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One of the biggest challenges for residential decarbonization is the emergency replacement of appliances. While many people could be convinced of the benefits of electrifying their heating or cooking given enough time, when devices fail, most people want to restore service as soon as possible. Usually, that means replacing the failed device with something similar.
Studies have shown that over 85 percent of gas appliances are replaced upon failure. If switching to an electric heat pump adds time to a project, customers may choose not to do it to speed up service restoration, even though heat pumps are more efficient, safer, and cleaner than their gas counterparts. This means that the new gas appliance will use fossil fuel for the next fifteen years or more until there is another opportunity to replace it when it reaches the end of its useful life.
Given how long gas appliances last, we can’t afford to keep replacing them with the same thing. We need to convert residential thermal loads to all-electric to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to do it soon.
What’s The Rush?
California is phasing out natural gas over climate concerns. To date, over fifty cities and counties have enacted Reach Codes banning natural gas in some form. A Reach Code is a local requirement that supersedes the state’s building code. Most of these gas bans prohibit the use of natural gas in new construction.
Local municipalities are not the only ones. To meet our state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is developing a long-term strategy to phase out natural gas use in residential applications. To address the issue, they looked at natural gas consumption by sector to identify opportunities.
As the table above shows, generating electricity accounts for the largest share of natural gas consumption in California. This is already changing, though, as the electric grid is getting cleaner every day. Clean, carbon-free renewables, such as utility-scale solar and wind, are reducing natural gas demand. Batteries and other forms of storage will help too.
The second most prominent use of natural gas is for industrial processes. Many of these can use electricity instead of fossil fuels (an electric smelting furnace can replace a gas one, for example), although some will still rely on fossil fuels well into the future.
The third-largest gas-burning sector is residential. Residential thermal loads primarily consist of heating water and space heating. Most buildings will need to swap out their gas appliances with electric heat pumps to decarbonize these loads.
Options Are Available, but Adoption is Slow
Getting rid of natural gas for residential heating loads is a manageable challenge. Replacing gas appliances with heat pumps will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and electric heat pumps outperform gas appliances in most cases. Clean electricity to run these devices can be sourced from the state’s increasingly clean electrical grid or, better yet, from rooftop solar panels.
Heat pumps have lots of advantages. They don’t rely on combustion or an open flame, which makes them safer. They are far more efficient than their gas counterparts, and they do not produce local emissions, as there is no combustion. Heat pumps are a time-tested technology. Your refrigerator is a heat pump. Your air conditioner is a heat pump. When looking for heat pumps for space heating, water heating, and, recently, clothes dryers, there are many choices. If heat pumps are so great and the future depends on them, why is uptake so slow?
Currently, the lack of consumer awareness is limiting the demand for heat pumps. Several initiatives are trying to address this, but increasing consumer awareness takes significant resources and time. Eventually, we will see increased demand due to educational campaigns or mandates, but it will take time.
Fortunately, there are organizations like the Building Decarbonization Coalition and the New Buildings Institute. They are working with manufacturers, utilities, and other stakeholders to promote the benefits of all-electric solutions and the adoption of heat pump technology. Combined, these groups have the resources to broadcast the message to the masses. It will take large-scale marketing efforts to increase consumer demand.
But education needs to go beyond consumers. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) is working to educate regulators and lawmakers to remove counterproductive policies, such as one that prevented switching fuel sources from gas to electricity. The NRDC is also active in discussions about electric rate changes to support electric technology further.
We also need to include building officials in the conversation. If the enforcement agencies are not on the same page, the technology will never make it.
And finally, we need to educate contractors and the folks in the field who sell and install this equipment. Contractors are motivated by profit, and we need to promote business models that work with this technology. Rebates and other incentives will play a critical role in encouraging the adoption of electric options. Incentives help to offset the additional expense of the new technology until economies of scale reduce costs. If the new technology is cheaper, contractors will profit and become part of their business model.
At some point, mandates and restrictions will likely play a role too. We have seen this in regions that restricted the nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions to reduce smog. The low NOx natural gas products were expensive and not reliable. Contractors started installing heat pumps as it was a better solution. If you are working or living in a region that has banned natural gas, electric appliances, including heat pumps, will be the right choice for you.
Education of different stakeholders increased incentives for contractors, and mandates will all work together to increase consumer awareness of gas alternatives.
Finding Creative Solutions to the Problem of Time
Converting from gas to electric appliances can add complexity and time to a replacement project. In most situations, switching to electric heat pumps requires more effort than replacing a gas appliance. In many cases, homes will need a new electric circuit to power the device, which means hiring an electrician to run the wires. The electrical work adds complexity, cost, and time to the installation.
The structure of contractor licensing adds complexity too. Most contractors have a single type license, plumbing, electrical, or heating and cooling, etc. If your project requires a new electrical circuit, you may need two contractors: a plumber and an electrician. In California, a single measure contractor cannot hire sub-contractors. In other words, a plumber who is installing a heat pump water heaters can’t legally hire an electrician.
Plumbers could get an electrical license, or an electrician could get a plumber’s license, but their business model seldom supports this. Another option would be to get a General Contractors’ license to subcontract a portion of the project. Given the difficulty of doing this, I suspect most contractors will continue to push gas appliances until there is significant demand.
All this complexity adds time to a project. Since most water heaters and furnaces are replaced when they fail, contractors have an incentive to talk homeowners out of heat pumps. It’s not surprising that many homeowners start with good intentions, want a heat pump, then cave and install a gas replacement to avoid delaying service restoration.
How do gas alternatives gain traction if service restoration is the goal, but electric options take more time? The answers are not necessarily as difficult as you’d think, but they require some creative thinking.
For example, it’s possible to create a short-term solution that restores service for the customer and allows the contractor the time to convert the appliance from natural gas to electric. It sounds a bit crazy, but I have used this tactic successfully before. I am aware of other contractors who are doing this today.
Electric oil-filled radiators, portable air conditioners, and window-mounted heat pumps can serve as short-term solutions. It might be possible to make one room in the house very comfortable with a temporary heating solution.
Most people are willing to wait a few days or longer to complete the project if you restore service on some level. You don’t necessarily need to heat or cool the whole house. Make a room or two comfortable, and you have bought yourself time. We once heated a 6,000 square foot mansion in San Francisco for several weeks with electric oil-filled radiators. It worked so well that one of the rooms got too hot after a crew forgot to shut them off. We are talking 80+ degrees! Your customers might not like the energy bill, but remember, we are talking about short-term applications.
Water heating is a bit more challenging. I am aware of one contractor who is installing temporary water heaters to buy time. They keep a couple of old gas units around and can use them to restore service until the electrical work is complete or the new heat pump water heater is back in stock. It is working with their business model, and now their first suggestion to all customers is an electric heat pump water heater.
Perhaps you could create a portable water heating solution. I have seen a hand truck with a tankless water heater mounted on it and a propane tank under it. It was used to provide hot water for showers at a campground. You could easily create something like this for temporary hot water. Put the cart outside, run a couple of hoses to the existing plumbing lines, and you have now restored service and bought yourself some time.
Think Outside the Box
It might take some out-of-the-box thinking, but I am convinced both consumer awareness and the time can be resolved. California is working hard to reduce the negative impacts of relying on fossil fuels. The future of residential energy will likely be all-electric. We need to embrace this effort and figure out how to make it work.
If you can make it work today, you will be far ahead of most of your competitors. Push yourself to think outside the box, and barriers can become an opportunity. Others are starting to figure it out. It’s time you consider it too