By Tim Wulling
When we use natural gas in our homes, we’re burning a fossil fuel, which adds carbon emissions and alters our climate. How could we avoid that?
St. Paul’s Carbon Action and Resilience Plan calls on us to switch our buildings to all-electric and rely on Xcel Energy to meet its goal of providing carbon-free electricity.
As individuals, we can try to remove our gas connection entirely. What would that involve?
Kitchen range, clothes dryer and water heater would be swapped out for electric versions — after an electrician installs a 240-volt receptacle for each (and perhaps an extra one for an electric car).
Electric appliances have a side benefit of improving indoor air quality. No more combustion fumes from a gas range. No more improper drafting from a gas water heater or furnace.
These appliances also conserve energy. Reducing our energy demand is just as important as switching from gas to electricity.
Newer technologies help:
• Induction stoves use less electricity than conventional electric stoves, and their responsiveness is similar to gas burners.
• Advanced clothes dryers contain a heat pump that uses less energy and eliminates the exhaust flue’s hole in an exterior wall — but increases drying time.
• A heat pump in a tank water heater uses half the energy of a conventional electric unit, with a side benefit of dehumidifying the basement.
Heating, cooling and calculating
For heating and cooling, many homes use a gas furnace along with central air conditioning. Replacing these with an electric heat pump system can be far more energy efficient.
The heat pump itself is located outdoors and connects to an indoor air handler that blows heated or cooled air through the ductwork. The system looks much like the furnace and central air conditioner it replaces.
But swapping out a furnace has complications. Heat pumps lose efficiency at low winter temperatures when heat is most needed. An electric resistance heater in the air handler can make up for that lost capacity. Used minimally, it shouldn’t add much to your electric bill.
Still, unless the heating system fits into Xcel’s special, low electric rates, your future electric bills could be more than your current electric-plus-gas bills.
In any case, control costs and cut carbon emissions by reducing your house’s heat loss. Look at insulation, air leaks, rooms too warm or too cold. An energy audit with blower door test and infrared camera makes leaks and deficiencies visible. Triple-pane windows save energy, and their inside surface is warm enough to avoid condensation and a drafty feeling.
After electrification, with furnace and water heater disconnected from the chimney (and if there’s no fireplace), the top of the chimney could be removed down to the attic floor, allowing further improvement of attic insulation and air-sealing.
Electrifying our homes is challenging; each is a custom job. Could those of us wanting to do it help lead the way by banding together, comparing our houses and sharing what we learn? To connect with others on this topic, email info@TransitionASAP.org.
Tim Wulling is a retired electrical engineer, St. Anthony Park resident and founding member of Transition Town–ASAP.
Before (left) and after (left) removing the gas connection. Replacing stove, dryer, and water but there’s more to converting a furnace to efficient electric heating. Diagram by Tim Wulling.