⚡️ Your Home Electrification Questions, Answered
A Q&A with John Semmelhack and Joel Rosenberg
⚡️ Your Home Electrification Questions, Answered
Welcome back, Shit Givers.
In response to our ongoing and delightful home electrification series with our friends at Rewiring America, we have received a hell of a lot of questions that are beyond our ability to answer.
So we brought in the experts. Your regularly scheduled newsletter will return next week!
🎧 The content below is a (long) transcript from our live conversation. You can listen to the conversation here or you can watch it on YouTube here.
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⚡️ Your home electrification questions, answered.
Plus: Why masks do work, Arnold on Nazi’s and Russia, your Ring doorbell is a privacy nightmare, African life expectancy gains (and losses), and 50,000 Bangladeshi women turning health care around
What We Can Do - Special Edition!
⚡️ Find a reputable contractor in Colorado with Renu, Xcel Energy, Elephant Energy, or Helio
⚡️ Find a reputable contractor in California with The Switch Is On from TECH Clean California
⚡️ Find a reputable contractor in Maine with Efficiency Maine
⚡️ Not from any of those states? Check with your State Energy Office
⚡️ Check out Redwood Energy's retrofit guide
⚡️ Learn more about smart heat pump water heaters
⚡️ Buy a low-level carbon monoxide sensor/alarm
Your (first batch of) questions, answered.
What are the health risks of gas fireplaces? I tend to leave mine on most of the day and evening to help heat the living room area. I do have a proper carbon monoxide monitor. - Inca
Joel Rosenberg: Gas cooktops have gotten a lot of tension lately. Your gas stove causes asthma and indoor air pollution. To some extent, your gas fireplace is also causing indoor air pollution because you're burning fossil fuels in your living room or in your kitchen.
The kitchen is not required to be vented outside legally. The fireplace is required to be vented outside, which is good, just like the other appliances that run on gas in your house your furnace, and your water heater. But we probably should decide that we don't want to burn toxic stuff near our kids in our living spaces unless they're properly vented outside.
And then beyond that, not at all. But the other problem is the fireplace, I learned this from listening to the previous episode with John, where the problem is the hole in the chimney from the gas fireplace.
John Semmelhack: Yeah. Just to add to what Joel was saying there are actually quite a few gas fireplaces that are unvented. So they're sold as unvented. They're actually marketed that way. Because they're easy to install, probably where they’re legal may vary from state to state. I'm not sure exactly, but I know that they are relatively common.
As in new construction, both as well as retrofits. It's pretty wild, but it's a similar situation to gas stoves. If you have an unvented fireplace, you're burning that fossil fuel inside your home. You definitely have carbon dioxide which may be problematic. You may have carbon monoxide, you're gonna have excess moisture in the house, particulates, and likely nitrogen oxides as well.
So several different, potential health risks. In terms of, just quickly in terms of the carbon monoxide sensor or monitor, make sure it is a low-level carbon monoxide sensor so that you are warned about a problem while it's still a relatively low risk or it's not an acute or life and death risk.
The ones that are combined with smoke alarms, they're UL listed and they have a very high threshold for where they alarm and they really only alarm as you start to get into a life or death situation. And so if you have any kind of fossil fuel burning, any kind of thing that you burn at all in your house, including a wood stove, a regular wood burning fireplace, get a low-level carbon monoxide alarm that will let you know of a problem when you're down well under 10 parts per million.
Quinn: So you're saying the combo smoke alarm ones, the threshold is actually pretty high. So it's like by the time that goes. It's not great. Is that correct?
John Semmelhack: Yeah. The reason for that, from my understanding, is to prevent nuisance 911 calls. If it's not life or death, you shouldn't be calling 911.
But a lot of people, if their CO alarm goes off, they're gonna call which, it's understandable, but if you understand that your low-level sensor is catching stuff very early and it's not life or death, then you call your HVAC company or whoever services your fireplace or somebody who can repair your gas stove.
Or even better get rid of it and electrify.
When is the new IRA rebate program going to be rolled out? I want to install a heat pump, but I need the upfront rebate to make it work. -Ben
Joel Rosenberg: The rebates are aiming to be rolled out by the end of this year, hopefully, or the beginning of next year. These are the upfront discounts that are available to low and medium-income people, but the tax credits are available now if you are looking to buy something.
If you need the upfront discount, then you are gonna have to wait until it comes from the federal government and goes through your state government. But if you are not eligible for that, you could check our calculator. Rewiring America has an IRA calculator that will let you see how much you might be able to save on different appliances based on your location and your income.
You can check that out now and see what you're eligible for if you're not eligible, tax credits now. If you are eligible rebates coming probably within a year.
Quinn: That's super helpful. And again, we're waiting for them to make their way through all the state legislatures, correct? To figure out how those are gonna be doled out and when?
Joel Rosenberg: I think it's gonna go through the state energy offices, but there are laws that are being written now.
I'm not a hundred - our policy team knows more about this, but there's like a bill in Oregon, I believe, trying to pave the way for when the rebates come. It's not clear to me how they're gonna be administered by the states, but it is gonna be the federal government giving guidance to the individual states and then the states administering the program.
I've heard that some things like incentives for switching to an electric range are on a state-by-state basis.
If I were to purchase an electric range now, would I be eligible for incentives whenever my state does announce it or does it totally depend on when the state announces it? -Justin
Quinn: So it's a little bit more detail on the question we just asked. I think what he's asking is if I buy it, do I get a rebate later? I'm not sure. Is there anything retroactive?
John Semmelhack: So I think there are some states that already have or certainly there are some states that already have electrification rebates at the state level or at the kind of regional utility level.
Some folks might be already eligible for those rebates. In terms of the IRA rebates though just like Joel said, the timeline for those is going to vary a little bit, state by state. I think the states that have bigger energy office staffs and are able to lift up this new rebate program more quickly and have the staff and know-how capacity to do that are gonna be quicker.
And then other states who don't, there are a few states who don't even have a state energy office. Those states are probably gonna be further behind in rolling out their state rebate program with the IRA funding.
Quinn: If he needs to wait for financial reasons, there doesn't seem to be any like, “Hey, if I buy that now, they'll gimme credit later.” Besides the tax rebate, things that haven't kicked in.
John Semmelhack: I doubt it. Historically, similar rebate programs are funding from a decade or more ago, you had to wait for the rebate program to roll out and you could not do stuff retroactively. Which in my opinion, just quickly, that's the point of an incentive if you know you're trying to incentivize somebody to do something that they wouldn't have done otherwise or to do it more quickly than they would've done otherwise. And if you're paying people a bunch of money to do stuff that they already did, that's a waste of money from an incentive program standpoint.
Joel Rosenberg: John raises an excellent point, which is the federal government has this inflation reduction act, the income-qualified rebate that is gonna be rolled out next, hopefully late this year, early next year. They have tax credits, which are like deductions you have to pay upfront and then you get some money back if you owe enough taxes. That's available right now.
And there are also, as he points out, lots of state and utility incentives that are also available right now, depending on where you live. If you're waiting for the upfront discounts because your income qualified, yeah, it might be another year or so. But if you have an emergency situation before then you are eligible for the tax credits and local incentives.
If you need to do it before the rebates are available, you should definitely look into whatever money is available and it's a good idea to plan ahead now. Look around now, get some quotes now so that if there is an emergency and you do need to get it done, you're prepared and you know what's available.
Where can I get rid of my 1930s Wedgewood range? -Connie
John Semmelhack: We would probably take it to our local metals recycling place and they would break it down. Its probably mostly steel, maybe a little bit of something else in there.
Metals, recycling facilities are typically available all over the place because that's one of the few recycling streams that are actually still profitable.
Quinn: Whole different conversation, John. Whole different conversation.
John Semmelhack: Oh sorry. Local metals recycling facilities that can, that'll take that, and they'll probably even give you a little bit of money for that scrap metal value.
Joel Rosenberg: Yeah. You could also try searching for the name of your town and appliance disposal or something like that for those kinds of recycling centers. But that's a related question which is that sometimes people say, One, should I get rid of my stuff before it dies?
Or two, if I am gonna get rid of it, should I sell it or should I just trash it? And the answer is, sure, if you can afford to get to either get rid of it early before it dies. Like her, I don't know if her Wedgewood range is still working or not, but passing it along or reselling it if it makes financial sense.
It's not ideal, but it can be okay. Our general approach is to plan for when things die. Replace it early if you can. Get rid of them properly. That's this question. If you need to resell it, it's not ideal, eventually, it will die. And then hopefully all the ones that you are able to buy used after that will be electric.
My house has gas appliances for almost everything. Gas clothes dryer, gas stove range plus oven, two gas HVAC furnaces, and a gas water heater, unfortunately. I'm planning on buying an electric dryer and induction cooktop first and then tackling the other places.
Is it safe enough to turn the gas hookup off at each appliance once I get an electric appliance but leave it in place?
What does removing the gas lines and gas meter once everything is switched out entail? -Megan
John Semmelhack: I can definitely lend our experience from here in Charlottesville, Virginia. The stuff involving the meter and everything out to the street I'm sure varies a lot from gas utility to gas utility, but here's how it works here in Charlottesville. Inside the house yes, you can turn off the valve at each appliance that you're turning off or removing.
Quinn: Can I pause you there? Should a professional turn it off or should she turn it off?
John Semmelhack: Closing a valve on the gas line should be not too dissimilar to closing a valve on a water-using appliance. I don't think, there's not a safety risk there, in my opinion. Connecting it is another topic. So turning off the valves, I think that's fine. In terms of inside the house, removing pipes should be done by a professional. Here, that's typically either a plumber or an HVAC contractor, or there are some gas pipe fitter specialties as well.
So it's typically going to be one of those three professional trades, and so they can remove everything out to the meter if you like, or you can abandon it in place. Small note, in terms of turning stuff off at the valves, you may still have a little bit of methane leakage, so it's a fine short-term, one to two-year tops kind of thing.
But eventually, you do want to get everything shut off at the meter and actually disconnected. Once you have everything gone from your house, from a gas standpoint, you call the gas utility and tell them you want to cancel your service or disconnect your service. They're gonna come out and shut off the valve at the meter, probably put a lock on it.
And then they may or may not want to remove it. So here in Charlottesville, if you request them to remove it, they will come out and do it. This is our experience so far and at least in one case, they actually went so far as to dig up their branch pipe in the front yard all the way and dug up the street and capped it at that t, at that branch from the main, that's how it works here. And that was all done at the utilities’ expense. I don't know if that is going to continue. I know that that varies a lot from place to place, so it'll be interesting to see what everyone's experience is as we get deeper and deeper into growing numbers of buildings wanting to completely disconnect from the gas network.
Joel Rosenberg: The benefit is that once you cap the gas line, then you no longer have to pay the gas company the monthly connection fee. And so that's another savings.
Assuming that gas stove ventilation, plumbing tightness, and air adjustment to get maximum combustion are optimum, what is the magnitude of the problem using gas cooktop burners versus gas ovens?
Can you compare bottled gas and propane versus natural gas and methane versus health issues and emissions?
Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of energy audits? -Carol
John Semmelhack: My understanding is that the gas and methane, natural gas, fossil gas versus propane carry all of the same health-related risks and they carry all of the same problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from both the methane leaks and the carbon dioxide emissions when you burn it from a health and climate standpoint. And you can think of them as being the same thing.
Quinn: We did this on our show, but maybe the 30-second version of what is a real proper, useful energy audit, what's the bullet list of what's done? And really, how much can that typically, I don't wanna say pay off for someone, but if you choose to do all the things, make it more comfortable, how do people really benefit?
John Semmelhack: For us, we want to understand the house, how the house is built, and as much information as we can about it, and we wanna understand the client's goals so that we can help propose solutions that match up with both.
If their goals are gonna yield an unsafe house or a nondurable solution. That's not a solution. But, we don't wanna propose those two. So we wanna try to find the overlap in terms of what we target, in terms of what we're looking at during, we call them home performance consultation, not an energy audit.
People call them different things. It does vary a little bit, but I think, certainly, we're doing what's called a blower door air tightness test for nearly every single consult that we do, because that information is extremely useful, almost critically useful for figuring out what heat pump is going to be the right size. You know what heating and cooling capacity is needed for that house when it's time to do the replacement. So that's really critical. We try to look at any insulation that we can get our eyes on. We're looking at that. A quick infrared camera scan for anything that's hidden.
Window performance and then quick data collection on all of the existing heating and cooling systems. Water heating and then to a lesser extent lights and other major appliances. Usually, we're in a client's home because they are considering either now or in the near future considering an HVAC replacement or electrification.
And if that's the case, we're probably going to collect a little bit more data in terms, if it's a ducted system, we're going to collect some airflow information to see if the ductwork as is really suitable, or if it needs modifications or if it needs to ideally be scrapped and start over, we will often offer those different options to the client.
And talk about the pros and cons a lot. A lot of times it comes down to budget, of those different options in terms of whether or not we're replacing ductwork or whether or not we're fixing ductwork, or we're just leaving everything as is. We're in the middle of a job right now where we're replacing two different systems one is a little bit newer and is in much better shape, and we're just leaving that duct work as is and just swapping out the heat pump.
And then the other one is older, in very bad shape, and we're just scrapping it and starting from scratch.
Quinn: So two related questions. One shorter answer is there money in the IRA for home performance assessments? Audits?
Joel Rosenberg: There's up to 30% off up to $150 and that's a tax credit that's available now. So if you were to get an audit done or a performance assessment, et cetera you can claim that on your taxes next year.
In addition, there are many utilities, in particular, and I think some states that will help pay for the audit as well. So where I live here in Maryland I think our utility will pay 300 out of $400. So it's only a hundred bucks. And then I can then take $30 off of that too, so I could get a home energy audit for $70.
Quinn: And the benefits that could, the waterfall from that could be enormous year over year.
Joel Rosenberg: Totally, ideally if before you get a heat pump, absolutely get a performance consultation. Figure out what your home needs. The lower-hanging fruit is to seal leaks in your house, upgrade your insulation, and then you can reduce the needs for your heat pump.
And the better sized your heat pump can be, the better it's gonna perform and the longer it's gonna last.
Quinn: So timing-wise, ignore rebates and money for a moment. John, would you ever recommend folks do them as they're considering buying a house, as part of that, would you ever consider this almost part of an inspections type of thing? Is there a world where that becomes more commonplace or does it just not make sense?
John Semmelhack: Every now and then we do consults for clients who are considering buying a house or are in the process of closing on a house.
I think it's a great opportunity to sit down with someone and really talk about their goals, especially if they're planning on being in that house for a good long while. And really help them set up a plan, whether it's a short-term plan or longer-term plan, depending on what their goals and budget are for making sure they have a comfortable, healthy, efficient house.
Quinn: So I guess the only thing you would lose unless I'm missing something in that case, is how a family lives, like their historical data, right?
John Semmelhack: Yeah. They don't have that opportunity to live in the house and say, oh, this bedroom is too cold in the winter and it's too hot in the summer. Or the basement is always cold. I wanna fix that. They won't have that.
How do I find a reputable contractor who knows how to properly install these things, especially heat pumps? For example, in my area of Colorado. -Krista
John Semmelhack: It's tough. It definitely varies from place to place.
Specifically for Colorado, I can give a shout-out to two firms who are not, as far as I know, they're not contractors themselves, but they are basically working as owners’ reps to bring in the contractors, get the right heat pump installed and make it a pain-free experience and something that is a win-win for everybody.
And those two groups are Elephant Energy, who works in Boulder, probably up and down the near front range, maybe you know, into Denver as well. And then Helios. Who is also based in Denver. So those two groups are doing good work in Colorado from what I hear.
Quinn: That's awesome. Joel, do you have any insight into people who are aggregating this? I feel like there's such a market for this.
Joel Rosenberg: For Colorado, I did actually look this up. There's a rebate, often in states if there's a rebate program that's administered by the state or the utility, they might require you to use a contractor that has enrolled in their program.
So for Colorado, there's a thing called Renu, which is a loan program, and they have an authorized contractor map where you can search for somebody.
Also, Excel Energy is out there. They have a rebate with a registered contractor list that you can pick from. California has TECH Clean California, which is a rebate program for heat pumps and heat pump water heaters, and they maintain a list of contractors’ efficiency.
Maine has a contractor list. If you don't live in one of those states, you could try contacting your state energy office. And then the general advice we give is to one, ask friends, family, colleagues, whatever, especially somebody who has the appliance that you're looking for who did the work and if they're happy with it.
And try and get three quotes from reputable places that will tell you what equipment you need, give you a price, and then you can look them up online and see their reputation and decide whether or not to decide to go with them.
I'm curious if I may save carbon by not replacing working gas equipment? -Paul
Quinn: So obviously we want everyone to electrify and we need to do this as soon as possible. I think he's asking more just like about the secondary effects of just everyone replacing a bunch of equipment that's still working, right?
John Semmelhack: So he's getting at what's called the embodied carbon of the existing equipment and or the embodied carbon of bringing something in new, so it takes energy and currently it takes emissions to manufacture all of this stuff, to ship it where it needs to go.
And as well, to bring in the contractors, they've probably gotta drive in from somewhere to do the work. Are you saving enough CO2 emissions, plus other, methane emissions? And I think the answer is probably yes. In most cases, the combined CO2 and methane emission savings are huge for heating systems when you switch to an efficient heat pump. And they're also huge when you switch to heat pump water heaters. So those two right there, I think it's pretty straightforward to say that the emission savings make sense to do it right away if you've got the budget for it.
And then yeah, just go ahead and go for it. The cooking side of things from an emission standpoint, it's not quite as a slam dunk to use a sports term but it is a total slam dunk from an indoor health standpoint. So that's an obvious call, I think still.
Quinn: It becomes far less negligible over time. Because these emission savings, forget the health ones, the emissions reductions just compound over the 10 to 12-year lifespan of these devices, right?
John Semmelhack: All of your things that you're putting in that run on electricity, they effectively get cleaner and cleaner every year they operate.
Joel Rosenberg: This seems pretty common. It's like I currently have a functioning gas hot water, and gas heating, right? That's right now, and they're gonna break at some point. And so make a plan to replace them with electric because what's probably going to happen in most cases is if you don't have a plan, they're gonna break, and then you're gonna replace them with a fossil fuel appliance that's gonna have another 10 to 20 years of life.
So in trying to thread the needle of, oh, I don't wanna replace it too early, then you replace it too late and then you got another 20 years. Make a plan. Find your contractors early. Identify contractors, and get quotes early so you know who to call. Maybe for the heat pump water heater, if it's gonna be a 240-volt outlet that they need, then get that pre-wired. Find somebody who's got them or can get them in stock and just be prepared so that in the emergency you don't get them. It's like trying to save six months of carbon and then having 20 years of it on the other end.
John Semmelhack: Yeah. Most people don’t shop for a new vehicle for their household, it's usually not on an emergency basis. They usually are planning this out for at least several months and think of these big, household purchases in the same way. Definitely start doing your research, and start planning them out. And you'll have a much better experience.
Can you please sell me on the improvements of a heat pump water heater over a tankless water heater?-Tida
John Semmelhack: So tankless gas water heaters versus heat pumps. I think the selling point for the tankless water heaters is that you have, quote, endless hot water. For better or worse, right?
To a certain extent you do, but those units have to heat up the water instantly, essentially. And so they have a limited capacity. So they have a limited throughput or gallons per minute of hot water that they can generate. That is all dependent on how cold the incoming water is. So it may be unlimited, but it may be unlimited at two gallons per minute, you can't run probably three showers at the same time, and all have adequate hot water supply unless you get multiple tankless gas water heaters.
Whereas with a heat pump water heater that has a storage tank, you have a tank that is, maybe 50 or 60 or 80 gallons of hot water standing ready to go. 120, 130, maybe even 140 degrees temperature. And so you have all of that water, ready to go, at a moment's notice.
And it doesn't have to be heated up instantly. So the heat pump water heater is like slow and steady with a whole bunch of storage that's ready to go, and the tankless is like zero storage. But we can do a lot of work right away.
Joel Rosenberg: So the other way to think about the heat pump water heater is it's like a water battery for heat.
So you're taking electricity and you're pumping the heat in there, and then it's storing the electricity as hot water. And you can do that pretty much any time of the day. So it can be useful for figuring out when is a good time to if you have solar panels, you want to save electricity and not pump it back to the grid during the day, you can store it in your water heater and they're way more efficient.
So it uses only a quarter of the energy needed to heat up hot water that even the tankless needs. So it makes sense from an energy use and an emissions point of view. By having the tank, it lets you slowly accumulate heat, which the tankless can't do, and it's way more efficient if you have a tank, natural gas or resistance heating, or hot water heater.
Heat pump water heaters are now the most efficient. Some people thought that tankless was the most efficient, and I think maybe for a little while it was, but they now get blown away by the heat pump water heaters.
John Semmelhack: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. The running cost for heat pump water heaters is super, super low across the board for our family and our clients.
Quinn: And correct me if I'm wrong, but there is a 120-volt version now, which you literally just plug into the wall. That's pretty incredible.
John Semmelhack: Yeah. There's one, at least from one manufacturer and I think there's another on a the way from one of the other big manufacturers. Yeah, I think that’s going to make that retrofit easier, for more situations.
We got a heat pump water heater over a year ago to replace a water heater that ran off a zone of our oil burner, which we weren't using because we had installed mini split heat pumps to heat and air condition our whole house.
The problem with the water heater is that it's making our basement so cold that we can no longer work down there. A thermometer at three feet above the floor reads 40 degrees. Is there any way to vent the cold air, again, from a heat pump water heater outside so the basement won't be so cold? - Lynn, New York
John Semmelhack: They're taking heat energy from the air and dumping it into the water tank. The heat battery. Essentially, yeah. So by doing so by, removing heat you're making a space cooler. I'm surprised, but they've got the data there, so I'm surprised they're getting that low down to 40 degrees.
In our experience, we don't typically see that much of a drop, but in terms of venting the cold air to the outside, in New York state, that's not likely to be helpful because any air that you send out is going to be replaced by air coming in through various leaks and cracks in your house.
So anytime any air that leaks out gets replaced by air that's leaking in, or any air that's pushed out by a fan is going to get replaced. So in New York State, I'm not sure exactly where, but let's say it's 30 degrees outside and the heat pump is pushing out, maybe, initially maybe 50 or 55 degree discharge error.
You're gonna send out 55 and you're gonna bring in 30, and so you're gonna make your house colder. Now your basement is going to be warmer, so that part is true, but your whole house is gonna be increasing the heat losses for your house and making the replacement heat needed higher that your mini-split heat pump has to do for conditioning the whole house.
Joel Rosenberg: Yeah. My understanding is that they do the heat pump water heater will drop the temperature of the space that they're in by a few degrees because it basically is an air conditioner that is running, but instead of blowing the hot air outside, it's blowing the heat into the water. If it's dropping significantly, like she's saying, then it could potentially make sense to get an energy audit and see if there's some larger problem that is causing a very cold basement.
So rather than punching another hole in the wall, and like John says, dumping that cold air only to be replaced by potentially even colder air, why don't you just try and see if there's a more systemic problem that might be able to solve, which would make the whole house better.
Currently, I'm running a propane-powered 50-gallon Polaris hot water heater plumbed for radiant heat. I also have radiant heat tubes in the floors of my house. And the heat source via heat exchanger is in the Polaris.
I live in New Hampshire and recently we had a short spell of cold weather under negative 16 degrees at night, and I had to supplement the heat with my wood stove, which makes me wonder: When it's 15 degrees or higher, the Polaris does fine. I have the water temperature turned most of the way up and have installed anti-scald units in my hot water pipes.
Would a heat pump water heater be adequate to replace the Polaris and still heat my house in that kind of weather? -Mark
John Semmelhack: Sure. So we have a couple of similar situations with clients here in Charlottesville who have fossil fuel-fired boilers that are serving different hydronic or radiant zones.
In these cases, they're using radiators, but it's a hot water heating system. The packaged heat pump water heaters that we were just talking about in the last question. Those are typically installed indoors, so they're taking heat from indoors and putting it into your house, so you can't use that same appliance to heat your house because you're taking heat from your house. So you would just be running around in circles like a dog chasing its tail or my cat in my cat's case. What you would need from a heat pump standpoint is called a split system, air-to-water heat pump, or a ground source to water heat pump that takes heat from the outdoor air and dumps it into your water heating floor system, your rating floor system, or a ground source or geothermal to water heat pump that can do the same thing. Taking heat from the ground in your yard and putting that into your in-floor radiant heat system.
Joel Rosenberg: I can also say there's a group up in Northern California called Redwood Energy, and they've put out a number of helpful guides, one of which is for home retrofits for single-family home retrofits.
There is a page in the home retrofit guide about hydronic heat pumps, and I looked at it, and a number of them do work down well below zero Fahrenheit. It's something to explore. I don't know the exact particulars of the question, but that whole guide is worth getting for anybody.
Whether you have a hydronic heat pump or not, the first half has lots of good info. The second half is like a product guide, doesn't give reviews or anything, but it does do a good job of laying out the landscape for lots of different appliances. So hydronic, it's more specialized, but it's in there along with things like electric leaf blowers and jet skis I think.
John Semmelhack: There are not many air-to-water heat pumps or even ground source-to-water heat pumps. There are not that many models or manufacturers that are available in North America right now. Totally different in the rest of the world. But in North America, there are not that many.
But the good news is that almost all of them are cold climate models. And a number of them are really actually being marketed, pretty well in the Northeast. I think this question was coming from New Hampshire. So there should be the availability of those products and the know-how, how to do them in those areas.
I know I wanna do a heat pump water heater. My question is about smart features. I've seen some pilot programs for smart features that make the hot water tank act as a thermal battery charging up at low electrical demand periods and whatnot.
Is this a standard feature of the heat pump water heater, or do I need to look especially for smart functionality with timers, Wi-Fi connectivity, and ideally some grid response functionality?-Jeff
John Semmelhack: So this is definitely variable from product to product and manufacturer to manufacturer. So some of the manufacturers are building this stuff in automatically.
Where you have the availability of an app that you install on your phone or tablet, and then you can set up your own schedules. You have the time-of-use rates from your electrical utility. Most of the water heaters also have a special communications port that's a grid response port, and that is currently rarely used around the country.
I think there are probably a couple of places where they are actually used. But it'll be the kind of thing where you would give permission to your utility to during certain times of the day or on an ongoing basis, take control of your water heater and basically probably shut it off during certain times.
Maybe boost the temperature at certain times as well. So those programs vary from place to place. So I think most of the models that I've seen have that kind of grid response communications port built in. And then some models have your app and scheduling feature that you can do yourself and some don't.
Quinn: Okay. So if I've got the money to do it, I need to do it, or want to do it, should I give a shit about these smart features now yet, or should I just do the thing?
John Semmelhack: It mostly depends on your personality and how much of a nerd or geek you are. And if you're really into this stuff, if you just want to have an efficient water heater that works and is a lot better for the planet, then you don't need to worry about it too much.
And a lot of that is because the heat pump water heaters are so efficient that even if it does get at some run time during a little bit more expensive times of day, for most people it's not going to hurt their wallet too much, but if you really wanna optimize things and you're willing to do a little bit more of your own, setting up schedules and things like that, you can do that.
And I think at some point we'll have more and more aggregators who will do this for you, where you'll maybe set up the app, connect it to your appliance, and then you'll assign control to a third party. Maybe you assign control to the utility, or maybe it's to some other trusted third-party firm who's an aggregator and is doing all of this, is doing this for thousands of water heaters.
And do maybe doing a better job of it than the utility or communicating the benefits and what they're planning on doing better than the utilities who often tend to be a little bit more conservative and slow on the uptake in terms of communications and things like that.
Joel Rosenberg: Just to add on to that, that is a great answer, and you can try and future-proof by checking out the spec sheet to see if it has the time of day functions and whatever. It does get to this larger question, though, both around aggregators of demand where the utility might say, Hey, we need to reduce our power use.
Who can do that? And these people will essentially be able to manage that and get paid for it because it's like spinning up, they sometimes call them virtual power plants, but the most expensive power plants sure are the ones that you need in that emergency. And so doing some of that planning, not just around water heaters, cuz John's right, they're so efficient that it's a pretty low load.
But things like your car, and things like even your heat pump, and your home batteries. When you start to think about it that way, then it's oh, this is a potential source of revenue. I know a lot of people are like, oh, I don't want the government messing with my appliances.
And that's your option. You don't have to be a part of that program. But it's a deeper question. Obviously, this person cares more, and so if you want to future proof and option into these things in the future, then it can pay off to look into it for your storage appliances now.
John Semmelhack: Looking a little bit further ahead into the future in terms of these kinds of controls, there may, there most likely will be significant time periods of the year or time periods of the day and year where there's excess renewable energy, there's excess clean energy, and the wholesale energy prices actually go to zero.
And there are some producers who will actually give the energy away for free or maybe even pay some people to take some energy off their hands. So that they don't have to turn their stuff off. Especially nuclear power plants are probably not going to want to turn their stuff off. They're gonna wanna keep running.
And so there may be times where these aggregators, or if you're controlling it yourself, you may say, oh, I've got a two-hour window where I can heat my water for free. So let's go ahead and do that. And most packaged heat pump water heaters have an electric resistance heating element as well, you may actually wanna turn on the less efficient electric heating element for those two hours so that you can take more of that free energy, that clean energy, and heat up your water totally clean, totally free, or even get paid for it, rather than letting the heat pump do it. So it's an interesting thing that I'll think will become prevalent in the years to come.
I think that part of the variability of renewable energy is going to be really interesting and awesome. The super cold parts of the year are gonna be the big challenge.
Quinn: Yeah, no, I love that. I truly hope the flexibility of this two-way stuff, whether it's home batteries, car batteries, or all these other things, goes beyond the Nest or Ecobee leaf or whatever, which is just like the baby drips.
But again we can hopefully do these things and become more useful so the West doesn't have these massive blackouts, and Texas doesn't have these issues. And obviously, there are much bigger systemic issues, but we should be able to do that. So again, I would nerd out and go after the nerdiest stuff that my wife would be like, but we don't need those things.
I'm like, but we do. And need is a very strong word. At the same time, if you're like, oh, but the nerdy stuff isn't there. Please get one if you can get one. It's the overall goal to just decarbonize as much as we can.
I'm not sure I have space for a heat pump water heater, and the noise they make concerns me since the current location is directly under my eight-months-old’s room and a utility closet that's about four by six. I'm considering a tankless water, but your article seems mildly critical of them. -Matt
Quinn: So we already covered the critiques of tankless models a few minutes ago and in the article itself. So I'm gonna reframe this as let's say we're like, no, hey Matt, we would really love for you to get this, but we do acknowledge that they can make some noise.
Kind of like how induction stoves can make those noises sometimes. Is there any sort of construction he could do in that utility closet or installation-wise to muffle that to make use of it? I'm trying to accomplish both goals here while acknowledging that these things can be a little louder.
John Semmelhack: There's definitely some sound mitigation that they could do inside the closet in terms of adding, sound buffering materials.
Bat insulation is a fairly good sound-buffering material. Things like that. The other technique - some of the noise is from airflow. So sometimes we will duct that air within the house, duct it to another location, or directly outside of the room.
And then on top of that, I think the manufacturers certainly hear it loud and clear that noise is a concern in a lot of installations. Sometimes it's an unfinished basement and it's just not a problem. But there are a ton of other houses that don't have the basement and it needs to go into a utility closet that's near regular living spaces or near bedrooms, and I think they're really working on driving down the amount of noise that we have. We're installing a brand new model in the next couple of weeks that has on paper a super low sound rating, so we're pretty excited to test that out in the real world to see if it lives up to the manufacturer’s specs.
Quinn: Awesome. We wanna do this thing both on an individual level so people can have a more comfortable home and a more efficient home and a less expensive home.
And obviously, we want to push the overall goal of decarbonizing as much and as fast as we possibly can. But you also wanna meet people where they are, where they're like, no, Jeff has one of these. And it's loud and it's really annoying. Like I can't put that under a kids' bedroom. I get that for sure. I have three children.
If they don't sleep my life is a nightmare.
Joel Rosenberg: There are potentially two other options. Maybe one is a more expensive split system where the compressor would be outside and the tank would be on the outside, but that is considerably more expensive. Another could be because heat pump water heaters don't have exhaust outside, they don't have to stay in that utility closet. It would require some additional plumbing, but it could potentially go into the garage. If it's warm enough it could potentially even go outside and they just plug the water in. I don't know if John, you do that down there, but those are options. And then just check the spec sheet of the one that you're considering and try and get the quietest one possible.
John Semmelhack: Where we are, we're borderline warm enough to put stuff like that in the garage. You definitely would take an energy hit, but as you get to the warmer states, that's just a normal place to put a water heater out in the garage. If you're in a house that has a garage.
Quinn: Awesome. Listen, that's what we've got for now. There were about 40 others but either they were redundant or crossed over in some way or we're not quite there yet. Or I could answer them, which is dangerous. I truly think this is profoundly helpful and the more people we can incrementally help along the journey, the better.
Folks, if these didn't answer your question, if you have new ones, or your state actually gets their shit together and you start to see some of this money, send them in and we'll keep trying to help folks.
John and his crew are amazing in what they're doing, and John's on Twitter yelling at people in a proactive way all the time.
And Joel's shop at Rewiring America, the calculator is just so helpful. It's fantastic. So check out those resources. We'll probably do another one of these in a little while to try to move things along.
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