By Joe Wachunas
“Hi, I’d like to cancel my service.”
Seven anticlimactic words in a phone call to our natural gas company marked a momentous ending for my family — the final black pipe carrying fossil fuels deep from North Dakota Bakken fields into our home has been shut off.
We, a middle class family of three living in an 80s ranch, have electrified everything. In doing so, we’ve joined a movement, a green energy strategy, a collective thought process with three basic tenets:
- Electricity is the quickest and most realistic form of CO2 emission free energy
- We should switch all household appliances and transportation to the most energy efficient electric form
- Provide that energy through renewables — ideally from local sources, like solar on our rooftops
Follow these three tenets and you can have your modern comforts cake and eat it too, enjoy the fruits of technological progress and stop sending greenhouse gases into an ever warmer troposphere for the next 500 years.
We were already believers in number 1 and it took us six years of lackadaisically working to “electrify everything” to officially achieve number 2, and we’ll check off number 3 later this year.
How We Did It
Electrifying everything has been neither expensive nor hard. It has basically meant replacing old, inefficient gas appliances at the end of their lives with new, energy efficient electric ones.
We happened upon this strategy when we bought our house in 2012. Immediately after moving in, we decided to turn the garage into an apartment, which meant replacing a 20-year-old furnace that was taking up valuable real estate.
By removing this old heating system, we explored cleaner alternatives and discovered heat pumps, which would become a fundamental part of our overall electrification strategy and give us the option of air conditioning in addition to heat.
Heat pumps are machines that move hot or cold air rather than create it. They find this heat even in air that feels cold, and lure it like sirens singing to sailors. This makes them extremely efficient — >at least four times more so than electric resistance heating and natural gas. Heat pumps run on electricity, but sip it like fine wine rather than chug it like cheap beer. Refrigerators and air conditioners are heat pumps so the technology is widespread. When heating a space, the direction is reversed to pull the heat into a space rather than out of it.
Our system includes two interior, wall-mounted “heads” that bring in warm (or cool) air captured by a compressor placed outside. Our trusty heat pumps were cost equivalent to a new furnace and have been keeping us warmed and cooled, with electricity, for over six years.
Heat pump hot water heaters
The heat pumps proved to be a huge success. We knocked out a chunk of our natural gas usage and still had lower than average electricity bills, despite using electricity to heat our home.
The next gas user we tackled was the hot water heater. Like our furnace, this 20-year-old appliance was approaching the end of its life. It was also responsible for a ton of our energy use (18% in the average home) and carbon emissions (3,000 pounds per year). While researching electric alternatives, we happily discovered that the magical heat pumps heating our home could also be used to steam our showers.
But we had to venture into uncharted territory. Heat pump hot water heaters were (and still are) new enough that I had a hard time finding contractors who were familiar with them. I did much of the research myself. We had to be early adopters and embrace an unknown technology.
In this case, the reward for our risk was huge. This incredible hot water heater uses a fourth to an eighth of the energy of a “standard” (electric resistance or gas) hot water heater. This translates into savings of $200 — $400 dollars per year. And like the ductless heat pumps on our walls, there is little difference in the initial cost of the technology and we still enjoy all the hot water we want.
While these water heaters may seem too good to be true, I can personally testify to their awesomeness. Beleaguered friends, who I bombard with statistics and tours of my utility closet, ask “why haven’t I heard of these before?”
Heat pump hot water heaters have the potential to be game changers in our climate crisis with the sheer amount of energy and CO2 emissions they save. I love ours so much that I installed a second one in our garage apartment. This second one not only produces hot water for showers but also heats the entire apartment through a hydronic radiant floor heating system.
The next front, in the battle to to rid the last bastions of fossil fuel energy from our lives, took place in the kitchen. Again, we discovered a new(ish), efficient and electric technology — induction cooking.
Induction cooking changes everything in the kitchen. Before, it was gas or electric coils. Both are inefficient, but gas had the upper hand due to its cozy flame and ability to quickly control temperatures.
Induction stovetops match gas in their ability to quickly change and control heat. They also create heat far more quickly and can boil six cups of water in three minutes. The technology creates a magnetic field that directly heats iron in pans, so rather than heating the space under a pan, it heats the pan itself.
Induction stoves are also the safest. The cooktop is not hot to the touch unless you put a magnetic pan on it and the burner turns off automatically after 10 seconds when it doesn’t detect a pan. So a win for our toddler.
And, perhaps best of all, if you’re looking to electrify everything, this efficient, safe, responsive cooking technology allows you to leave gas behind and cook food in a cleaner, electric way.
Our electrification project started gaining steam, and we were hungry to cut out more fossil fuels. An obvious next step was transportation. My family is lucky to live in a dense, urban area with amazing options for walking, running, biking, scootering and mass transit. But when we do use a car, the cleanest way to fuel it is with electricity. In 2017, we joined the electric car movement (our first car ever) by buying a used Nissan Leaf with 10,000 miles on it (for only $7,800!). I love this car more than I thought I would ever love a car. Not only does its electric motor drive extremely smoothly, but it will virtually never need maintenance and “fueling” it is ridiculously cheap. I spend about 75 cents for a gallon equivalent (30 miles of driving). To drive our average 6,000 miles a year, we pay only $150. Gas, for an equivalent car, would be four to five times that amount. Plus, when I charge my car while the sun is shining, I have an immense and indescribable satisfaction that the solar panels (see below), on my roof, are fueling my auto, that I am my own oilman, and refiner, and gas station and energy producer.
You can electrify everything and still squander it away like tokens at Chuck E Cheese. Equally, if not more, important to electrifying our homes are strategies to use energy wisely, and this should really come first.
Well before our electrification campaign, we learned to identify the electricity hogs in our home and either not use them or use them as efficiently as possible. Our house uses 51% of the energy an average American home, And because we have 6 people in three separate units on our property (I have not yet mentioned that, in addition to our garage rental apartment with a long term tenant, we also have an addition on Airbnb that accommodates two guests), per person we only consume 22% of the energy of an average American.
Our key strategies:
- Hang dry clothes. Dryers consume too much electricity. Only 3% of Italians have them, and, as a former Italian exchange student, I follow their lead, saving approximately 10–12% in annual electricity use by hanging our clothes outdoors in the summer and even indoors in the winter (much to my wife’s chagrin).
- Use low flow shower heads. I have a couple great ones that use half the water of an average shower head but still provide a spa-like showering experience. This saves oodles of energy from reduced hot water usage.
- Install LEDs and turn out lights. Perhaps the original, and easiest, of all energy efficiency measures.
- Use natural ventilation. Cross breezes in the summer cool our house and we use air conditioning, from the ductless heat pumps, very sparingly. Space cooling is the primary residential electricity demand.
- Wash clothes with cold water. Even Consumer Reports says it’s not necessary to use hot water.
These strategies may sound insignificant and/or cumbersome, but they are impactful ways to substantially reduce energy consumption and the climate impacts associated with it. Combined with the efficient electric technologies described above, tenet 3 becomes possible.
Produce your own electricity
As we’ve been electrifying our house, we’ve also been increasing the energy production on our own roof. It amazes me that I live in a time where this is possible. In decades past, even the most staunch environmentalist was dependent on large power plants and couldn’t imagine being an independent, clean energy producer.
But with solar, I have this option. I can invest in stable, lucrative and local energy production. I can be my own power provider, getting in on action that was once reserved for institutional investors and big corporations.
The monetary payback alone has been amazing. We paid $12,000 down in two separate system leases (7.2 kWs and 28 panels total) and received all that money back in state tax credits over eight years. We took part in an interesting pricing structure called a “prepaid power purchase agreement” and not only do we get our initial investment back in state tax credits but we also receive free solar power for 20 years, which is about $20,000 in free electricity.
With our final gas appliance now gone, we’ll add one more set of solar panels to our roof this year to meet the increased electrical load. Incentives and price structures change all the time, so I don’t think we’ll be able to take part in something so lucrative this time, yet whatever the cost structure looks like, we’ll be thrilled to increase our personal energy generation and have it power our electric home. Our home will at long last be “net zero,” meaning over the course of a year, all the electricity consumed will be produced on our property. (We produce more energy than we can consume in the summer and get credit for it in the winter when we aren’t producing as much as we need).
I share our story to prove that a normal, middle class family can achieve a carbon neutral home relatively easily, while saving money and relishing the satisfaction of doing our part to fight climate change through these normally overlooked household systems. If we can do it, you can too.
About the Author: Joe Wachunas is lucky enough to work for two incredible non-profits in Portland, Oregon — Forth, which seeks to electrify transportation, and Solar Oregon, which educates and advocates for solar energy.