward meeting our goal to reduce greenhouse gases in our state,” said Katy Sheehan, a member of the council who was appointed to represent the general public living east of the Cascades. “I’m really happy that we did it.”

There were two efforts during the meeting to remove the heat pump requirement from the new adopted building codes, which will take effect next year. One came from state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and the other from Spokane County Commissioner Al French. Both said that the requirements were premature, would drive up the cost of building new homes and require builders to purchase new systems that have been scarce as demand has increased, with new state regulations and incentives included as part of the Inflation Reduction Act passed by  Congress.

“This is so driven by the other side of the state,” French said after the meeting’s conclusion, during which the council also passed regulations on energy requirements in new homes as part of a three-year cycle.

French said during the meeting he worried particularly about the rising cost of homes in Spokane pushing people to buy in North Idaho and commute west. He pointed to the Idaho Department of Transportation’s plans to widen Interstate 90, at a cost of roughly $1 billion, as evidence that changes to home prices could have additional negative effects on efforts to reduce emissions.

“You don’t judge good policy by its intent. You judge it by its impact,” French said during the meeting. “Those cars are going to generate greater emissions than a house does.”

But heat pump proponents on the building council noted that the state is under a legal obligation to increase energy efficiency in buildings by 70% by 2031, and that the council is required to pass regulations that move the state toward that goal. Delaying the implementation of the heat pump requirement for new construction, in an effort to get more specifics on cost and efficiency, could imperil that goal without an alternative strategy, said state Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham.

“A delay of three years means I don’t see how we meet the legislative requirements,” Ramel said.

The nonprofit Shift Zero, which pushes for green building initiatives across the state, lauded the approval of the heat pump requirement in a statement after the vote.

“The State Building Code Council made the right choice for Washingtonians: From an economic, equity, and sustainability perspective, it makes sense to build efficient, electric homes right from the start,” said Shift Zero Managing Director Rachel Koller in the statement.

Brian Henning, founder and director of the Gonzaga University Center for Climate, Society and the Environment, agreed.

“This is part of the process that we need to go through to transform our energy and transportation systems,” Henning said. “It’s exactly what we needed to have been doing decades ago. It’s good to see we’re finally beginning the process.”

The requirement will allow new home builders to install backup natural gas systems that would kick in when temperatures reach extreme lows in the winter.

“No one is taking away anyone’s ability to have gas as a backup heating source,” said Kjell Anderson, a principal and director of sustainable design at the architectural firm LMN Architects based in Seattle and a building code board member.

Wilson, in introducing her attempt to remove the heat pump requirement from the code, said she did not believe the state Legislature had ceded the authority to the building code council to require residents to use electric, rather than gas, heating.

“We do know how to do that, but we didn’t authorize it for the specific natural gas policy that the council seeks to propose,” Wilson said.

Council staff said throughout the meeting that any decision by the council could be subject to litigation. French said after the meeting he approved of any legal effort to question the authority of the council on the question, calling it a “Petri dish of the governor,” referring to Inslee’s policy positions on the environment and climate change and translating them into building requirements for the state.

The council’s approval of the rule Friday starts a process of writing a final rule, which is scheduled to be complete sometime in mid-January, staff members said Friday. The code takes effect July 1.

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