After three major leaks from her gas-powered water heater and one too many furnace malfunctions, Amy Sung decided to take the leap and electrify her Palo Alto home. In the year-long process of remodeling her house, she went all out, replacing her old utilities with a radiant heating system, a heat pump water heater and electric appliances. Now, she can't stress the comfort and convenience of her all-electric home enough.
"My house is so much more comfortable than it was before, and my overall utility bills are pretty much the same, if not less," she said. "Before, during the winter months, my utility bill easily went up to $500 a month, and the heat went straight out the window. Now, with my radiant heat, it's so toasty to have a warm floor and the whole house warm."
While a full-blown renovation is nowhere near necessary, new laws aimed at phasing out gas appliances are already in effect in several Bay Area communities.
In March, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District adopted new regulations that will make the region the first in the nation to ban sales and installation of new gas appliances in the district's jurisdictions, which includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Napa counties as well as portions of southwestern Solano and southern Sonoma counties.
Menlo Park already requires electric space heaters and hot water heaters in new construction, a law that took effect in January 2020. To date, however, the council has not mandated electrification in existing buildings, opting to instead rely on outreach, education and financial assistance for low-income residents.
Palo Alto also has an electric-only requirement for water and space heating in new developments. The city also launched another program this year to persuade residents to switch to heat pump water heaters, which use electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly. The program aims to convert 1,000 customers to heat pump water heaters before 2024 through a streamlined approval process and on-bill financing that allows them to spread out payments for the new appliance. The program is off to a promising start, with 421 customers opting into it as of March 21, according to city staff.
For those interested in converting their homes, the mere prospect of electrification may still seem daunting. PG&E, The Switch Is On (a collaborative campaign to support clean energy in California) and Gold State Rebates, all provide tools, resources and incentives to go all-electric.
As part of its effort to wean residents off natural gas, Palo Alto offers the Home Efficiency Genie, a free electric energy consultation service. Paul Koepke, an adviser with the Genie program, said the first step to a green home is simply taking a look at your electrical panel.
"There's going to be additional electricity that your house may or may not be able to provide, so we recommend having an electrician look at the amperage and see if there is breaker space," he said. "If the whole thing is full, there's a really good chance that you're going to need to upgrade your electrical panel."
Once your amperage needs are met, you can start switching out gas appliances, Koepke said. After pulling permits and hiring a contractor, a relatively easy next step is to swap out a gas stove with an all-electric range or induction cooktop an undertaking that Sung can't promote enough.
"I can make a huge mess in my cooking, and cleaning an induction top is so much easier," Sung, an active home cook, said. "It actually adds to the pleasure of cooking because there's no mess to clean, and the top turns itself off, so I don't have to worry about forgetting if the stove is on or if there is a gas leak."
With electric cooking, you also don't need to worry about a potential fire or burning yourself on the stove, Koepke said. Plus, there are major health benefits of doing away with gas, especially for children and the elderly.
"With any gas stove, even if you have a range hood, you are literally standing right over where that exhaust is. So, as you cook, you're breathing that in," he said.
Putting in a heat pump water heater, which pulls heat from the surrounding air to warm up water in a storage tank, can also be a simple "plug-and-play," Koepke said.
Sung suggests that prospective converters consider first replacing their water heater because her tap is now more consistent, controllable and easier to turn off. Not to mention, they are three times more efficient than other water heaters, according to the Department of Energy.
The ease of electricity, however, doesn't come without a price. Installing an air source heat pump, which includes a furnace and air conditioning, can cost between $15,000 to $30,000, according to Koepke. To alleviate costs, the city offers a rebate on heat pump water heaters, which helped Palo Alto resident Jim Barbera deduct the price of his new water heating system to $1,200.
For Barbera, the nearly 10-year-long process of electrifying his home was a gradual, cost-effective piecemeal project. In that time period, he installed solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, a radiant barrier roof, as well as better insulators like dual pane windows, resulting in a 49% annual reduction in his natural gas consumption over the past five years. To Barbera, price comes secondary to the plant's environmental costs.
"All of it wasn't onerous for me because I did it as budget permits,'" he said. "For me, it's just, we need to quit burning our planet and I don't know how else to put it. As the number of people increases, we must reduce the amount we each burn as individuals."
Sherry Listgarten, whose home is all-electric apart from her stove, echoed Barbera's urgency. While she would never recommend people just rip out their functional appliances, she does think that, as workforce training on electric utilities and gas prices increase, gas appliances will become more obsolete.
"I think people need to be aware that it does cost money but when it's time to replace stuff, I think electric is going to be on par with gas. For me, it was," she said. "I know we're used to gas but we need to use less of it and replace it with efficient, electric heat. We all do, but don't feel forced to do it. Just do it when you're ready."
For homeowners concerned about the environment, Listgarten said start small, whether that's inputting a smart thermostat or low-flow showerheads. An easy, yet surprisingly impactful, choice is to replace all your light bulbs with LED, what Sung calls a "no-brainer."
"If you change your whole house's light bulbs to LED, instead of using 100 to 160 watts, you are using something like 6 watts. We're talking about a factor of 10% of your electricity consumption," Sung said. Listgarten said that LED lights also helped cut her bills down by 30%.
For Barbera, because transportation is the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA, an electric vehicle is the most environmentally effective choice for a household.
"Nobody really thinks about it because it's fueled and used outside the home, but I call it the 'elephant in the garage,'" he said. "A lot of people complain about the cost of putting an EV charger in, but if you think about it, it's a gas pump in your garage that delivers fuel at a steep discount. What's that worth to you?"
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to electrification as costs, needs and difficulties will be variable from house to house, Koepke said. He encourages those interested to reach out to the Genie program, jointly figure out their energy goals and consult the city's list of contractors who are versed in Palo Alto's permit process.
Barbera agreed that electrification is a case-by-case journey.
"Do what you can when you can. I don't expect everybody's situation to be the same. Their environmental convictions are different. Their financial situations are different," he said. "For me, it's been a journey. It happened gradually, and I think the gradual way is the best way for people who don't have the deep pockets or wads of cash they're willing to spend all at once. This is doable even if you're not flush with cash."
Want to go electric? Here are some resources
The Switch Is On: Provides tools and resources for electrification.
Home Efficiency Genie: Free electrical energy consultation for Palo Alto residents.
Golden State Rebates: Provides rebates on various appliances.
PG&E: Offers a step-by-step guide to single-family home electrification.