Pressure testing, which ensures a leak-free refrigerant line, is essential to maintaining refrigerant charge. Photo by Ted Cushman

Concerns over climate change have sparked a movement toward electrification—the process of switching from fossil fuels for space heating, water heating, cooking, and transportation. Washington recently became the first state to mandate electrification by banning gas for new multifamily and commercial buildings, while legislatures in at least four states—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland—are vying for their state to be the next to impose similar bans that may include single-family homes. The move away from gas began at the city level, with Berkeley, Seattle, and New York City being the first to ban gas use for all new buildings. Some 60 cities in over 20 states have laws that ban gas, propane, and heating oil in new buildings. But the issue has become intensely political, and there are also now more than 20 states with counter laws that prevent cities from banning gas use in buildings, and 10 other states that prohibit electric utilities from encouraging customers to switch away from gas.

Regardless of how the politics play out, electrification is coming. In many U.S. cities, natural gas used in buildings is the second-largest source of emissions behind vehicles. About 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions across the U.S. comes from residential energy use. That doesn’t include the leaks from gas lines. A study published in Science found there were enough natural gas leaks (90% of which is methane, a potent ozone-depleting gas) from U.S. oil and gas operations to fuel 10 million homes each year. In order to move the needle on greenhouse-gas emissions, we will increasingly need to reduce fossil-fuel consumption at every level. It’s happening with cars and trucks—the biggest source of fossil-fuel consumption—and it will happen with buildings, including homes.

For electrification to succeed, however, building professionals at all levels need to know how to design, install, operate, and maintain heat pumps. Otherwise, while trying to make a difference on the environment, we may just end up making homeowners more uncomfortable, with higher energy bills, and fail to save energy. If heat pumps don’t perform as well as the old dinosaur burners they are replacing, the technology will lose favor with consumers, and the reduced emission goals won’t be achieved. Certainly, there are other huge infrastructure challenges to making electrification work. In this article, I am going to focus only on what building professionals need to get right in homes, with the expectation that larger issues relating to the U.S. electric grid, and scaling non-fossil-fuel electrical production, can be solved.

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