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♻️ Decarbonizing an 18-Year-Old Home
Heat pumps, solar, water heaters, induction stoves, LED bulbs - OH MY!
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One of my 23-for-23 New Year’s resolutions is to decarbonize our home:
“3. Install solar panels, heat pumps, induction stove, and wall batteries. Our big house project of the year is to look into electrification.”
Most homeowners will need to think about decarbonizing and electrifying their homes over the next few years. We’ve seen how political instability can impact natural gas prices. The Inflation Reduction Act is both a cash incentive and a call to action. Global warming’s impact is being felt both locally (wildfires) and on a bigger scale (hotter summers everywhere).
Our family believes that electrification now is decarbonization tomorrow. First, we live in Washington - over 80% of electricity generation already is from renewable sources and is often considered the best in the nation. Our local utility also offers the option to pay more for green energy offsets. Second, centralizing more of our energy consumption into one pattern makes the green energy transition more tractable: everyone gets their usage on the grid and then we make the grid clean.
Reducing energy consumption alongside electrification is key, ideally while improving quality of life.
In theory, all of this can save money as well.
We are a month into the journey - research, contractor bids, goals, and prioritization. We’ve just chosen our first projects for the year (solar panels and a new heat pump). I’m sharing early to get feedback and advice! Please do reach out.
What This Post Isn’t…
This isn’t a how-to guide to home electrification. If you want one of those, I recommend checking out the Electrify Everything Guide from Rewiring America.
Instead, this is our lived experience with electrification. For those involved in clean energy, I hope this post provides perspective on some of the challenges homeowners face in the real world. For those going on a similar journey, I hope it provides some useful advice but also crystallizes the obstacles you might encounter.
📉 Setting Context & Goals
Our home is 18 years old. The consequence of this is twofold:
All the “easy” forms of energy reduction are already implemented. Building codes 20 years ago were already updated with good insulation, double pane glass, and some amount of efficiency for appliances.
Most of our major systems are up for renewal (e.g. a furnace lasts 20 years).
Given that these are big capital investments, we want to improve our quality of life alongside our green efforts. For example, our hot water heater is undersized for our family (previous homeowners had fewer children). Our A/C system is underpowered as Seattle summers weren’t as hot 18 years ago.
Finally, given that we are trying to plan for the next 20 years, anything we can do to own our own destiny and decrease volatility (e.g. in energy prices and availability) seems worth spending money on now to protect ourselves in the future.
Our Goals == Go Green + Future Proof Investments + Protect Against Volatility + Improve Quality of Life
🙋 Getting Help
Step 1 was to get help. Here are a few things we learned:
Puget Sound Energy, our utility company, has a Renewable Energy hotline. A real human answered the phone after two rings! He was able to talk through questions we had on what would make the biggest difference in consumption, vendor choices, rebates, and tradeoffs. Some utilities offer an in-home inspection, but PSE does not.
The electrification and renewable energy community provided a broad picture. A reader of Mind The Beet (Hi Dasha!) saw my 23 for 23 goal and connected us to an expert and community organizer. We learned about this website for rebate information and this YouTube video for an electrification overview. I also found the Electrify Everything Facebook group.
Neighbors, especially with solar, helped with specifics. So much of home improvement - including pricing, vendor quality, and available stock - is local. We learned a lot by asking around. For instance, every neighbor with solar used use Puget Sound Solar as the contractor and had a positive experience. I loved talking to my coworker Omar about his journey with solar.
We just started getting bids and quotes. The last 40% of our decision-making required free estimates, bids, and conversations with contractors. This is where the dreams of the brochures met the reality of housing codes and house setups.
The system is designed around cost savings, not decarbonization. It’s clear that all the vendors in this space are motivated by a) customers who are looking for cost savings and b) avoiding having to do a callback or further maintenance on equipment. HVAC systems don’t spark joy - the ecosystem is designed for them to just work in the background. This doesn’t encourage electrification, which is not always the most cost-effective or reliable option. The industry has a long way to go to transform into the one envisioned by electrification supporters.
🪟 Insulation & Windows
What we have now: We have double-pane windows & enough attic insulation to meet early 2000s-era codes.
What’s wrong with it, carbon wise: Not much. The insulation is 10-20% under modern standards, but 20% more insulation for the 30% of external surface area that is the roof will not yield much savings. The windows are old but the price of new windows is crazy more than the energy savings since they are already double-paned.
What’s wrong with it, lifestyle-wise: We have a few windows with fogged glass that we’d like to fix.
Likely plan: We’ll replace our fogged windows, but not move forward with anything else. We have a $1200 quote for increasing attic insulation that might make sense at the end of our electrification project (after other contractors have trampled the existing insulation installing new wiring, for instance).
What we have now: We’ve been replacing old bulbs with LEDs throughout the entire house over the past three years as they have burned out and are almost at 100% now.
What’s wrong with it, carbon wise: Not much - replacing with LED is the way to go!
What’s wrong with it, lifestyle-wise: We’ve definitely had problems with a very low lifetime for some of our bulbs. If anyone can recommend something more reliable than “search for something on Amazon and try to choose the least sketchy vendor,” I’d love the advice.
Likely plan: Continue to full 100% LED replacement.
🔥Heating & Cooling
What we have now: We have 2 gas furnaces and 2 A/Cs, all from the original house built 18 years ago.
What’s wrong with it, carbon wise: It burns natural gas. This is the single biggest thing we can do to make a difference in total carbon consumption: moving off natural gas furnaces to heat pumps with electric backup.
What’s wrong with it, lifestyle-wise: Our home has undersized A/C in it and the condenser placements are not ideal. This was understandable: great A/C just wasn’t as important 18 years ago when summers were not as hot. So this is an opportunity to right size for the future and fix long-standing cooling issues.
In addition, our upstairs furnace is located in a cabinet adjacent to our kids’ bedrooms - not an ideal place to be burning gas for air health reasons.
Our options: We should move to heat pumps with a 0.5 larger tonnage than we currently have, so it fixes the cooling issues. Funny enough, the Seattle Times published an article on heat pumps in Seattle while we were doing the research. This enabled us to feel confident about the price and strategy.
One option that came up was what to use for backups for the heat pump. The Seattle Times suggested that some homeowners are not doing any backup at all, although I found no contractor that was willing to forgo a backup. Our solar vendor suggested natural gas as a backup, as if you have batteries, then you can use natural gas in a power outage and the batteries last longer.
Complications: We do not have an easy install. First, we need new 240V outlets in both the garage and upstairs cabinet to move to electric air handlers. Second, the current placement of the outdoor condensers is under a patio, so there is not enough vertical clearance for the heat pumps we wanted.
Likely plan: We are splitting the project over two years, to maximize tax credits. We’ll prioritize the upstairs unit this year (to optimize air health for the kids) and will install a high-end 3-ton Bryant Evolution heat pump with an electric air handler backup. After credits, the project this year is expected to cost between $25K-$27K. Total credits are $7K (manufacturer + Inflation Reduction Act).
It is unclear whether the high-end units are “worth the money” in terms of better output and reliability. Most manufacturers offer the same warranty for medium and high-end units, implying both are equally reliable. Would it have been worth bringing the project to $18K-$25K with a cheaper system? We decided not. It does seem clear the high-end units are more efficient (e.g. 20 SEER rating for our unit) - so while it’s unclear if the increased cost “pays for itself,” it does reduce consumption which aligns with our goals. And it incentives the industry to prioritize the development of higher SEER units. Finally, many of the tax credits only apply to high-end systems.
🚿 Water Heating
What we have now: 50-gallon tank, natural gas burning water heater.
What’s wrong with it, carbon wise: It burns natural gas.
What’s wrong with it, lifestyle wise: We can’t fill the bathtub the kids like the use. 1.5 showers before we run out. It’s undersized.
Our options: 1) Switch to a bigger heat pump + electric tank water heater. 2) Switch to a tankless water heater (although everyone says electric tankless is unreliable technology). 3) Give up on decarbonization and stay on gas.
Complications: The cabinet where our water heater is will not allow us to go tankless due to venting issues. A heat pump-based water heater needs a bigger tank than natural gas, which may not fit if we also want to upsize our system.
In short: Needing to upsize the system + wanting to switch off gas + having space limitations == No options.
Likely plan: We’ll install a mixing value on our existing water heater so that we get more hot water flow. This will reduce the life of our water heater, but it will give us a couple years for the technology to improve for something electric that fits our needs.
☀️ Solar (and Roofing) & Powerwall
We are moving forward with a solar panel installation. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way:
Getting bids is easy. The best vendors can deliver an estimate using satellite imagery without any need to schedule an appointment. They can even estimate shade and therefore efficiency percentage without an initial site visit. We were lucky enough to have a roofing vendor take high-quality drone images of our roof recently, which we sent to the solar vendor for a more detailed estimate.
Don’t click on the social media solar ads. Honestly, in WA, just use Puget Sound Solar. I’ve yet to meet anyone who used someone else. The shady social media ads that you see can overpromise and underdeliver.
Learn about how the energy company provides electricity credits to solar-powered homes. In WA, there is a 1:1 exchange between the house and the grid, constant at all times of the year and day. Any energy credits you accumulate in the energy “bank” are wiped every March. This means there is no sense in demand smoothing or other advanced forms of energy management. There is also no financial reason to power a system in excess of your yearly energy use.
Sizing is tricky and worth working on with the vendors. Our initial estimate was only going to power 21% of our utility bill. After some back and forth and optimizing for our needs, we got it up to 46% (albeit that increased project cost with more panels and a choice to use more efficient ones).
An 18-year-old roof is not ideal, but not a deal breaker. It’s $200/panel or $6000 for our planned 30-panel system to remove solar panels if a roof needs to be replaced. Before we pulled the trigger, we confirmed we had at least another 10 years if not more left on our roof via free estimates from roofing contractors.
Batteries & Solar. Battery installs and solar panel installs are done by the same vendor, generally. There are only two battery companies - one requires a solar installation at the same time and the other (Telsa’s Powerwall) does not technically but often is paired anyway. In Washington, due to how energy credits are determined, there is no real advantage to batteries other than in the event of a power outage - so this combination is a bit of an artifact of other regions of the country where solar + battery works more in tandem. Nonetheless, be prepared to make a decision on battery installation when you are evaluating solar.
HVAC and Powerwall Tradeoffs. Moving to all-electric HVAC has tradeoffs if you are looking for battery backups in the event of power outages. One option is to keep natural gas as an emergency backup and assume it will be very infrequently used.
Telsa Powerwall vs. Bidirectional Charging. Powerwalls are expensive ($25K or so). And they store dramatically less energy than even a typical electric vehicle. We are betting on a future where our cars can power our house during infrequent power outages and will not proceed with battery backups.
Net summary: We are moving forward with a 10,000 KWh/yr array (30 panels at 410W each) that should power 45% of our yearly electricity needs. The cost is $30K after rebates and the “payoff time” (when we’ll save enough in electricity use to pay for itself) is ~15 years. This makes it of questionable financial sense (the payoff year is far off) and we are paying a bit of a premium because a) we choose more panels including some in less efficient places and b) we chose the higher capacity panels, and their output gains do not exceed their increased cost. However, the amount of generation is significant and therefore the contribution to a green energy future is worth it for us. We figured the higher powered system will feel like a smart decision to our future selves, especially if electricity costs increase.
What we have now: We have an energy-efficient oven & refrigerator, but a gas-burning range top.
What’s wrong with it, carbon-wise: Culture wars aside, the gas-burning stove does contribute to indoor air pollution, and removing it is part of a “get completely off gas” plan. The total amount of energy consumed by stovetop cooking is not all that significant, however. Net net - this feels like a “when you need to replace, look to go green” vs. high on the list to do proactively.
What’s wrong with it, lifestyle-wise: Our gas stove has some failing burners and unfortunately it’s an outdated model with both parts and repairman shortages. We’ve learned it’s unrepairable after a couple years of trying. Not an emergency, but its days are clearly numbered.
Our options: Induction cooktop. This is the future - Microsoft indeed just put them in their industrial kitchens on their new campus, for instance. It’s a new way of cooking requiring new judgment to be developed, but once you get over the learning curve, it has advantages. Time-to-boil is often listed as one. Fewer burn hazards are another.
Complications: We have a 48-inch range top today and there is no model of induction only range top on the market of that size. We found one model that offers dual natural gas + induction burners (the Signature Pro).
Plus, we need to run a 240V outlet to our kitchen island.
Likely plan: The project is on hold for a few years until induction technology matures and a 48-inch induction range top becomes more common. If an emergency arises, we have the Signature Pro hybrid gas/induction model identified as the best we can do right now.
We bought our first electric vehicle last year and put vehicle charging into our garage. It’s our primary vehicle for most of our drives.
We have one gas-powered vehicle left and it’ll be our last one ever. It is a truck because we needed something for mountain drives & to haul ski gear. It’s already clear the electric truck market will meet need our needs in the next 2-4 years.
Importantly, we expect to use our vehicles for house charging in a power outage (so-called bi-directional charging) over time, which helped us feel comfortable saying no to house batteries.
All of these projects require up to 6 new 240V plugs! (Two electric furnaces, two car chargers, an induction stove, and a heat pump-based water heater). This is stressing both the space in our existing electrical panels as well as the 200A load from the utility. One of our research items was to figure out if a panel and load upgrade is in our future.
It’s surprisingly difficult to get a clear answer to this - electricians don’t like to work in hypotheticals and discuss future installs. Our approach is to take it one project at a time - adding load to the system until finally it clearly caps out. We are confident that this year’s projects (solar + heat pump) don’t require a new panel.
When/if we do reach that point, we are interested in looking at various smart panels that give you actual data on per-appliance electricity use, like SPAN panels, although I’m concerned it might limit our choice of an electrician in the future. Various “bolt-on” forms of monitoring usage appear not good enough yet.
One complication and opportunity for our home is that we are lucky enough to have a separate utility billing (and separate panel and separate 200A load) for the downstairs basement of our house - ostensibly the previous owners wanted the option to rent it out. This means we have plenty of panel space and 400A total load if we can just figure out how to work with the city and utility to recombine the billing and permitting into one. This might be a fun trip down bureaucratic rabbit holes someday.
💸Tax Incentives and Rebates
The powers that be want us all as homeowners to march down this list. Here’s what I’ve learned about potential rebates:
Inflation Reduction Act & Federal Credits: Solar credits are separate from the rest of the home improvement credits. The home improvement credits have a pooled limit per year, encouraging us to take a multi-year approach. With this year’s credits, we’ll save $15K on our taxes.
State credits: No sales tax on solar installations in WA. I heard there could be new credits in Washington later this year, but no one could confirm for me. With this year’s sales tax amnesty, we’ll save $4.4K.
Power company rebates: None of these panned out for us. Strangely, there are credits for moving to a more efficient electric HVAC if you already have electric, but no credits for moving from natural gas to heat pumps. Go figure.
Company credits: Arguably these are just accounting, but some companies provide credits for their higher-end (and more efficient) units. With this year’s manufacturer’s credits, we’ll save $5K.
Net Summary: The credits and rebates are worth pursuing, but it doesn’t make the projects anywhere close to free. For us this year, it saves $24.4K, which amounts to 32% of 2023 spend on home electrification.
🌍State of the Electrification Union
The biggest disappointment for me is what a mismatch there is between the government’s goals of electrification and the ecosystem’s readiness. No available induction range tops for a pretty common stove size show how nascent that market is. HVAC vendors focused on cost + reliability and not future-proofing for a carbon-free future leaves it up to the homeowner to balance short vs. long-term benefits. I could not find a “Green General Contractor” that was willing to chart all this out for us. Calculating actual cost savings let alone carbon savings was a rough guess at best. I found no guidance on the carbon and environmental impact of replacing a moderately aged water heater now vs. waiting for it to expire.
The solar vendor was the closest vendor aligned with our worldview and purpose. He understood we wanted to geek out on cost calculations as well as carbon impact. It felt like the blueprint and model that we need for HVAC and plumbing vendors in the next 2-10 years.
So, for year 1 of electrification, we’ll focus on solar and a new heat pump, leveraging the work we’ve done in previous years to move our transport to electric and install LED lights. In future years, we’ll complete the HVAC electrification and move forward with a heat pump/electric water heater and induction stove. We’ll have a smart panel that can give us data into usage someday.
Feel free to reach out if you are on a similar journey!