When our home in Ventura, California burned down in December 2017, we were already well on our way to reducing the carbon footprint of our lives. Rebuilding the home from the ground up was never a part of the plan, as using things that already exist for as long as possible is generally the most effective way to keep emissions low.
We had 17 solar panels on the roof of our home, one 240 volt EV charger installed with plans to upgrade the electrical panel in the coming months to allow for another string of solar panels and another EV charger among other upgrades on our journey to #ElectrifyEverything. In an instant, a blazing wildfire stoked by years of climate change-induced drought changed all that. Miles to the east, a spark emitted by Southern California Edison’s power lines caused a brush fire that, thanks to unprecedented winds from the east, blew through miles of California chaparral to become what was at the time the largest wildfire in California history.
As the ash began to settle in Ventura, the fire raged on to the west. We were able to pick through the remains of our home and I was filled not with fear or loss, but with hope. Sure, there were innumerable unknowns at the time, but life is full of unknowns. Starting a new career in a field we love, leaving an old dead end job, going to the doctor to hear a diagnosis, breaking up with someone who breaks us down instead of building us up. Every ending leads to a new beginning if we can just be bold enough to hope for better things to come around the corner.
So we got back up and dusted ourselves off and started to dream about a new beginning.
Looking back on that time in our lives, we did not know how hard it would be, but we were confident that this day, today, would arrive. We started sketching out designs for our new home. It was a ground-up redesign not because we wanted something new or custom, but because there were no plans anywhere for the home we had.
I envisioned a well-sealed building with lots of insulation. My wife carved windows into areas where walls once were. I started running the numbers on solar systems for our roof while my wife imagined open concept living with plenty of space for the kids to run around with their friends. I tried desperately to squeeze a battery backup system into the budget so we would have power the next time a disaster struck, while my wife tried to squeeze in some space for a room for quality time for our family.
The process has been filled with highs and lows along the way, but mostly, it has been a ton of work. I don’t recommend building a home from scratch or even massive remodels, but when you have to, you have to. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, we filled in the bones of the building as it morphed from a two-dimensional shape into a fully fleshed out space.
We had a goal of building a fully electric home, where we wouldn’t even run a gas line to the home. That turned out to be a bit of a sticky point, even here in California, as current regulations required us to use more efficient natural gas unless we had a rooftop solar system producing power to cover the less efficient electric systems. This is especially true in heating, where heating with electricity is generally less efficient than with methane.
We compensated for the inefficiencies of traditional electric water heating with a hybrid heat pump water heater that costs more up front, but runs more efficiently. We rolled in as many green building ideas as my brain could handle, but the real nuts and bolts of the improvements we made can be distilled down to a few key pillars:
- Uber insulation
- No gas
- Electrify everything
- Power it all with solar
- Add storage for backup
- EV chargers
Building a home isn’t rocket science, but it can be overwhelming, so we continued distilling our plan down to the non-negotiables to remind ourselves of what we “had” to achieve. It was ok if not everything else was perfect, but we (I) really, really wanted these to make it into the final design. If I’m being honest, I also wanted the laundry room upstairs and pushed hard to make that happen as well.
What’s funny is that all of these, literally every single one of them, was already a part of the plan for our old home and it would have been far cheaper to retrofit that home one step at a time. When the fire hit, we had bales of additional insulation that I was adding into the rafters. We had just installed a Dryer Buddy to let us tap into the sole 240 volt circuit in the house for both clothes drying and EV charging. We were planning for an electrical panel upgrade to allow for even more and had 10 more solar panels sitting in the shed for the next phase of solar upgrades.
Life is a funny thing, and sitting here on the island counter in our new home, it strikes me just how similar this is to what it would have been like to have lived for two more years in our old home. Sure, this transition happened faster than what I would have likely accomplished in two years. It turns out that spending $5,000 on an electric panel upgrade isn’t very attractive to most people. But we would have made progress just the same.
Our new home is fully electric, with no gas even run to the house. We powered the whole thing with a Tesla Solarglass Roof with a battery backup system that is currently set up to maximize our self-consumption. Even now, sitting in our brand new house, we have opportunities to improve our carbon footprint by shifting loads to the times when our solar is producing power. I want to tap into the cold air produced by our water heater to cool the house.
Every journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle starts with a single step. It starts with a dissatisfaction for the status quo. With all that said, my encouragement to you today is to take your next step. Take the step that sits in front of you, whether that be to give up your car in favor of a bike, to purchase an electric vehicle, to install solar on your roof, to add a battery backup system, or even to upgrade your electrical panel if that’s what’s in the cards.
It is not always the most exciting, but dang it, we need to show the world that it is 100% possible today to live a life that is sustainable, that is carbon neutral. So let’s get started.