Beginning this month, air quality officials in the San Francisco Bay Area are expected to take over from the nation first lines phasing out new gas-fired water heaters and furnaces in homes and businesses from 2027. If so, this will be an important step in the effort to curb health-damaging and planet-warming emissions from buildings.
The California Air Resources Board last year passed plans to phase out sales of gas water heaters and furnaces statewide by 2030, but won’t consider creating regulations to do so until 2025. of Southern California, is also years behind. Once again, the Bay Area leads the state in environmental innovation.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District will vote on March 15 on rules that will gradually introduce, starting in 2027, requirements that only zero-emission water heaters and furnaces be sold and installed in homes and buildings. The rules do not apply to other appliances such as gas stoves or clothes dryers, which pollute much less than water heaters and ovens.
Many cities in California, including Los Angeles, have banned new gas hookups, but these are the first rules that would effectively ban the sale of gas appliances. Ending the burning of fossil fuels in homes and businesses is not only good for the health of residents, it is also necessary to combat climate change and air pollution and should be followed across the country.
People may not think of homes and other buildings as major polluters, but in California they are full of appliances such as dryers, stoves, ovens and water heaters that run largely on natural gas. Together they generate four times as much smog-forming pollution as the gas plants of the state. The phase-out of the Bay Area’s gas boiler and furnace is expected to reduce more than 3,000 tons of nitrous oxide emissions annually and prevent 85 early deaths, thousands of asthma attacks, and lost school and workdays each year, with the greatest benefits for communities of color who most affected by air pollution.
But there are serious barriers and equity concerns surrounding building electrification, and elected officials in the Bay Area, Southern California and other parts of the state will have to work hard to address them to make the transition a success. It won’t be an easy task, arguably even more difficult than the state’s efforts to replace gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles.
The biggest obstacle is the upfront cost. Electric appliances are still more expensive than gas appliances. Installing a new heat pump costs an average of $2,900 more than a gas furnace, and a heat pump water heater costs about $850 more than a gas furnace, according to the Bay Area Air District. But they can be offset by cost savings, including lower utility bills and tax credits, rebates and other federal climate incentives that become available under the federal Inflation Reduction Act, as well as state programs aimed at low-income residents. An analysis SPUR, a nonprofit public policy organization, found that low-income single-family households could actually save $8,000 in upfront costs by replacing gas furnaces and water heaters with heat pumps if they take advantage of existing state and federal subsidies.
Businesses, manufacturers and the construction industry have called for delays and other rule changes, questioning whether the phase-out is feasible due to the limited availability of heat pumps and wiring and airflow requirements that make installations in older homes difficult. Those are certainly valid concerns, but that is why the proposal includes years of lead time before it comes into effect. The rules will send an important signal to manufacturers and contractors that there will be demand while giving them time to build capacity. The costs for heat pumps and should decrease over time.
Electrification of appliances is an added challenge because they are often emergency purchases — things you don’t think about until they break and need to be replaced immediately. And it is not always easy to replace your current equipment with an electric version. Your home may need electrical panel upgrades, new 240-volt outlets, or other modifications that can be pricey and can’t be done overnight.
Promising changes are underway, including devices that allow installation of electric heaters without having to upgrade your electrical panel and models with heat pump water heaters that plug into standard 120-volt outlets. But they are not available everywhere yet. Too many contractors are still unfamiliar with or hesitant to install heat pumps, and it takes training and education and financial incentives to move them in that direction.
Change won’t happen overnight, as these appliances can last 20 years or more, and it will be decades before the region’s 1.8 million homes in nine Bay Area counties that currently use gas-fired appliances, turn them off. But it’s coming. This is just the beginning.