Realtor Magazine: Builders Need to Respond to the Home Electrification Trend  

It isn’t in the print edition of Realtor Magazine, but a June 8 article on its website is titled, “The Future Is Now: Home Electrification.”

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 Power is 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.

Home Builders Are Not ‘Getting It’ When It Comes to Building Sustainable Homes  

Last week I worked with a buyer looking at new homes. One community we visited was in central Arvada; the other was just north of Golden at the corner of Hwy. 93 and 58th Ave.

Neither builder was even offering upgrades such as solar panels, heat pump HVAC systems, or induction cooktops.

Yes, they were enhancing the insulation of their homes, but little else.

And, speaking of solar panels, neither builder was building into the design of their homes an orientation that would favor solar panels on the roof. One had unnecessary peaks or dormers on their roofs that would seriously inhibit the usefulness of the roof for installing a solar photovoltaic system.

The heating systems in both communities were gas forced air furnaces, which I consider obsolete. Such furnaces require the separate installation of an A/C compressor to provide cooling. I asked if an upgrade to a heat pump system was available, and it wasn’t.

These are silly and unnecessary design flaws in any new construction. A heat pump HVAC system provides both heating and cooling within one unit. It is the preferred choice in Europe and Asia, but our builders seem to know only gas forced air furnaces with a conventional A/C add-on.

New-build homes are typically equipped with conventional gas water heaters, while it would be just as easy and cost little more to install a highly efficient heat pump water heater, as I have done.

Geothermal heat pump systems are the “gold standard” when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability in new home construction. Retrofitting an existing home with geothermal can be prohibitively expensive, but on a dirt-start build, it would be easy to drill geothermal wells in the middle of the basement or crawl space before installing the foundation and building the house. There’s even more efficiency in a dirt-start subdivision, because the drilling rig could go from one unit to the next, drilling 10, 20 or 100 geothermal wells in one area.

I have written in the past about the Geos Community west of Indiana Street and 68th Avenue in Arvada, where all the detached single-family homes have geothermal heat pump systems, and all the townhomes have air source heat pump systems. They also have heat pump water heaters and induction electric ranges, and all have south-facing roofs with solar panels providing all the electricity to run each of those systems. There is no need for natural gas service to the homes.

Geos was intended to showcase the cost effectiveness of all-electric homes using geothermal and air source heat pump systems and orienting the homes for maximum passive solar as well as active solar efficiency. But it seems that builders are slow learners. The developer who purchased the lots next to the previously built Geos Community felt it necessary to install natural gas service to all its new homes currently under construction “because buyers want gas,” much to the understandable dismay and anger of the Geos Community residents.

There is similar inertia in the HVAC industry itself. It’s hard to find an HVAC company that even understands the advantages of heat pumps for heating and cooling homes. It is so much easier for them to do what they have learned to do, even though it represents an obsolete technology. I have heard countless stories of homeowners whose forced air furnace needed replacing and who were unable to get their HVAC vendor to sell them a heat pump system. Most HVAC vendors just want to keep doing what they already know how to do.

(I can recommend a couple vendors who specialize in heat pump systems and even geothermal drilling. Ask me.)

This is not unlike the problem with car dealerships and electric vehicles. If you go to a Chevy dealer and ask about the Chevy Bolt EV, the salesman will often bad-mouth the Bolt and try to sell you a non-electric model that he loves to sell and requires no learning on his part of new technology.

This guest speaker at the April meeting of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council was a man who, having bought a Chevy Volt in 2012, convinced a Texas Chevy dealership to let him be a salesman of EVs exclusively. Other salesmen started sending him buyers who expressed an interest in EVs, and he quickly became the number one seller of EVs in the state of Texas. It helped that hardly any other Texas car dealership had a salesman who was comfortable selling EVs. Their loss.

Getting back to home construction, we need and the planet needs home builders to be more educated about the wisdom and relative ease of building energy efficient, solar-powered, all-electric homes with a passive solar orientation and design. It’s not that hard to learn, but we need to overcome the inertia built into that industry just as with the automotive and other industries.

What Are the Steps You Can Take Toward Making Your Home Net Zero Energy?  

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the idea of saving money, which will happen when you convert your home to “net zero energy.” So, what are the steps you can take to get there?

Net zero energy” means that your home generates more energy than it consumes. With “net metering,” your electric meter runs backwards when your solar panels generate more electricity than you’re using (on a sunny day), then runs forward at night, resulting in zero (or less) net consumption of electric power.

Solar power gets more affordable every year. When I purchased my first 10-kW solar photovoltaic system 15 years ago, the cost was over $60,000, but Xcel Energy gave a rebate of $4.50 per watt, so I got a check for $45,000 from the utility, reducing my net cost to $15,000. Nowadays that same system would cost as little as $15,000 with no Xcel rebate but a 26% federal tax credit.

While you can generate your own electricity, you cannot generate your own natural gas, so terminating natural gas service is key to achieving net zero energy. This involves some major system changes if you are currently heating your home and your water using natural gas, cooking with gas (including with a gas grill) and have a gas fireplace.

There are electric alternatives to all of these uses of natural gas, and you’ll appreciate that eliminating natural gas also eliminates the possibility of a gas explosion and of carbon monoxide poisoning (unless you have a gas powered car).

Heating your home with electricity used to mean installing baseboard resistance heating units in each room, but that is so 20th century. Nowadays electric space heating is done far more efficiently (and evenly) using heat pumps.

Gas forced air furnaces and water heaters are considered to have a 15-year life expectancy, so when yours fail, think of that as an opportunity to adopt heat pump technology for both functions. And a heat pump eliminates the need for a separate A/C unit, since it heats and cools.

Gas furnaces and water heaters generate heat by burning gas. A heat pump moves heat, similar to what A/C does. (How heat pumps work) It cools your home by moving the heat out of your house. If you put your hand over the external compressor unit while it’s cooling your home, you will feel the heat that was moved from inside your home. In heating mode, the process is reversed, and the heat pump moves heat from outdoors into your house. It may surprise you to know that when it’s freezing outside there is actually heat that can be moved from outside to the interior of your house, but it’s true. (Heat pumps work in extremely cold climates) Our office has been heated solely by heat pump since November 2017, and ever since there has never been a day when the system failed to keep our office at 70°F or warmer.

A simple one-unit 12,000-BTU, 29.3-SEER ductless mini-split system from Fujitsu can be found online for $1,961. That’s a small unit, suitable for one room or a garage (a great application!). For our office, we bought a Mitsubishi system in which a single compressor drives three separate wall units, each with its own thermostat.

A heat pump water heater (which I installed at our home) has the compressor built into the unit, above the tank. You can feel cool air emitting from it when it is heating water. I suggest putting it in a wine cellar where it’ll keep the room cool without buying a separate A/C unit.

For cooking, you’ll be amazed and delighted by the induction cooktops that are now widely available. I saw them used on a cruise ship for both cooking and warming surfaces, and the chefs loved them. (Modern cruise ships have eliminated natural gas because of the fire hazard.)

An all-electric home will, of course, demand more electricity, but Xcel Energy now allows you to install enough solar panels to generate double your electrical usage over the prior 12 months. That is more than enough to cover your new electric space heating, water heating and cooking needs, with capacity left over to charge an EV, too.

An important first step in pursuing net zero energy for your home is to reduce your need for energy, and the easiest and cheapest way to do that is to improve your home’s insulation. I had Dennis Brachfield of About Saving Heat blow cellulose insulation into the exterior walls (not just the attic) of a 1940s bungalow I owned, and I was astonished at how much more comfortable the house became. Even if your exterior walls have batt insulation in them, there is still space in the walls to blow in cellulose. (How to insulate an old house)

I learned something interesting from that experience. We all know that walls can radiate heat, such as a brick wall in bright sunlight. Well, walls can also radiate coldness, or suck heat. The air temperature in my bungalow before and after blowing in insulation was the same, but I felt warmer and burned less gas.

You can go beyond improving the insulation of your exterior walls and attic. There are numerous places that allow cold into your home, especially around your windows. Whether or not you install triple-pane Alpen windows, as we did at our office, caulking around the window frames and elsewhere can reduce the energy needed to heat your home.

A blower door test done by a contractor will identify the air leaks in your home. Insulating your attic with blown-in cellulose and your crawlspace with plastic sheeting will also reduce your home’s energy needs whether from gas heating or your new heat pump. (Insulating crawl spaces)

Of course, many homes, especially in older neighborhoods, can’t benefit from solar power because of shading from trees or insufficient south-facing roof area, but you can purchase community solar. (This is also a good solution for condos which have no roof at all.)

The way community solar works is that you invest in solar panels that are part of a solar farm in some distant pasture. The electricity generated by your panels in that remote location is credited to the electric meter for your home or condo. One advantage of community solar is that when you move, you only need to change which meter gets credited with your solar production.

Other ways of reducing energy use include replacing CFL or incandescent light bulbs with affordable LED bulbs and “daylighting” your home or office. (Batteries + Bulbs sell 8-packs of 60W LED replacement bulbs for $6.49, tax included, after $15 instant rebate.) We have “sun tunnels” in our home and office to bring daylight into interior spaces. In fact, on a sunny day we don’t need to turn on any lights in our office. It’s great— and saves energy. We had Design Skylights of Evergreen install Velux sun tunnels at both home and office.

Would you like one of us to visit your home for a private consultation about the sustainability possibilities in your home? Email me at Jim@GoldenRealEstate.com.

Is Your Gas Furnace or Gas Water Heater About to Fail? Consider a Heat Pump

A reader called me last week because her gas furnace had quit working and, knowing my expertise regarding sustainability, she wanted my advice on replacing it.

I told her that this was an opportunity to do something other than buy a new gas furnace.  I told her about my Carrier “Hybrid Heat” furnace which uses an air-source heat pump for heating as well as cooling and only burns gas when the outdoor temperature dips well below freezing. With her solar panels, it’s possible she won’t even pay for the electricity consumed by the heat pump, and her gas consumption will plummet.

That hybrid system would use her home’s existing ductwork, but, since she has a one-story home, I suggested she consider a ductless mini-split heat pump system like the one we have at our office. I gave her the name of the vendor who installed both my home and office systems who could advise her which system was best for her.

I also suggested that she look into replacing her gas water heater with a heat-pump model when it fails.  My gas water heater is over 15 years old, so I’m thinking of replacing it before it fails. Home Depot sells a Rheem 50-gallon heat pump water heater (model #XE50T10HD50U1) for $1,299. Best off all, Xcel Energy gives its customers a $500 rebate for purchasing it.  I have enough solar panels to handle the extra electrical demand and eliminate much of my current gas usage, which is mostly for water heating, since I have that Carrier hybrid furnace. Our only other gas usage is for cooking and grilling.