By Matt Cantor of Cantor Inspections
Matt Cantor, architecture graduate of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, has performed over 5000 inspections, and is a past president of the Golden Gate chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors
In the U.S today, residential energy use accounts for roughly 22% of our total, nearly a quarter of all energy use and the resultant warming of the globe. If you add commercial buildings (some of you own businesses or, at least, work at them) it’s over 28%. This is a big fat measure of our contribution to global warming (a term I refuse to forgo. Climate Change sounds like an air freshener).
So what can you do about this big fat slice of lemming-worthy trouble? You can electrify your home! It’s economically smart, affordable and technologically straightforward.
I’ll tell you where to start in a moment. But first, a little context.
California is on fire. It’s the worst fire season by an ample measure since we’ve been keeping records. The second worst was last year. The August complex fire recently became the largest fire in California’s history at over a million acres burned; larger than the state of Rhode Island and about 1% of our state’s total landmass. They’re calling it the first “Gigafire” on state record. That’s just one fire, and we’re nowhere near the end of this fire season.
Brazil has been on fire for the last several years, with this year topping all prior years. As of June, there were 61% more hotspots in the world’s largest rainforest than last year. The rate of increase is arresting, literally breathtaking. We all remember Australia from last year. Not insignificantly, the world’s ten hottest years in history, have been since 2005, with last year being the second hottest. This is not normal or a minor aberration.
“All hand’s on deck” is not an inappropriate phrase to use in such a situation. It is no longer a time to sit back and see what’s going to happen. It is time for each of us to make a plan, to take a position and to decide what we can do to help.
The U.S. has played a large (and disproportionate) role in getting here. We have enjoyed our fossil fuels and not spent enough energy (a very bad pun) on restraining our use. Our geopolitics have fostered energy flagrance, rather than parsimony. Is it ego? Machismo? It’s hard to say, but it has been very profitable for the gas and oil barons, and this is where I look for my answers. To this day, the fossil fuel industry disputes climate change despite overwhelming scientific consensus. I guess they don’t have grandchildren.
Those of us who own homes in the US, have an outsized responsibility as well as a commensurate opportunity to pull back on these reins. How can we not, when such a large opportunity lies before us?
Now, electricity still poses problems, and decreasing our usage is always desirable, but in California, we’re doing a darned good job of moving to renewables, with that sector of our energy pie now slightly exceeding natural gas and making up about 1/3 of our total. Go California! We’re way ahead of the nation.
So how do you electrify your home when your house was built with gas equipment, and is seemingly stuck that way? It’s actually not that complex. Let me lay it out.
First, you probably have a gas water heater with a big tank. The change in this case is quite simple. I’d recommend replacing that water heater with a similar looking device that uses electricity.
Decades ago, I’d never have made such a recommendation, but with such a large proportion of our energy now coming from renewables, (these come to you as electricity) the calculus has completely changed. If you add in your ability to add solar (and since you can’t generate fossil fuel or, god save us, nuclear, at your home) it becomes completely clear that the answer is to install electric systems.
The electric water heater I recommend is called a Hybrid. This isn’t gas and electric. It’s a combination of a heat pump, and a common electric heating system. The heat pump uses a compressor to squeeze the heat out of a gas and smash it down into a liquid state. This has potential energy and can pick up heat and move it to another place as it transforms back to a gaseous state. This is how an air-conditioner works, but it can also be used to heat something.
The hybrid uses the slow, but highly-efficient heat pump to heat water at low energy cost, but if you need more than it can provide in a given time period, it can switch over to a less-efficient, but quick, heating coil (like the old ones).
All night it can heat up your shower water at low cost and low energy use. All day, while you’re at work it does the same. When you need it to pinch hit, it can do that, but costs the earth and you a bit more. The overall effect is far better than a regular electric and, most important of all, there’s no CO2 added to the atmosphere (at least, at your house and, eventually none, as the state moves further from fossil fuel.
Next, there’s the heating of your house. Most of our houses are heated by burning gas and most of these are forced-air (with a big blower set near the burner). These systems have fat tubes (ducts) that run through the house, deploying blown hot air from grills (registers) distributed around your house or apartment. These furnaces burn gas, put out lots of CO2 and are typically very inefficient, exacerbated by substantial leakage in many cases. Most of these heat the whole house at the same time, an approach that’s inherently inefficient.
Instead, you might have a gas heater in your floor or on your wall. These are similar but have no blower or ducting and directly heat the space they’re in. This is also very inefficient, especially when you’re sleeping down the hall in another room and end up baking the whole place just to keep you warm on the bed.
If your house is heated with older electric heaters, your contribution to global warming may be worse than all other methods. Again, cost follows efficiency and these can be prohibitively expensive to run.
So, here’s a great alternative to address the wastefulness of all of these heating systems: the heat pump.
Heat pumps, as I’ve described in the hybrid water heater, use a compressor and a special gas/liquid to move heat from one place to another. They can cool or heat and they do so with much less energy waste than any of the above systems. Most importantly, they can use the renewables that our state is producing OR what you generate on your roof.
An internationally popular style of heat pump is the mini-split. Mini-split heat pumps deploy hot or cold air inside one room at a time, allowing you to waste even less. You can leave the rest of the house hot, and cool the one room you’re in on a hot day, or heat just the room you’re using on a cold day or night. This arrangement costs less to run and protects the planet significantly more.
Now heat pumps can be retrofitted into your existing system of ducting to minimize the change in lifestyle, and this is very worthwhile, but I’d argue that going to mini-splits is the best way to go if you can. Remember that ducting is often leaky. A heating contractor can walk you through the process and the costs.
The last major element in our trifecta is solar power generation. There isn’t much to say beyond this: The cost has dropped precipitously over the last few years and the quality of the systems has risen tremendously.
A huge industry has now come to adulthood and you do not have to be a beta tester. Significant tax credits still exist, even under the current administration, and a system can be bought or leased at a very manageable cost. Systems that meet the needs of many houses are around $15K and you can get started at under $10K if you have a small efficient household.
No matter what size system you buy, you can save some amount of money over time. It’s like buying your electricity for the next 20+ years all at once. And more importantly, you’ll be protecting this fragile, beautiful planet against what is clearly and genuinely assaulting it at an alarming rate. If you have a decent job; if you can borrow money; if you own a home; I would argue that you have a responsibility, and more importantly, the opportunity to have a powerful, positive impact on the future of our world.
It’s manageable and it’s essential.
Matt Cantor © all rights reserved.