Heat pumps in Washington: Take action for energy-efficient, comfortable new homes

Homes built in Washington could start using efficient electric heat pumps — which both warm and cool indoor places — instead of polluting natural gas appliances. Urge the State Building Code Council to pass better building codes today.
August 25, 2022

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You’re probably painfully, sweatily aware that most buildings in Washington weren’t built with air conditioning in mind.

This fall, Washington’s State Building Code Council (SBCC) could change that — and tackle our fastest-growing source of climate pollution, methane gas burned in homes and buildings for heat. How? By requiring new homes be built with the humble (and poorly named) heat pump. Heat pumps in Washington can 1) provide both heating and cooling for indoor spaces and heat water across our state’s varied climates, and 2) heat and cool 200-400 percent more efficiently than natural gas or electric heat sources.

More heat pumps in Washington = more comfortable, efficient homes

On Earth Day 2022, Washington set an example by passing the most climate-friendly statewide building energy codes in the country for new commercial and large multifamily (4+ stories) buildings. These codes require all-electric space and water heating technology in new construction, ensuring our spaces are climate-friendly and heat and cool using our state’s increasingly clean electricity. Thousands of Washingtonians spoke up in support of those codes. Now we have the chance to set similar code standards for homes and smaller residential buildings, as the SBCC considers updating homebuilding standards. The codes also include specific criteria to minimize the burning of fossil fuels; increase access to on-site solar; optimize for efficient lighting; and use more efficient materials and methods in buildings’ roofs, walls, and windows.

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Washington State’s commitment to cut carbon emissions 95 percent by 2050 won’t be possible if we continue to expand fossil fuel infrastructure and install gas appliances, which can last over 30 years, in new homes and buildings. These building codes are a vital step to stop digging the hole deeper for the climate.

While we support city and county-level clean energy building codes, it’s important to provide builders with consistency across the state. The proposed codes for new homes will complement upcoming funding opportunities provided by the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which help lower cost barriers of retrofitting existing homes and buildings with efficient heat pumps.

Electrifying our homes and buildings also keeps us safer from gas leaks, pollution, and fires. It supports creating clean energy jobs. Electrification will be important economically as we invest in large-scale renewable energy production and transition our state off increasingly volatile, unhealthy, and expensive fossil fuels like methane gas. Pollutants in gas can lead to a range of respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological health issues — children in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to develop asthma symptoms.

The proposed codes do not impact existing buildings

However, as we work in the future to phase out gas in all buildings, it will be crucial that our governments provide financial support to help residents transition off fossil fuels — particularly low-income and middle-income families, who are the least likely to be able to make that transition without support. There will need to be efforts at all levels of government to ensure a rapid and just transition for existing buildings to clean, safe, affordable electricity. For example, the city of Denver launched a program in April 2022 that lets residents offset 80 percent of the cost to switch to heat pumps, add solar to a home, add battery storage and more. 

Today’s electric appliances are light years better than early generations. Heat pumps work well in Washington’s varied climate zones, including the colder eastern part of the state. There are cold-climate heat pumps that work efficiently in temperatures as low as 5°F.

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Have more questions?

Take a look at this FAQ about what’s in the proposed codes and building electrification more broadly.