California’s mission to discourage the use of natural gas to heat homes and water is coming to fruition, as the Golden State’s energy commission recently approved the nation’s first building code to help accomplish this. If passed by another commission, starting in 2023, new homes and buildings in the state are encouraged to have electric heat pumps installed instead of gas furnaces.
The new California law
As part of the climate change movement, California has been trying to make its homes and buildings more energy-efficient by getting them off fossil fuels.
In August, the California Energy Commission (CEC) voted to approve the nation’s first building codes of its kind, published in the 2022 Building Energy Efficiency Standards (Energy Code). The new codes apply to both new construction and renovated buildings to “produce benefits to support the state’s public health, climate, and clean energy goals.”
The Energy Code must now pass approval by the California Building Standards Commission. If approved, it will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, giving builders and contractors some time to adjust.
Encourages the use of electricity but doesn’t ban natural gas
Regarding heat pumps, the Energy Code says this of its goal: “Encouraging electric heat pump technology for space and water heating, which consumes less energy and produces fewer emissions than gas-powered units.”
Notice the use of the word “encouraging” instead of “requiring” electric heat pumps. This means the new building code, if passed, won’t ban natural gas — which is what environmental groups prefer — it instead makes electric heat pumps the default choice by giving builders incentives if they install heat pumps. In other words, California will make sure it will be cheaper overall to install heat pumps.
For example, if builders want to install natural gas appliances, they’ll have to meet “complex efficiency mandates,” says Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if incentives and efficiency mandates don’t work, we can probably expect to see requirements replace encouragements.
The ramifications: heat pumps vs. gas furnaces
What California is doing to get homes and buildings off fossil fuels could set a precedent for the rest of the nation. But switching from natural gas to heat pumps isn’t energy-efficient in every locale.
Heat pumps pull external heat from outside or from the ground, which then flows into the home. These pumps also provide cooling, acting as both air conditioners and heaters. They might be ideal for the temperate California climate, since heat pumps work best when there’s not a great differential between indoor and outdoor air. In the right environment, like California, they save energy, meaning they save homeowners money. But they don’t work well in climates that experience extreme cold.
Gas furnaces use a pilot light to combust gas to provide heat. In climates that get below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, gas furnaces are more efficient than heat pumps. In fact, if a heat pump system is installed in a cold climate and can’t heat the home, an auxiliary heat source kicks in, which costs up to five times more than the regular heating mode.
The Millionacres bottom line
Whether buildings across the country will be switching to electricity to heat homes or not, there’s a push throughout the country, with California leading the pack, of the electrification of buildings. “The writing’s on the wall,” says Bob Raymer, technical director of the California Building Industry Association. Invest wisely.