Free from fossil fuels: A family’s journey

By John Horchner

I first suspected there was something we could do about climate change after receiving monthly utility bills with disturbing charts comparing our home’s energy use to our neighbors.

Initially, I ignored these figures, thinking that these neighbors were just mythical people, paper ghosts who really didn’t exist in real life.

However, at a recent gathering of my friends at Manning’s, our local casual burger joint, Mark Thieroff told us there was indeed something we could do. By equipping his home with solar panels and electric heat and water pumps, Mark said his family had reduced its energy use by two-thirds.

Our skeptical gathering at Manning’s became a hub of debate. Aaron, Antonio, Derk, Jonathan, Michael, Rob, Sergei, all of them, at various points, voiced objections.

The big question was whether an electric heat pump was really able to work in our cold Minnesota climate. Mark explained it had a backup system, a heating strip  — “like on a toaster” — inside the air handler. If the temperature drops below a certain prescribed setting (some units go to –15 F), the less efficient auxiliary heat kicks in.

Considering his home’s purchased electricity comes from Xcel Energy, where up to 50% of power sold to consumers comes from renewables like wind, and his onsite solar contributes back to the grid, he’s not just cutting down on energy use; he’s actively supporting the transition to more environmentally sustainable sources of power.

His family kicked fossil fuels. Best of all, their story isn’t an outlier. It could be a template for all of us to follow.

Turn of the 20th century

But first, let’s look back to another transition time in home energy use, the turn of the 20th century and the time of Dave Lennox of Marshalltown, Iowa.

Lennox is widely remembered for his contributions to the evolution of his company’s coal gravity-fed furnaces. According to legend, he took to demonstrating their durability by jumping up and down on one in front of startled customers.

Or consider Alice H. Parker, a New Jersey African-American woman, who revolutionized home heating, and whose story seldom got the recognition it deserves. It was Parker’s innovative patent, awarded in 1919 for the first natural gas furnace designed for homes, that demonstrated how heat could be transferred from an exchanger and controlled and distributed through a system of ducts throughout the home.

Parker’s invention helped lay the groundwork for the widespread use of natural gas, modern central heating systems, zone heating, thermostats and forced air to safely warm our homes and enable us to stop using coal.

What struck me most about Alice Parker was that she grew up in the time before both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her journey couldn’t have been easy, but her determination and ingenuity enabled her to see her invention through.

Back to Mark’s home project

Now that we are in the midst of another energy transition, this time away from fossil fuels, let’s turn back to the story at hand.

I knew that Mark’s wife, Rhona Wilson, ran marathons, and Mark cheered her on. Maybe that has something to do with their ability to see their home renovation and electrification project through to completion.

My next meeting with Mark was at our local bakery, the Finnish Bistro. The conversation naturally gravitated toward their motivations.

I learned their journey was spurred not just by a general concern for the environment, but by their immediate, tangible experience — not much different from mine — the feeling that we had to do something about the wildfire smoke that had been engulfing our neighborhood.

Mark recalled when the air outside was thick with fog and smoke from distant wildfires. That crisis had literally arrived at his doorstep, compelling him to seal his home from the polluted air.

One time this coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, trapping him in what became an uncomfortably warm, un-airconditioned workspace.

Later, their gas range caught fire, which Mark took as another omen.

Finally, they’d been discussing enlarging the house to make more space when their in-laws visited. Getting rid of the pipes that were hastily layered throughout the basement would open at least a foot of wall space all around the perimeter. This allowed them to expand the space, and also seal the walls with foam.

As with most home improvement projects, none of this was easy or speedy, but Mark seemed truly happy with the results. And I compared our home’s energy use with that of Mark and Rhona’s.

Comparing energy results

I used the EPA’s Home Energy Yardstick, a tool designed to measure and compare household energy efficiency by entering the sum of a year’s worth of utility bills and answering a few basic questions about the home.

Even leaving out the solar energy that their home gives back to the grid, Mark and Rhona’s home scored impressively on the EPA’s scale, which ranges from zero to a hundred.

My home, in stark contrast, lagged by 90 points on this 100-point scale. This revelation was difficult to digest.

As my mind wandered through the technicalities of Mark and Rhona’s home’s transformation, which included solar panels, an electric heat pump for heating and cooling, an electric hot water heat pump, an EV charger and even an induction oven, I realized they had achieved these changes without suffering any personal discomfort.

This approach underscores the fact that sustainability isn’t about deprivation; it’s about making smart choices that align environmental goals with personal needs.

“It takes a lot of research to get ahead of things breaking down,” Mark told me, “but if you’ve made a plan…”

If you’ve planned, Mark said, you wouldn’t need to resort to replacing one fossil fuel appliance with another and getting locked in for the next 10 or 15 years out of panic or pressure after something breaks.

This sounded reasonable. Moreover, I couldn’t let a 90-point gap between our two homes stand.

The electrification of our heating, cooling, air-purifying and dehumidifying systems via a single, highly efficient electric heat pump will require a major transition, one no less significant than what one of the previous owners did when they transitioned our home from coal to natural gas.

Nothing is easy, but Mark and Rhona are not mythical neighbors portrayed on a graph on a utility bill. They live right around the corner from us, and their home was built not long after ours, more than 100 years ago.

If we too end up kicking fossil fuels, this time we will have a real neighbor to thank. 

John Horchner is a professional writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.

Tackling Climate Change, One Home at a Time

Sponsored by: St. Anthony Park Library and Transition Town

When: Thursday, Jan. 11, 6:30–7:30 p.m.

Location: In-person at the St. Anthony Park Branch Library auditorium, 2245 Como Ave.

Zoom link:

Leave a Reply