I have expressed dismay in the past that builders of new homes in our area are not getting “with it” when it comes to incorporating the latest thinking and technology regarding energy efficiency.
Builders boast their Energy Star appliances and lower HERS scores, but they are still, for example, installing gas forced-air furnaces instead of heat pumps, gas water heaters instead of heat pump water heaters, and gas cooktops or ranges instead of induction cooktops.
The Geos Community in Arvada provided proof of concept for the all-electric solar-powered, net zero energy home, and homes in that small, privately developed neighborhood have been featured for several years on the annual tour of “green homes.” But no production builder here has picked up on that concept, and when another builder acquired the undeveloped parcels at Geos last year, the first thing they did was bring a natural gas pipeline into the community to serve their new homes, greatly upsetting the happy homeowners of the original net zero energy Geos homes, which purposely have no natural gas lines.
Above is one of KB Home’s all-electric homes in Menifee CA, a smaller city south of Riverside. Not only is every home in that subdivision “net zero energy ready,” but they are tied together in an electric “microgrid,” designed to power itself cooperatively should there be an outage in the larger electric grid.
In the garage you can see both an EV charger and a wall-mounted battery backup system. The small print on the sign reads: “This all-electric, solar-powered home is equipped with smart technologies and a backup battery, plus community microgrid connectivity designed to help maximize home energy efficiency and comfort.”
Meanwhile, here in Colorado, neither KB nor any other builder, to my knowledge, is even offering heat pump HVAC units or heat pump water heaters as upgrades.
In recent columns, I have promoted the idea of eliminating natural gas and converting one’s home to all-electric, using heat pumps for heating & cooling and installing a heat pump water heater. I have also promoted induction cooktops as an alternative to gas or standard electric cooktops.
One reader asked me to provide information on the cost of making the conversion to all-electric, so I have done some research and can also speak from personal experience.
First, I asked Bill Lucas-Brown of Helio Home Inc., who installed the heat pump mini-split system at Golden Real Estate’s former office on South Golden Road as well as in our storefront in downtown Golden.
I asked Bill for a rough estimate of the cost of making a typical 2,000 sq. ft. home all-electric, and he responded with the following numbers and comments.
Note that rebates and tax incentives are available from the state, feds, utilities, and local municipalities that typically range from 15 to 30 percent off total cost. The following are costs without those rebates. Click here to view Helio Home’s web page about the rebates and tax credits available under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Air source heat pump for heating and cooling your home, $22,000
Heat pump water heater, $4,000
Insulation and air sealing work to improve efficiency, $5,000
Ventilation system for indoor air quality, $4,000
10kW solar system PV, $30,000
Electric panel upgrade, if needed, $4,000
Electric vehicle charger, $1,500
That said, Helio Home’s average job is around $50,000. With rebates, figure $35,000 to $43,000. You can get a proposal on the company’s website www.heliohome.io.
Sadly, there are few vendors who are experienced and competent in heat pumps for heating and cooling homes. Heat pump water heaters are less of a challenge, because they are sold by Lowe’s and Home Depot, and you just need a plumber to install them and an electrician to pull a 240-Volt circuit to it. I bought a 50-gallon heat pump water heater in 2021 for $1,200 (on sale – prices are higher now) and was able to do the electrical work myself because of a nearby 240V circuit that was no longer in use. The self-employed plumber I used charged just $500, and I got a $400 rebate from Xcel Energy, so the cost was less than the figure quoted above. The federal rebate taking effect in January under the IRA makes such a purchase almost free.
You may find it more practical to leave your gas forced air furnace in place and install a ductless mini-split system. A compressor (similar to an A/C compressor) is installed outside your home, and two coolant lines are run to wall-mounted units in different rooms of your house. This works best in a one-story home. These same wall units provide both heating and cooling, because that’s how heat pumps work — they are like an air conditioner that works in two directions, moving heat out of your home in the summer and into your home in the winter. As the name suggests, they don’t create heat, they move heat, and they do it more efficiently than baseboard electric heating or heating generated by burning natural gas (or propane).
Instead of wall-mounted mini-splits, you can install a ceiling-mounted “cassette” which functions the same way. That’s what Helio Home installed in our downtown storefront, and it works just as well. (Come by our office and I’ll show it to you.) I have also seen a wall-mounted cassette which has a picture frame on it. When the heat pump is operating, the picture moves out a couple inches from the wall to allow the movement of air.
As for an EV charger, the biggest variable is the cost of bringing a 240V circuit to your garage, which depends on the distance between the garage and your breaker panel. I spent less that $300 for that, again from a self-employed electrician.
Tesla vehicles have the charger built into the car, so you only need a 240V outlet (similar to the outlet for your clothes dryer) to plug the provided cord into. Don’t buy the Tesla Wall Connector — it’s totally unnecessary for home use. Just use the charging cord with a 240V head.
Other EVs may require you to purchase a Level 2 charging station, which I did when I had a Chevy Volt. By googling “Level 2 EV chargers,” I found prices as low as $200 (Home Depot, 16 amp model), and several under $500. So your real cost depends on what your electrician charges. Here’s an idea: If you have an electric dryer outlet available close to your garage, you could adapt that circuit for your EV at minimal cost.
Another use of natural gas that you’re probably using is for cooking and grilling. You’ll really love induction cooking if you try it, because it is so much faster. Buy a countertop unit for under $100 and play with it. For grilling, we love the George Foreman electric grill we purchased for $100.
Above all, pay attention to the tax credits and rebates that take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, under the Inflation Reduction Act. They make going all-electric more realistic.
One of the free lectures associated with the Oct. 1st tour of “green” homes was a fascinating presentation by Paul Kriescher of Bowman Consulting based on a study of the few homes which survived the Dec. 31st Marshall Fire while the houses around them burned to the ground. Click here for a PDF of Paul’s PowerPoint slides.
You’ll recall that it was the hurricane-force winds that were responsible for the fast spread of the Marshall Fire. Flying embers were what caused homes to catch fire in rapid succession. According to Paul, there’s a simple reason why those embers didn’t torch certain houses. It was because they didn’t get inside the homes or their attics.
The standard developer-built homes are “leaky” and built with ventilated attics. As I have explained previously, the standard procedure for finding and sealing the places where air can enter your home is to conduct a “blower-door test.” (See graphic.) This involves installing a computerized fan in a doorway and sucking the air out of a house. The computer on that fan will tell you how leaky your house is — how many air changes per hour your home can expect during a certain wind speed. While that fan is operating, the technician can go through your house and determine all the places where air is coming into your home so that they can be caulked or otherwise sealed.
Many of those places are going to be around windows or on the rim joist — where your floor joists rest on the concrete foundation.
The goal is to get your home to a degree of air tightness at which you achieve two air changes per hour or less. Once you achieve that degree of air tightness, you then install an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to bring filtered outside air into your home while expelling air from your home.
Making your living quarters more air tight can keep burning embers from entering your home. Combine that with having non-combustible exterior siding, decks and landscaping, and you go a long way toward preventing burning embers from being sucked into your home — and to keeping ash and smoke from making your home unlivable if it doesn’t burn down.
But the most critical area to seal is your attic. Your home probably has an attic which is vented. Blown-in insulation sits on your attic floor to keep your living quarters warm in the winter, while soffit vents combine with roof vents to draw outside air through your attic. This controls moisture buildup but is also ideal for drawing burning embers into your attic which can then light your entire house on fire.
Some builders have switched to building homes with “conditioned” attics, meaning that the underside of the roof is insulated and all vents eliminated. Thus, the attic itself is heated and cooled like the rest of the house. With no vents in your attic, those flying embers blow past your house instead of entering it.
There’s a subdivision in Arvada built by Meritage Homes called Richards Farm. It’s on the north side of 72nd Avenue, across from the Apex Center. Our agents were invited to tour it while it was under construction, and the builder showed us their conditioned attics. The reason the attics were conditioned had nothing to do with fire prevention. They were running heat ducts through the attic, and by insulating the attic, it made the ducts more efficient. But now we know the most important reason for conditioning an attic, and I suspect we’ll see building codes changed to require conditioned attics.
I learned another disadvantage of vented attics from participating in the 1994 Jimmy Carter Work Project, which built 30 Habitat for Humanity homes on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Those one-story homes all had vented attics. Within months of completing those homes there was a blizzard which filled the attics of those homes with snow, which entered through the soffit vents. The snow then melted, causing the drywall ceilings to fall, causing immense damage. The homes had to be vacated and rebuilt on the inside the very next summer. The reservation had no building codes to follow, but if it did it would probably not have allowed vented attics for that reason.
In a previous column, I pointed out that making your home more energy efficient can save you money immediately if you finance the improvements, because the monthly payments could be less than your monthly savings. The recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act has some very generous tax credits and rebates that make such improvements even more practical and affordable. My intention this week is to give you a “roadmap” for doing so.
The logical starting point is to hire a professional to do an energy audit of your home — to identify the “low-hanging fruit,” meaning the quickest and easiest changes you can make or improvements you can install that will give you the most “bang for your buck.”
That low-hanging fruit is typically better insulation, and the energy auditor normally begins by performing a blower door test of your home. That involves installing a computer-calibrated fan in a doorway which sucks air out of your house. By depressurizing your home in this manner while all your other windows and doors are closed, the auditor can identify all the leaks which allow cold air into your home in the winter. That way you know where to caulk to make your home less “leaky.”
When it’s cold outside, the auditor can use an infrared camera pointed at your walls and ceilings to assess where you could improve your in-wall and in-ceiling insulation.
You’ll get a written report from you energy auditor with suggestions of things to do and how much benefit you will get from making those changes, whether it’s blowing insulation into your attic and walls, replacing your old gas furnaces and gas water heaters with heat pump versions, or installing better windows. Most recommended improvements will earn you a 30% tax credit under the Inflation Reduction Act.
There are more “roadmap” items, but you will learn about most of them by attending the Oct. 1 tour of green homes. See the blog post.
If you or someone your know is an energy auditor, let me know. We expect big demand for your services!
“Conventional wisdom” says that it costs more to build a solar powered, highly sustainable or net zero energy home, but that’s not really true if you look at the issue a little differently.
As you surely know, such improvements reduce the operating cost of a home. Solar panels, for example, can virtually eliminate your electrical bill, if your system is sized correctly. They can even provide free fuel for your cars — if they are powered by electricity.
Super insulating your home can reduce the cost of heating it, whether by natural gas or electricity (using a heat pump system). Ditto for installing triple-pane Alpen windows and doors.
If you go all-electric, you not only save on the natural gas or propane you consume, you can have your gas meter removed, saving on the base cost of being connected to the gas distribution network. As a commercial customer, Golden Real Estate, saves over $600 per year from having removed our gas meter, since that’s what Xcel Energy charges before a business uses a single cubic foot of natural gas. The savings is lower for residential customers.
So, yes, it may cost more to go all-electric, but the return on investment is substantial over a pretty short period of time.
But consider the following. Whether you build or buy a home with these cost saving features, and whether or not you pay a premium for them, you will likely be financing your home with a mortgage.
Let’s say, conservatively, that you pay an extra $50,000 or even $100,000 for those features, and it adds that amount to the principal of your mortgage. Your monthly savings from those solar panels or that heat pump system or those Alpen windows and extra insulation will be far in excess of the increased monthly payment for your mortgage.
And if you make those improvements in a home you already own, you can take out a Home Equity Line of Credit (or HELOC) to pay for them, and the monthly payments will again be less than your monthly savings.
Looked at it this way, does it make any sense at all to build a home powered by fossil fuels, that is not solar powered or that has “normal” insulation and have higher monthly cost of ownership, starting from day one? Of course not.
You can apply the same reasoning to the purchase of an electric car. You could go with the conventional wisdom that electric cars are more expensive and you should wait until the price comes down, but that thinking substantially misrepresents the cost of ownership.
I haven’t purchased gasoline for my electric cars since 2014, during which time I have saved tens of thousands of dollars on gasoline as well as on repairs on components that don’t exist on an EV, such as transmission, engine, fuel pumps, water pumps, timing belts and so much more.
And I have never had a catalytic converter stolen — or lost any sleep after reading about the epidemic of such thefts in my city.
Forgetting for the moment that there are indeed EVs which cost no more than their gasoline-powered equivalents, even if you paid $10,000 more for an EV than you might for a gas powered car, the cost of financing that difference is far less than what you’ll save on fuel and repairs.
If I have changed your thinking about making your home (or transportation) more sustainable, here’s what you can do. First, attend this year’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour on October 1st. You’ll be able to visit a dozen or so homes whose owners have taken steps to make their homes more energy efficient or even net zero energy. You’ll also visit a home builder who is building net zero energy homes. If you can’t visit some of these homes in person, you can view the narrated video tours which I have created for most of them.
And if I have changed your thinking about the cost of buying or owning an electric vehicle, plan on coming to the Electric Vehicle Roundup(mentioned below) which occurs the same day, October 1st, as the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour. If that date doesn’t work for you, there are many other EV roundups in October around Colorado. Find those other events online at www.DriveElectricWeek.org.
John Horst of the National Renewable Energy Lab read last week’s blog post about the Inflation Reduction Act’s impact on the building sector and provided some valuable additional information.
For starters, he made me aware of the White House website, which has a listing of tax credits and grants under the IRA which pertain specifically to each state. Click here to view the IRA tax credits and grants that apply to Colorado. It’s a two-page PDF with paragraphs about those financial incentives plus job creation, manufacturing, cleaner air, rural opportunities and “resilient communities.”
Making both incentives an “upfront discount” will make both incentives much more attractive and useful to car buyers and will accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.
John also provided a link to a list of 59 state and federal tax credits (both personal and corporate), loan programs, grant programs, rebate programs, sales tax incentives, regulatory policies, energy standards and more — each with its own link for further information. (The above link gives the information for Zip Code 80401, but you can select a different ZIP Code anywhere in the country on that website.)
One of the best analyses of the impact of the IRA on sustainability and the mitigation of climate change was released on Aug. 31st by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Below is a graphic from that report summarizing the IRA’s biggest direct impacts. Click here to view the full report.
As reported by Fast Company, the report “finds that the IRA’s main rebates and tax credits could bring electrification and energy-efficiency upgrades to millions of homes. In total, the bill’s new rebates and expansions of existing tax credits will create more than $23 billion in funding to electrify homes, upgrade heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment, and develop entirely new buildings that meet the highest federal standards for efficient energy use.” The IRA provides funds or rebates for:
Electric heat pumps that can both heat and cool your home, which the Department of Energy estimates will save families $500 to $1,000 every year. There’s a rebate of up to $14,000 for installing them.
Regular readers of this column know that home electrification has been “now” for many years here at Golden Real Estate. At the Net Zero Store in our former building at 17695 S. Golden Road, Helio Home Inc. is busier than ever responding to people who want to replace their gas forced air furnaces with heat pump units and their gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters. (You can reach the Helio Home sales team at 720-460-1260.)
The primary focus of the Realtor Magazine article is on the need for home builders to include a larger electrical service as fossil fuels are phased out. Number one, it said, was to accommodate an electric car, since the major car manufacturers are committed to going all-electric or mostly so by 2030.
The article promotes the idea of installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to generate electricity for your home and car. With such a system, the author of the article correctly points out that the electrical grid can function as your home battery (thanks to net metering), but seems not to understand how it really works. He states that the utility will buy your excess solar generation but you might have to buy electricity for your car on a cloudy day. In fact, net metering allows you to send surplus electricity to the grid when you don’t need it, but you get it back at full value when needed. Everyone with a solar PV system should take advantage of the “roll-over” option allowing you to be credited for that surplus production long-term rather than get a check each January for the previous year’s over-production.
When the utility pays you for your surplus production, it does so at its cost of generating electricity — a couple cents per kilowatt-hour. But if you use your surplus electricity, you save the full retail rate (over 10¢ per kilowatt-hour) versus purchasing those kilowatt-hours from the utility.
Not understanding that process, the author promotes the idea of a home battery system, but, as I wrote before, that only needs to be considered if you have medical equipment which must run during a blackout.
The author promotes the installation of a 240V car charging station, suggesting that this could require a larger electrical panel in older homes. I disagree. The Level 2 charging station only draws the same electricity as your electric clothes dryer. If your panel can’t accommodate a dedicated circuit for the car, you could use the same one as the clothes dryer and not use both appliances at the same time. (I recognize that this is not what the code dictates, but it’s still safe if you have a 40-amp breaker on that circuit, because if you do run the dryer and the car charger at the same time, it would trip the breaker.)
Also, every EV comes with a 120V cord to plug your car into a standard household outlet. Although that only gets you 4 miles of range per hour, that’s still over 50 miles of range overnight, which may suffice, especially if you have other charging options during the day. Downtown Golden, for example, has ten free Level 2 charging stations in its garages and elsewhere.
Of course, there’s more to home electrification than car charging. The article points out that there are now electric outdoor tools—lawn mowers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, chain saws and more—that you can buy online or at Lowes. Ego Poweris the biggest brand in this field, and their various tools all use the same interchangeable batteries.
Not mentioned in the article are the biggest consumers of fossil fuels—your gas furnace and water heater. As I said, you can speak to Helio Home about converting gas units to electric heat pump units.
For cooking, I have written in the past about induction electric ranges, and I’m really fond of our electric grill shown here. Lift it off its stand and you can use the grill on your countertop. You can’t do that with a gas grill! And it plugs into a standard 120V patio outlet. We bought ours at Home Depot for $100. Food grilled on it tastes just as good as when cooked on a gas grill.
Can the electrical grid handle the increased use of electricity over fossil fuels, given, for example, that by 2030 over 50% of car sales in America will be all-electric? You may have read warnings that widespread adoption of EVs will overwhelm our electrical transmission systems, but I disagree. Solar panels are being installed just as quickly and perhaps more so, and that electricity is consumed within your neighborhood if not by yourself, reducing the needed distribution from the utility. And, as I said, even with Level 2 charging, an EV only draws the same amount of electricity as a clothes dryer.
Home builders can and should adapt to this trend, and are in fact required to do so in some jurisdictions. Every new home should be solar-ready if not solar-powered, by building chases into the home which could accommodate the electrical lines serving roof-mounted solar panels. Also, garages should be wired with a 240V outlet on their front walls in addition to the usual 120V outlets on three walls.
I was encouraged to see that a new 300-unit apartment complex about to break ground in Lakewood between Colfax and 15th Place and between Owens and Pierson Streets is, according to the plans I saw, going to have over 40 EV parking spaces in its garage.
One of the more interesting flaws in the Realtor Magazine article was the suggestion that home garages should be insulated or even heated to avoid shortening the life of an electric vehicle’s battery. This is a misinterpretation of the fact that EVs lose range in the winter. It’s not that the battery loses power in cold weather, but rather that heating the car’s cabin uses battery power which thereby reduces the car’s range, as does the heating of the battery itself to its optimum operating temperature.
On April 27, Zillow published an article, “6 Questions to Ask as You Consider Home Solar.” I thought it was pretty comprehensive, but it was written for a national audience, and some of the questions are readily answered for us here in Colorado.
The article begins by asserting that, according to Zillow’s research, homes which highlight eco-friendly features like solar sell up to 10 days quicker and for 1.4% more than homes that don’t. That statistic, however, fails to distinguish between homes which have fully-owned solar installations, and homes that have leased systems or “power purchase agreements.” Those alternative arrangements basically create a situation in which the homeowner purchases electricity from two companies instead of one — still a good deal, since the solar power typically costs less than the power purchased from the utility.
Zillow’s question #1 is whether your home is suitable for solar. We all know, of course, that a south-facing roof without shading is best, but there are other considerations, such as the condition of your roof. If your roof needs replacing before you put solar panels on it, you may want to include Roper Roofing & Solarin Golden among the solar companies you interview. It’s the only solar company I know which is also a roofing company.
One question posed by Zillow is whether your HOA (if you have one) will allow solar. Fortunately, Colorado passed a law over a decade ago (C.R.S. 38-30-168) which requires HOAs to allow solar and other sustainable improvements. HOAs can regulate appearance but not prohibit solar. For example, it could require that solar panels be flush with your roof rather than angled out from it.
The article points out that if your home is not suitable for solar, you should look into community solar, for which it provides a link. Community solar is also a good alternative for renters and condo owners.
The second question is how to find a reputable installer. Personally, I prefer to hire a small (and local) family-owned company over a national business with a local sales team. I recommend Golden Solar, which has installed five systems for me over the past two decades, and Buglet Solar Electric. The owners of those two companies, Don Parker and Whitney Painter, can answer question #3, which is what incentives and rebates are available on the federal, state, local and utility level. The current federal incentive is a 26% tax credit, which drops to 22% next year and expires the following year unless Congress extends it.
Question #4 is whether there’s net metering, which allows you to “bank” your daytime production for nighttime use and carry forward your surplus solar production to future months and years. In Colorado, the answer is a resounding yes.
Question #5 is about battery storage. Net metering, in my opinion, makes home battery backup/storage unnecessary unless you are worried about power outages. (If you have life-sustaining equipment that requires uninterrupted electricity, battery storage might be appropriate.)
Where battery storage is essential, of course, is in off-grid applications, such as in a mountain cabin without accessible electricity from a utility. I have listed such homes with impressive battery systems.
The last question which Zillow poses is whether a solar installation is worth it, admitting that this is a very personal decision.
A solar installation nowadays costs between $10,000 and $20,000 for the typical home, and you can ask the companies you interview what the return on investment will be. I have never worried about ROI, because installing solar, to me, is simply the right thing to do, satisfied as I am that it does pay for itself, whether in five years or ten.
One piece of advice not in the Zillow article is to factor in the increased electricity you will need when you buy an electric vehicle — which you will at some point, since most manufacturers plan to phase out gas-powered vehicles. Xcel Energy lets you to carry forward surplus generation from year to year, and allows you to install solar panels equivalent to double your last 12 months’ usage. (Do NOT elect to receive a yearly check from Xcel Energy for your excess solar production, because they pay you a small fraction of that electricity’s retail value — carry it forward for future use at its full retail value.)
The article states that 40 million American homes have a gas range or cooktop. These appliances can emit formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and nitric oxides, and they could be leaking even when turned off.
Rita and I had a gas cooktop in our Golden home (now sold), and we were advised to always turn on the exhaust fan above the stove (vented to the outside, not recirculating like some fans) whenever we cooked, not just when your cooking is creating smoke.
We’ve all heard that methane is a greenhouse gas, 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. You may not know that natural gas is really methane under a nicer sounding name. The methane emitted by cooking with gas has health implications that are a more immediate and personal cause for concern.
The smart alternative to cooking with gas is cooking on induction electric surfaces. I purchased a single countertop induction unit for about $50 and was impressed by its performance — and by its low 110V electric usage. I found that an equivalent amount of water took less than half as long to reach a boil on the induction cooktop as it did on the biggest burner of our gas cooktop. I suggest you familiarize yourself with induction cooking using one of those $50 units before making the switch to a full-size induction cooktop.