Henry Mechanical employee Jose Martinez installs a heat pump at a home in the Sonoma County town of Windsor on Friday. Air pollution regulators want people to switch to heat pumps and get rid of gas furnaces.
Regulators want to phase out the most polluting natural gas appliances in Bay Area homes within six years, but some residents fear the plan to do so may have crushing consequences for all but the wealthy. Solar Heater
The rules would essentially require all new residential construction to have electric water heaters by 2027 and heat pumps instead of furnaces by 2029. More controversially, homeowners whose old gas furnaces or water heaters break would also be required to replace them with electric appliances on the same timetable.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the regional air pollution regulator, is set to vote on the mandate March 15. It had jurisdiction over Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, plus southern portions of Solano and Sonoma counties.
About 90% of nitrogen oxides emitted from the Bay Area’s 1.8 million homes are generated by furnaces and water heaters, which is why the district is focusing on those devices, said Greg Nudd, the district’s deputy air pollution control officer for policy. The rules don’t actually ban a specific appliance, but the district’s proposal would require that water heaters and furnaces emit no nitrogen oxides, or NOx, by those deadlines — effectively a mandate to go electric.
Nitrogen oxides are gasses that can help form smog and fine particles and are linked to health problems like asthma and cardiovascular disease. The air district estimated that the new rules for homes would cut nitrogen oxides enough to prevent 89 deaths per year in the Bay Area.
Henry Mechanical employee Daniel Jacobo installs an air handler for a heat pump at a home in Windsor. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has proposed requiring all new construction to use electric water heaters by 2027 and heat pumps instead of furnaces by 2029.
Public comment closed on Feb. 6. District officials said they received 530 letters or emails from people, businesses and organizations offering feedback on the proposal. Of those, 160 opposed the proposal, 170 supported the proposal and another 200 letters of support were submitted by the Sierra Club. The most common complaint from the 96 letters available for public review online came from residents expressing strong concerns over the cost and viability of the plan. “Do you really think it's fair to tell someone who has their hot water heater break they can't have hot water again until they have an electrician replace the breaker box?” Mike Thompson of Palo Alto wrote.
“I’d have to gut my house and live somewhere else while contractors worked,” said Jennifer Huber of El Sobrante. “If I could even find a contractor.”
“Slow down,” wrote Tom Tilden of Belmont. “Start with new construction.”
Among the big concerns: A heat pump, which is an electric appliance that extracts warm or cool air from the outside to heat or cool the indoors, can be twice as costly as a gas furnace, according to several contractors who submitted public comments. By using heat in the air that exists even during cold winters, the devices are more energy efficient than gas-fueled appliances. But electrical systems in older homes are likely to need upgrades to accommodate higher amperage – which takes additional money as well as time.
“These proposed rule amendments will wreak havoc on the lives of regular people (the wealthy will have no problem adjusting, they never do),” Oakland resident Lawrence Jensen said.
The comments capture the frustration of a populace reeling from high utility bills and inflation – and worried about increased dependence on electricity amid the risk of power outages from storms and other extreme events such as heat waves or fires. Cutting power has become a key tool utilities use to prevent power line-sparked wildfires during dangerous weather.
Malcolm Post of San Francisco described a fictional scene of the future without gas-fueled water heater: A person asks their spouse, “Can we have hot water tonight? I'd like to bathe the children.”
"No, not tonight, Honey. Rolling blackouts because it's been too windy out,” he wrote.
The rules would not apply to gas stoves.
Nudd said he understands residents’ worries about upgrade costs, which is why the district set the deadline several years into the future. Nudd said his colleagues have seen the technology improve significantly in recent years and they believe it will be even more efficient and affordable in the years to come. Even so, the district will be prepared to consider extending the deadline for households after consultation with an advisory group of affordable housing advocates, manufacturers and environmental groups.
Henry Mechanical employee Daniel Jacobo installs new duct work for a heat pump at a home in Windsor on Friday. Heat pumps would proliferate in the Bay Area under new rules proposed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“While your individual furnace or water heater may not be a big polluter, when you multiply that across 1.8 million households, it’s a big deal,” Nudd said.
He added that federal and state subsidies are available to help homeowners make upgrades.
Some commenters wrote in to hail the proposed rules as putting the Bay Area in the vanguard of electrification. With renewable energy composing an ever-increasing share of California’s electricity production, migrating appliances to the power grid should reduce greenhouse gas emissions that pose a major threat to life in California and everywhere else.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Richard Probst of Los Altos.
Lafayette resident Brenna Shafizadeh, who said she serves on her city’s environmental task force, said that “buildings are the second biggest source of emissions in our city.”
Oakland father Brendan Moriarty urged the district to take the leap and “pursue every opportunity to rein in emissions.”
“”As the father of two young children, this will have great bearing on the quality of their lives for decades to come,” Moriarty said.
Contractors, plumbers and home heating installers wrote in with concerns that the industry isn’t ready for a major influx of customers seeking these electric systems.
Thor Electrical employees Thor Cary (left) and Clint Petker work on the electrical panel while helping to install a heat pump at a home in Windsor. Heat pumps can cost twice as much as gas furnaces, several contractors said.
About 90% of residential water heaters are replaced because of emergencies, said Eric Truskoski, senior director of government and regulatory affairs with Bradford White Corp., a national appliance manufacturer headquartered in Pennsylvania.
Truskoski called the timeline to ban these natural gas systems within six years “overly optimistic” because the supply chain for these products isn’t ready to meet significantly more demand.
Writing on behalf of the Associated General Contractors of California, Brian Mello said his group’s members are wary of the idea due to the power outages that can afflict Californians.
But San Francisco resident Adam Buck thinks the mandate would provide just enough spark to get the industry ready. It would, he wrote, send “a clear signal to the market that we are committed to making this transition and can accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy alternatives.”
Find details about the district’s proposal and March 15 vote here.
Reach Julie Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @juliejohnson
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect statistic for the pollutants emitted from furnaces and water heaters. About 90% of nitrogen oxides emitted from the Bay Area’s 1.8 million homes are generated by furnaces and water heaters, according to Greg Nudd of BAAQMD.
Solar Powered Water Tank Heater Julie Johnson is a reporter with The Chronicle's climate and environment team. Previously she worked as a staff writer at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, where she had a leading role on the team awarded the 2018 Pulitzer in breaking news for coverage of 2017 wildfires.