A Personal Journey on the Path to Home Decarbonization – A Play in One [never-ending] Act

As with many complexities in life, when it comes to home decarbonization, two seemingly opposing things are true at once.  

First, we need to do this.  Energy used in the operation of BC homes accounts for 12% of the province’s total carbon footprint…in urban areas like the City of Vancouver, that accounts for 60% of the city’s carbon budget.  And that’s not counting the process and embodied emissions from the construction of and materials in these homes. This is the reason that the Provincial and many local governments have set a 50% emissions reduction target for the built environment for 2030, on the way to net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.  And also the reason why several jurisdictions are introducing requirements to make new homes reliant upon low carbon fuel and heating systems.  

And second, as OPEN’s nine months of homeowner research on the topic shows, decarbonizing existing homes is really (really) hard.  It’s hard technically because the roughly 54% of homes in the province (75% of ground-oriented homes) that rely upon gas-powered heating equipment today were designed and built with those systems in mind: the “furnace room” layout, the ducting, the electrical panel capacity… the list goes on.  

And it’s hard strategically because – as our research found – this is a classic systems problem:

    • Emissions are widely distributed
    • Motivation to change is low (gas furnaces work pretty well: you set it & forget it and reasonably cheap heat comes out of your walls); and
    • Complexity to change is high

To learn more about the user and market research that OPEN has conducted (in collaboration with Vancity Credit Union, Circular Citizen, and Majid Khoury) on the homeowner decarbonization journey, please join us and Vancity for a summary presentation at Efficiency Canada’s DiscoverEE series on Friday May 27th, and watch this space for our upcoming report.  

While statistical and quantitative evidence for these challenges is captured in our upcoming report, I will start with a personal story.  I have grappled with this complexity in my own century old home for 18 months, despite my huge motivation to decarbonize (and not freeze).  

To begin, some context.  In 2013, our family installed an air source heat pump and replaced the windows in our house.  This was a godsend during last summer’s heat dome event, when I had to start putting water on my face before zoom calls to not raise eyebrows from clients and teammates who were sweating through their own workdays.  

But the heating side of the equation was always a bit more complicated.  Based upon the “leakiness” of our home’s envelope even after window replacements (i.e. relatively low air tightness and random gaps in the otherwise pretty decent insulation) and the heat pump technology available at the time, we spent about eight years with the heat pump as our primary system and the existing gas furnace for cold spells.  Then last winter (after all, furnaces don’t fail in the summer!), the furnace stopped working and we spent most of two winters limping along on a heat pump alone.  Fine most days… far from fine during this past winter’s stretch of -25 degree days.  

We set a family goal to avoid re-introducing gas heat, and set out to find wisdom and guidance on the best path forward.  To be honest, it hasn’t been awesome.  

Turns out, there are lots of general resources out there, most of which give very general info about how easy a home retrofit and electrification is [note to reader: see above; it isn’t easy], what a heat pump is, and besides, have you seen our rebates page?  But when it comes to finding the home-specific information about my specific options for my specific old house… we’re directed to contractors.  Contractors who are busy. And contractors who are not looking for complex jobs and long stretches of homeowner education to fill their rosters.  

On the rare occasion when I have finally gotten a contractor on the phone or in to look at my home (note: even getting a call back from a contractor that offers heat pumps happens less than 20% of the time), here’s the typical script that unfolds: 

Me – “I’m looking for my options to stay all electric on my space heating, and not freeze.  I’m thinking either a cold weather heat pump or supplemental heat (electric furnace, ductless heat pump upstairs, infloor radiant, etc.)… maybe some envelope improvements too.” 

Contractor – “…. I could get you set up with a gas furnace, like, tonight.  They’re super efficient now.”

Me – “Yeah, I get it, but I’m trying to decarbonize, and if our family can’t solve it with our motivation and this pretty typical house, how are we going to cut residential emissions in half by 2030?”  [I’m paraphrasing here…  i generally try to play it cooler than that]

Contractor – “…[realizing that taking this call may have been a major mistake]… yeah, those government programs are really making it hard for well-meaning and thoughtful [naive] people like you.  Besides, you seem like a good guy and maybe you ride a bike or something… gas furnaces are super efficient now.” 

Me – “Yes, you mentioned that.  Still, no thanks.  What are my other options?”

Contractor – “… [deep sigh, desperately looks toward exit]… your old ductwork can’t handle the air volume required for a cold weather heat pump and you don’t have space for new ductwork.  

Me – “Oh interesting.  I didn’t realize that before.  Whoa, that IS a real challenge to converting to cold weather heat pumps.  [slots that away for future work insights, that contractors really do have a point when they point out the complexities of this work]

Contractor – “And you’d need an electrical panel upgrade to put in an electric furnace, and that’s like a million dollars.”

Me – “Hmmm, okay, I think it might be less than that.  And there are rebates for it now.  Can I get a quote for a panel upgrade?”

Contractor – “I’ll get my friend to call you for a quote.”  

[His friend does not call for a quote]

Aaannnnnd… scene.  

That’s a personal story, but the market research that OPEN has undertaken over the past nine months confirms that it’s not unique.  We’ve heard many iterations of this story throughout our research.  So where does that leave us?  Here are some of our key takeaways so far: 

      • Contractors and installers are talented and committed to helping homeowners get and stay warm, and they have built up decades of experience in gas-based systems; this doesn’t always translate well into the complexities of converting to an electric heat pump.  
      • The information and support resources to help a homeowner who wants to decarbonize have been really weak.  There’s a vast empty space between the “hey, you know what you should do…?” type support and having a concrete action plan for one’s specific home… and this is space that the homeowner typically has to navigate on their own.  And while everyone seems to agree that a “concierge” type of support structure is essential, it hasn’t shown up yet (even in some of the newer programs that claim otherwise). 
      • It’s very hard for a layperson to “stumble upon” or even find the experts (including paid consultants) that offer a real, specific home-level view of the options for an existing home (vs. honing in on a specific solution that they happen to sell or just giving general advice and rebate information)
      • Contractors are currently the ‘best” (read: only) source of home-specific information… and that’s not a good thing when they are hard to find and heavily motivated to sell you the furnace they already have sitting in the truck (literally or figuratively). Even sustainability oriented players – in industry or homeowner support programs – argue that new gas furnaces are really efficient and it’s probably not a big deal in the grand scheme of things (especially since I “ride a bike and seem like a thoughtful guy”) 
      • Homeowners are definitely looking forward to having more accredited and user reviewed contractors to choose from.  Personally, I am very glad for the emerging requirements that heat pump installers are accredited (eg. by the Home Performance Contractors Network) and incentivized to favour heat pumps over other systems.   

And, as nine months of homeowner research – with nearly a thousand survey respondents and dozens of interview and focus group participants – have shown, my personal experience is far from unique, although many give in to the easy (i.e. new gas-furnace) path much earlier.  While they may have had a cozier winter than our family did, we collectively missed an opportunity to avoid locking in another generation of fossil fuel usage.  One new gas furnace install at a time… 

OPEN is actively designing new software-enabled interventions which are heavily informed by this experience and the tremendous insights of these homeowners.  Watch this space for updates, and sign up to receive the report when it’s published!