Energy Efficiency: Is a Heat Pump Right for You?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, approximately three out of five households in Oregon and over one-third of households in Washington use natural gas as their primary source for heating their homes. Natural gas is a dependable primary heat source and backup power for residential, business, and medical uses.

In recent years, governments and consumers have debated whether electric heat pumps can improve energy efficiency. The prevailing narrative is that heat pumps can deliver three to four times more heat per unit than natural gas furnaces, all while reducing greenhouse emissions. As plumbing, heating, and cooling contractors, we can tell you this isn’t always the case.

Heat pumps can be an efficient and clean option for Washington and Oregon businesses and homeowners — but it is far from the only option, and it may not be right for all users. The Washington Building Codes Council recently revamped energy regulations to offer incentives for choosing heat pumps in new construction.

Natural gas appliances remain a reliable and efficient option for many consumers.  Heat pumps can be an efficient option under the right conditions. However, during a power outage, heat pump users lose access to heating and cooling unless they have access to a backup generator.

In 2021, residents of Washington and Oregon experienced over 33 hours without power. That’s 33 hours a heat pump user would be without heating and cooling. The recent increase in power outages in the region highlights the importance of having reliable backup power sources, like natural gas or propane generators.

Environmental and geographical conditions also play a crucial role in the efficiency of electric heat pumps. For example, at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, electric heat pumps begin to lose efficiency.  The most common and affordable heat pumps on the market today are less efficient than a natural gas furnace when temperatures dip below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Exceptions do exist, however, they can add several thousands of dollars in cost and require more maintenance then those designed to operate in less extreme temperatures.

Consumers in the mountain regions of Oregon and Washington will also want to consider the impact of altitude on their energy efficiency. Studies suggest that heat pumps are at least 10% less efficient at higher altitudes. That means those consumers will use more electricity to heat or cool their homes. For these users, natural gas may be the more efficient option.

Ultimately, the choice between natural gas and heat pumps should be made on a case-by-case basis, considering customer needs, geographic location, and environmental priorities. Consumers should carefully weigh these factors with a licensed heating and cooling expert when choosing between heating and power supply solutions.

Todd Allred is the Executive Director of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Washington