Live Better, Electrically at Unity Homes

CC BY 2.0. Unity homes model home in New Hampshire/ Lloyd Alter

The company explains why all-electric homes are healthier, safer, and more sustainable.

This TreeHugger has long been a fan of Tedd Benson's Unity Homes, a "tightly engineered and well designed suite of homes that can be personalized, but the customization will be limited for the sake of optimizing cost and quality." I have admired their efficiency, longevity, and healthy materials, but one thing I never focused in on: They are all-electric.

This can be a tough call in a time when fracked gas is so cheap and plentiful. In an old or a conventional home, gas heating is significantly cheaper than electricity. But the tighter and better insulated a home is, the less energy is needed to heat or cool, and the more money you are going to save. Andrew Dey of Unity Homes points out in a post that as the heating loads get smaller, it gets harder to find appropriate equipment. And as the cooling seasons get longer, it becomes harder to justify two separate systems.

Because Unity Homes are designed and built to minimize heating loads, conventional heating systems that burn fossil fuels are generally not a good fit—they tend to be oversized and inefficient. The best way to heat a low-load home is with an air source heat pump, also called a mini-split system. Using the same technology found in refrigerators, these compact units warm homes by moving heat from outside air to inside the house—even when the temperature outside is ten degrees below zero. Air source heat pumps are powered by electricity, and they have the added benefit of providing efficient cooling during the summer.

Readers often ask why we keep talking about air-source heat pumps instead of ground source heat pumps, commonly called geothermal systems. The main reason is that, like conventional systems, they are going to be oversized and overpriced for such small loads. Instead of putting your money in the ground, you put it in the insulation and the windows. You save on ductwork too; since there are no drafts, you don't need to put ducts under windows. Read Allison Bailes' hilarious series on the problems that come from putting ducts in the wrong place.

Unity Homes kitchen

Unity Homes kitchen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Dey lists a few other reasons why it's better to go all-electric, the major one being that you are not burning fossil fuels directly, and as the grid continues to decarbonize, your electric power will get cleaner and cleaner. Then there is the always difficult issue of cooking with gas:

Convincing people to heat their homes and hot water with electric-based systems is generally not difficult. Talking them out of using a gas cooktop can be harder, especially if they haven’t experienced the benefits of cooking on an induction cooktop.

This is a subject we have also covered before, the indoor air pollution that comes from cooking with gas. It's crazy to go to so much trouble to build a tight house out of healthy materials and then fill it with carbon monoxide and particulates; on TreeHugger I have noted that there are piles of peer reviewed research showing how bad cooking with gas is for your health.

Tedd Benson with a Unity Homes wall

Tedd Benson with a Unity Homes wall ready to ship/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Unity also does the net-zero schtick, concluding:

At Unity, we’d like the owners of all our homes to have healthy indoor environments, and live lightly on the planet. A primary strategy for achieving this vision is to create all-electric, Net Zero homes, powered by energy from the sun.

But any house can be net zero. The real trick to going all electric is to reduce demand through lots of insulation, good windows and quality construction. They do that, and that is something to be proud of.