The future of housing part 2: Electric Housing

May 4, 2021 | By: Ryan Shanahan

solar farm
In last month’s blog I covered why and how the future of housing is efficient which could be summarized by saying that:  

  1. we need to reduce our energy demands to address climate change,
  2. efficiency is the most cost effective strategy,
  3. it provides additional benefits that include comfort, durability, and resiliency.
In this month’s installment we’ll explore why and how electrification is not only the next important step towards addressing climate change, but that it also offers immediate and long term benefits to the homeowner, and how nicely it dovetails with the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure and the electrification of our transportation.

mini-split imageWhen it comes to the energy efficiency of space heating and water heating systems electric heat pump technology cannot be beat. Common air to air heat pumps, which take heat energy out of outside air and transfer it to indoor air during the heating system are typically around three hundred percent efficient. Compare this to an efficient gas furnace that maxes out around ninety eight percent efficiency and you can see that heat pumps are more efficient than gas space heating systems by a factor of close to three. Add in the fact that a heat pump system can also provide ultra-efficient cooling when the gas furnace does not and the heat pump is a clear winner. Heat pump water heaters are also roughly three times more efficient in comparison to the highest efficiency tankless gas water heaters. If we take a deeper dive into the future of alternative refrigerants, or ground source heat pump technology, we’ll only find that gap between the performances of electric systems versus gas is only widening. 

induction cooktopThe health and safety of electric mechanical systems and appliances also out-perform gas technology on every level. This is why some green building certification programs don’t allow any combustion in certified buildings. Even with direct venting to the outside and closed combustion systems gas mechanical systems and appliances still vent dangerous byproducts of combustion to the outdoors. It’s also important to note that direct vent closed combustion is not possible with a gas cooking range. This problem is only exacerbated by the popularity of commercial sized gas ranges so many state building codes require large range hoods and make-up air systems to help alleviate the increased risk of dangerous indoor air quality that comes with them. Earthquakes also present additional dangers to homes with gas lines running to them. Building all electric homes eliminates all of these problems. Electric fireplaces offer the ambience of a fire without the risks, or even the heat if one desires, at the push of a button. Induction cooktops offer the ability to boil water faster, quickly heat up or cool down, and some even offer the ability to heat a pan regardless of where it is placed on the cooking surface. Lastly, the surrounding cooking surface is cool enough to touch without burning so it’s not only safer for young children but spilled food doesn’t burn which improves air quality and makes clean up a cinch. 

New electric mechanical systems not only provide benefits to homeowners but they can also provide benefits to utilities and entire communities that they serve. Many new electric mechanical systems have smart technology built in that allows homeowners to opt in to local utility demand response programs that allow utilities to help shave costly peak demands by controlling the home’s space heating or water heating systems ever so slightly. Homeowners are often paid stipends by the utility to allow for them to pre-cool a home before families return home from work or school to crank up their air conditioning on a hot summer day or preheat their water heaters a few degrees higher than the typical set point to extend the capacity of the water heater on weekday mornings. These small changes multiplied across thousands of homes can be the difference between power plants building expensive new infrastructure or utilizing fossil fuel intensive “peaker” plants to meet peak demands. On a large scale this translates to a cleaner atmosphere and lower utility bills for all. 

Given all of these benefits of electrification it is important that we build in these changes into new construction now. A home with gas mechanical systems and appliances will not only contribute more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today but will be much more prone to be replaced with new gas equipment at the end of its useful life simply because of economics. In next month’s installment we’ll discover how efficient electric homes are not only future proofed for a utility scale renewable energy infrastructure, but how well they integrate with rooftop solar photovoltaics, home batteries, and electric vehicles.