Saving the Planet Tip: Don’t Grip Too Tight
Electrification is on a glidepath, but to speed it to full adoption, here are some areas where full adoption can happen quickly.
In baseball, if you grip the bat too tight it will be nearly impossible to be a consistent hitter. This same principle works in almost all sports whether it’s a racquet, club, ball, or disc. Intensity needs to be skillfully managed to achieve the desired outcome.
This brings up a recent discussion I got into on LinkedIn. The topic was a call for militant policies mandating electrification, and I believe my response was “electrification is a non-issue.” This aroused substantial concern by the zero-carbon contingent among whom I consider myself a member. I just don’t like picking fights that don’t need to be fought.
Electrification is a non-issue because that train has left the station. The only fossil-fuel loads that need to be replaced with electric technologies are space heating, water heating, cooktops, and possibly fireplaces. In all cases, electric technologies currently or will deliver a far superior user experience. They will happen, and it will be fast.
Electric heat pumps are far superior to fossil fuel heating. It is important to recognize as climate change steadily raises its ugly head, air conditioning had become a must-have feature across the country. As a result, cold-weather heat pumps mitigate the need for a complicated split system with its added maintenance burden.
In the case of fossil fuel options like oil and propane, the nuisance of filing and storing fuel is eliminated. This includes eliminating significant safety risks that have to also be managed with propane systems.
Considering Heating and Cooling
The primary option for fossil fuel heating, natural gas furnaces, performs well, but the greater complexity comes with no added value in homes with high-performance enclosures. In other words, all new homes built to the latest energy codes.
This is because the additional brute force capability is no longer needed as modern code enclosures provide warmer surface temperatures in cold weather and cooler surface temperatures in warm weather. On a neighborhood basis this also eliminates the need for a gas pipeline infrastructure.
Mitsubishi's electric mini-splits are energy efficient, reliable, and long lasting, with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 18 to 24, and heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) of 9.3 to 12.1.
Cold-weather heat pump technology is a sure replacement for high-quality year-round comfort that elegantly combines all space conditioning needs in a single piece of advanced technology equipment that is easier to maintain. Done.
Energy Efficient Water Heaters
Water heating is a bit more difficult. Heat pump water heaters are a great advance over electric resistance water heaters, but gas water heaters have more brute force that may be useful for ensuring quantity of hot water.
In addition, heat pump water heaters require more space volume to ensure adequate clearances to discharge cold air resulting from the transfer heat from the surrounding air to the hot water tank. This can be a significant problem in cold climates and small housing units (e.g., apartments, small homes).
I look for the heat pump industry to figure this out and develop new innovations for ducting unwanted cold air to the outdoors or possibly harvest it to contribute to space cooling and dehumidification loads.
In the meantime, the current heat pump water heater technology works great in homes with adequate space and the ability to manage the additional load due to cold air produced by the equipment. In warm climates, heat pump water heaters work great in garages where they inherently have all the volume needed and can help cool off the garage.
The Rheem Pro Terra hybrid electric water heater is a better alternative to gas options. It has a UEF of up to 4.0, can fit in small spaces, and offers advanced leak detection.
But heat pump water heaters are not the only answer. Eventually, we may come to our senses and realize there are low-cost solar hot water heating innovations that can outperform heat pump water heaters. For example, a concept I include in my book Housing 2.0: A Disruption Survival Guide is shown below that could be completely made in a factory with field labor only required to set the unit on a pad much like an outdoor AC compressor and then connect it to the cold water and hot water pipes.
This could be delivered for a similar cost to heat pump water heaters and use much less energy. Thus, when it comes to water heating, forcing heat pump water heaters into all markets may deliver a bad user experience, which is a sure-fire strategy for delaying innovation. Think of the crisis of consumer confidence created with early compact fluorescent light bulbs that flickered, hummed, produced poor quality color, and failed prematurely.
Cooking Reality Check
The GE Profile Smart Range allows cooks move away from gas but still have heat control. Users can dial in the exact temperature via a smart device or the range’s LCD display.
When it comes to cooking, there is a huge population of homeowners that love their gas cooktops and will not give them up. Some of my favorite zero-energy-ready builders realize this is a poison pill and have smartly opted not to lose these high-performance home customers for this small carbon load.
This is especially the case where consumers have legitimate concerns about EMF radiation and ferrous iron cookware requirements associated with induction cooktops. Once these concerns are addressed to their satisfaction, it is a simple changeout to electric cooking. I look for electric induction cooktop manufacturers to figure this out and win the day with a superior cooking experience that provides more precise digital control, quicker heating, and no emissions.
And last, new electric fireplaces with an amazing ability to emulate a real fire are capturing a lot of special attention. They provide a superior experience because they burn clean, use very little energy, don’t require fuel, eliminate a persistent thermal hole, and provide much greater flexibility in size, style, and location than wood or natural gas fireplaces.
A Final Word
A word about one of our outstanding sponsors who make the Housing 2.0 program possible: The advanced cold-weather heat pump comfort system is a proven technology ready for market that addresses a significant load for offsetting onsite fossil fuel consumption. I encourage all readers to check out Mitsubishi’s advanced new ductless and ducted mini-split heat pump systems that are ultra-efficient and offer a wide array of advanced technology features for optimizing comfort.
Electrification is critical to get on the path to zero carbon. However, it is not worth being militant now against the potential risk of bad user experiences that can delay or block the steady progress to all-electric homes. In contrast, electric-ready is a great strategy for ensuring all households can make the conversion to electric with no cost penalty or disruption to the home when the electric options are fully ready for prime time.
As I look at ENERGY STAR Certified Homes (my past job) marching to 2.5 million certified homes and Zero Energy Ready Home (my prior job) growing exponentially, I realize how powerful not gripping too tight is to the success of these programs. We rigorously engaged the industry with customer discovery research to define simple but transformational program requirements.
These requirements have been driving forces that have enabled the huge advance of our nation’s energy codes to the point where the 2021 IECC now represents a zero-energy-ready home enclosure. We can do this, but I encourage all of us to relax our grips.