Thanks to New Tech, It’s Easier to Live Better Electrically

Live Better Electrically

From heat pumps to induction, it has never been easier to give up gas.

Lately our mantra has been Electrify Everything! but at the Alter residence, we do almost everything, including cooking, with gas. The idea of using electricity seemed silly; burning coal or natural gas to make heat to boil water to spin a turbine to generate electricity to push down a wire to... make heat? This was true when electricity came primarily from coal, but on the supply side the grid has been decarbonizing and will continue to do so. Many people now live in places where the electricity supply is low carbon, and renewables are continuing to make inroads. As architect Sheena notes, it can only get better.

On the demand side, electric appliances have just got better and better, as they move from using electricity to make heat directly through resistance, to using electricity to move heat from where it is not being useful to where it can be. So with the help of these somewhat sexist old ads showing happy families from the sixties, via the Edison Electric Institute, let’s have a quick look at how, today, we can truly live better electrically.

Live better electrically with Induction cooking

stove cooking

Edison Electric Institute/Promo image

Of course, there are still many people who swear that nothing is as fast or as responsive as cooking with gas. But more and more restaurant chefs are cooking with induction; it lets them put restaurants in locations where the cost of the big exhaust hoods required for gas ranges would be prohibitive. As one chef noted in Munchies, "I wouldn't ever go back to gas. Once you get the hang of them, they're far easier than cooking on gas or electric."

credit: Graham Hill

Graham Hill/CC BY 2.0

When Graham Hill designed his LifeEdited apartment, he did not even put a stove in; instead, he had three portable induction hobs that he would take out as needed. I thought he was either brave or nuts, but this is what a lot of chefs are doing now in restaurants; it gives them the flexibility to add as many as they need when they need them. “With limited cooking capacity, you focus entirely on presenting the best ingredients in the most balanced way.”

There is also the issue that started this discussion, the effect of gas ranges on air quality, the need for constant exhaust and makeup air even if you are just boiling water, and the fact that cooking with induction is faster and more efficient. TreeHugger Christine tried it and says, “It changed my life. I will grant that induction may not be better than gas in all applications. But for the average person trying to put food on the table in spite of a busy life, induction is where it's at.”

Live Better Electrically with heat pump clothes dryers

clothes dryer

Edison Electric Institute/Promo image

Clothes dryers are perhaps the worst energy suck of any appliance in the home, basically using a lot of electricity to heat a lot of air and push it out a four-inch hole in the wall. Then you pay all over again to heat or cool the air that is sucked into the house to replace the stuff you pushed out. In tightly sealed houses, there can be serious depressurization problems. That's why TreeHugger and every other environmental website spent years pushing clotheslines, to no avail. But now there is a partial solution to this problem- the heat pump dryer.

This is the job that heat pumps were born to do; they move heat rather than making it through electric resistance, so they take the heat out of that exhaust air, condense out the water, and heat the incoming air. It's a closed loop, doesn't need an exhaust, and doesn't cause depressurization. They use half as much electricity on their own, and that's before the cost of heating or cooling the makeup air. It is the answer to a whole laundry list of problems in energy efficient building. They are still a lot more expensive than conventional resistance heat dryers up front, but probably pay for themselves pretty quickly. I suspect that in a few years, they will be the only dryer you can buy.

Live Better Electrically with heat pump hot water heating

hot water heating

Edison Electric Institute/Promo image

Electric hot water heaters are terrific for load balancing; you can heat the water when electricity is cheap and plentiful (like the middle of the night or when the solar panels are pumping) and can be controlled remotely by utilities with the right setup. Even if the grid where you live is not entirely carbon-free, with the right controls your water heater can be.

There are also now heat pump hot water heaters, and according to the Department of Energy, they can deliver big savings.

"Heat pump water heaters can use up to 63 percent less energy than traditional electric water heaters," said the study's lead researcher, Sarah Widder, of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "When water heating makes up about 18 percent of U.S. residential energy use, heat pump water heaters offer a real opportunity for energy savings."

I am not entirely convinced about this yet; there is no such thing as a free lunch and the heat to heat the water has to come from somewhere. In most heat pump hot water heaters, that's usually inside the house. If you are primarily using air conditioning, that's great; the heat pump cools your house or dehumidifies your basement. However, during heating season, you are paying to heat the air that the heat pump then cools. The Pacific Northwest National Lab did some testing with ducted outside air, and concluded that "compared with the unducted water heater, the team found fully ducting a heat pump water heater reduced a home's total annual energy use by 4.2 percent."

We also were hot for the GE Geospring hot water heater, which turned out to have serious reliability, noise and service problems. But as heat pump hot water heaters become more common and more manufacturers come into the market, these problems are being solved.


Lloyd Alter/ Condenser on Albert Rooks' house/CC BY 2.0

Another interesting option is the CO2 heat pump, like the Sanden unit we have shown previously. It uses CO2 as the refrigerant and delivers lots of hot water for both domestic and heating purposes.

Live Better Electrically with heat pump space heating

electric space heating

Edison Electric Institute/Promo image

I saved the best for last because here I am on controversial ground. Ground source heat pumps are a huge industry in the USA now, and they have their place. Even Google/ Alphabet spinoffs have jumped into this turf with Dandelion, whose people trashed my last post as an inaccurate rant.

Alex Wilson's House

© Alex Wilson/ Horrors, he has a heat pump!

But they are expensive. This is where I will always say one should reduce demand first. If you put the twenty grand that a ground source heat pump costs into insulation, windows and air sealing, you could probably get away with a little air to air heat pump, like Alex Wilson did in his house. This is why I am so crazy for Passive House designs; a big ground source heat pump is totally superfluous. Keep it simple and go for radical building efficiency before going for GSHPs.

It's why I don't entirely get on the Electrify Everything! bandwagon; I will always say Reduce Demand! first.

So play the old commercial and learn the jingle, Reduce Demand! first, and then Live Better Electrically!