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How to get your family off gas

nationalobserver.com


Getting off gas: A how-to guide to get fossil fuels out of your home

Seth Klein December 9th 2021 16-20 minutes

Seth on the right, with son Aaron and wife, Vancouver city councillor Christine Boyle, pose with the external heat pump. Photo by David Bishop / Bring it Home 4 The Climate


This column is a little different from my usual fare. It’s more of a “how-to guide” to decarbonize one’s home. While my writing and public talks generally focus on how to press our governments into emergency mode, ironically, one of the followup questions I am most frequently asked is, “How do I swap my gas furnace for an electric heat pump, and who was your contractor?” So, this one’s for all you folks.


As we seek to confront the climate emergency, retrofitting existing homes and buildings figures centrally in a robust plan. In Canada, the fossil fuels — mainly “natural” gas — we combust in buildings account for about 12 per cent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions (split roughly evenly between residential and non-residential buildings). That doesn’t count the embedded carbon in building construction, the fossil fuels burned to produce electricity in some provinces, or the GHGs associated with extracting and producing the fossil fuels we directly burn in our buildings. In cities, GHGs from buildings generally account for more than half of local emissions.


Discussions about retrofitting our homes often focus on how to enhance energy efficiency — improving insulation, using programmable thermostats, sealing leaks, etc.

But here’s the rub: while measures such as these can help reduce emissions and household costs, we can’t achieve carbon-zero as a society by efficiency improvements alone. The only way to get our buildings and homes to carbon-zero is to fuel-swap, meaning, to stop using and combusting fossil fuels in our structures. In particular, we need to stop using “natural” gas (which these days is mostly fracked methane gas) to heat our homes and water and to cook our food. Of all the actions households can take to act on the climate crisis, this shift is one of the most important. Effective now, we need all new buildings to refrain from tying into gas lines. And within the next few years, we need all existing buildings to switch from fossil fuel heat sources to renewable, which in most cases means electricity.


After a process that took about a year, my home is now off fossil fuels. It wasn’t simple or cheap. But it can be done. And in this piece, I share the steps of how my family did it. Some of what we did is specific to B.C., where we live, but much is applicable anywhere. In telling this tale, I’m not trying to virtue signal. Rather, I just want to offer some guidance because people want to know. One of the barriers to climate action is that many of us find it hard to imagine how our homes operate without fossil fuels. So here I offer you a picture of what that can look like.


And let me state from the outset that, without question, a truly successful climate plan requires collective action at the political/policy level (more on that below). Any plan that relies on individual households voluntarily doing what I spell out here will see us fry. Also, I own my home, which provides me with privileges, opportunities and obligations to act that do not exist for most renters. Ultimately, however, a comprehensive climate program does require that all our homes cease using fossil fuels. So this article walks you through how that can be done.


Where we started from

A couple of years ago, my family’s home — a 12-year-old, 1,400-square-foot, well-insulated duplex in East Vancouver — was heated with a high-efficiency gas boiler. The boiler produced hot water for both our direct water needs and for pipes that provided lovely radiant heated floors in the winter. We also had a gas fireplace in the living room we rarely used, and we cooked on a gas stove.


We paid BC Hydro an average of just under $80 a month for our electricity use, which varied little throughout the year, and we paid FortisBC for our gas use. Our monthly gas bill was about $50, ranging from a low of about $20 in the summer to a high of about $85 in the winter.


From the get-go, driven by concern for the climate emergency, we knew we wanted to get the gas out of our home. We also welcomed the idea of getting gas fumes out of our living spaces and the health and safety benefits that would result for us and our kids.

We knew the main recommendation was to switch to an electric-powered heat pump system, but what kind?


First, it’s useful to explain what a heat pump is. Many people confuse it with a geothermal system, which pulls heat from deep underground with pipes. A heat pump isn’t an underground system. It’s usually a single outdoor unit about 3x2.5x1 feet with a large fan (see photo below), which extracts heat from the ambient air (yes, even in winter), and then pipes that heat indoors, either taking that heat to a central duct system or to wall-mounted units about the size of an air conditioner in each room. BC Hydro has a nice short video explaining how a heat pump works here. The added benefit is that in the summer, the same system operates in reverse, extracting heat out of your home and carrying cool air in.


In many respects, the term “heat pump” is a misnomer; it would more accurately be named an “air comforting” system, or a “heat and cooling” pump.


Heat pumps are dramatically more efficient (and therefore less expensive to operate) than conventional baseboard electric heating systems. That’s because the heat pump isn’t generating heat, but rather, extracting and moving heat — way easier!


Our conversion journey started by consulting with a few experts I know, collecting advice about what kind of heat pump system would work best for us. (This might have been overkill; for most people, this wouldn’t be necessary, but I knew I wanted to be able to explain what we were doing and why.) We considered an air-to-water heat pump that would allow us to keep our radiant floors, but few contractors were familiar with these systems. Further, such a system, at least in our home, looked unlikely to deliver summer cooling particularly well. So in the end, we decided to abandon our radiant floors and went with a more typical air-to-air system described above.


Next, we collected quotes from about six contractors and were ready to go.




This single wall-mounted unit delivers heat and cooling to our whole downstairs floor. Photo courtesy Seth Klein


What we did

First thing we did — anticipating the electrification process risked substantially ramping up our monthly electric bills — we contracted with a local solar company, Solar Connect, and installed a bank of 14 panels on our garage roof in the summer of 2019. Solar panels aren’t cheap, but the cost is coming down, and ours will pay for themselves in lower monthly electricity bills at least three times over the course of their working lives.

BC Hydro offers a simple net metering program, whereby any electricity we produce in excess of our monthly needs is credited to our BC Hydro account. In the peak of summer, we are producing more electricity than we consume and accumulating a modest credit, which we drawdown in the winter.


Given that British Columbia’s electricity system is hydro-based, the solar panels don’t directly lower GHGs in our province (in provinces still using coal and/or gas generated electricity, the solar panels would indeed help to lower GHGs). However, in addition to keeping our monthly electric bill in check, the solar panels mean we are providing a public benefit; even after fuel-swapping our home, we have not significantly increased our draw on the BC Hydro system. Were many homes and buildings to do this, it would save the public utility from needing to undertake huge new investments in new electricity production capacity. That said, this step was not necessary to get the gas out of our homes, so consider it an extra.


Second, we took out the gas stove and replaced it with a new induction electric stove. I know there are many of you who swear by the joys of cooking with gas. To which I say — you should try induction electric. As many chefs will tell you, they’re fabulous! Induction stoves are nothing like the old coil electrics. Like gas, they instantly provide heat, and at just the desired level. And they are safer than old electric or gas stoves because induction operates by magnetic connection between the stove surface and the bottom of a pot or frying pan. Once a pot is removed, it instantly cools, dramatically lowering risks of fire or injury. And no more breathing gas fumes.


Next, in May 2020, the heat pump system was installed by local contractor Ashton Plumbing and Heating, a process that took only a couple of days. The inside gas lines were sealed shut. Our gas boiler and accompanying hot water tank were removed, replaced by a Mitsubishi 4-zone heat pump system (with one wall-mounted unit downstairs and one in each of three bedrooms upstairs.) The external unit is very quiet, and four pipes carry the hot or cold air from that main unit to the wall-mounted units indoors. (The pipes are very discrete, running along one back external wall and then through the attic to reach the two farthest units.)


At the same time, we installed a conventional electric hot water heater (there are also heat pump options for hot water, but we don’t go that route).

The final reno: we ripped out the gas fireplace and replaced it with some beautiful built-in bookshelves that we like much better.


With all that done, the last — and deeply satisfying — act: we shut off the gas line to our home and cancelled our FortisBC account.


The costs and benefits

So, what did it all cost? Here’s the breakdown of the elements needed to get the gas out of our home:


Induction electric stove: $2,000 plus tax

Electric hot water heater and tank, including installation: $3,400 plus tax

Heat pump system, including installation: $17,000 plus tax (minus $9,000 in rebates)




Ron Sims of Ashton Heating shuts off our gas line. Photo courtesy Seth Klein


The price of the heat pump may elicit some sticker shock. But, both the BC government and the City of Vancouver now provide rebates for homes converting from gas to electric systems. At the time we did our fuel swap, those rebates amounted to $3,000 and $6,000 respectively, bringing the net cost of the heat pump down to $8,000. The province has since sweetened the pot with a further $3,000 in rebates, so today, the net cost would have been $5,000. And consider that in five years or so, it probably would have been time to replace the boiler regardless, the cost of which would approach that net heat pump price.


With respect to monthly operating costs...

The operating cost of the electric hot water heater has been negligible (we wash clothes in cold water and generally hand wash the dishes). Nor did I notice an increase when we switched from the gas stove to induction electric.

It’s really only been at the peak of winter that we saw a notable jump in our electric bill; with our solar panels delivering only modest power in the darker winter months and the heat pump operating all day, our electricity draw certainly went up. Comparing our winter BC Hydro bills from before and after the switch, minus what we used to pay in gas, the costs seem to be up $10 to $20 a month.


Overall, however, in the first full year since the swap, our Hydro bill averaged $105 a month, about $25 more than before this journey began. But we no longer have a Fortis gas bill of ~$50 a month, so on net, we are spending about $25 less in monthly utility costs, even with the addition of summer air conditioning, but helped by the solar panels. We also charge our electric car on that bill (although we don’t drive much, so those costs are minimal).