To answer a question I am often asked—Yes, we are still happy with the decision, five years ago, to replace our gas furnace with an air-source heat pump. It is one of the best decisions we ever made.
We are so happy that this past year we replaced our gas stove with an induction oven and shut off our gas supply. This is the realization of a half-forgotten dream from my youth. Today, I live in a totally electric home, 100% free from burning fossil fuels.
It has been an adventure. Back in 2017, when we made the decision to install the heat pump, no one could assure us that it would turn out all right. But, we were determined to make it work, whatever it took.
We live in a neighbourhood of older homes in one of the coldest cities in the world, Ottawa, Canada. We enjoy the benefits of living within walking distance of most of the things we need. However, many of the houses lack modern amenities, including, as we were to find out, adequate insulation.
Conventional wisdom was that natural gas—a fossil fuel—is the best way to heat a house in Ottawa, especially for older homes that typically need more energy to keep warm. The monthly cost of using electricity for heating, we were told, would be way more expensive. And air-source heat pumps simply don’t work in Ottawa’s cold climate. People told us we were crazy to even think about it.
But Lenore and I are committed to do what we can to reduce our impact on climate change. Both of us are scientists working in the environmental field, and we know what the science says—stop burning fossil fuels. We simply could not take a pass on getting rid of our gas furnace.
Our household carbon footprint, a measure of our climate impact, showed us that heating our home accounted for between one-quarter and one-third of our total impact. In a single step—switching from natural gas to electricity for heating—we could go a long way toward reducing our climate impact.
Over 90% of the electricity we purchase from the Ontario grid today is made without using fossil fuels [although the provincial government is working hard to cut down that advantage—Ed.]. Electricity in most other areas has a higher fossil fuel content, but it is typically not 100%. And the fossil fuel content of electricity is declining everywhere as electric utilities respond to the climate crisis and reduce costs by using more renewable energy sources.
So we took the plunge on the coldest night of the winter of 2017. Our gas furnace gave out on Friday, January 13. The service company offered to have a new gas furnace delivered and installed the next day, but we refused. Instead, we embarked on a month-long process of making the switch to an air-source heat pump.
At that time, the only cold-weather heat pump available to us was the Mitsubishi Zuba. The model we have delivers 48,000 BTU per hour of heat when the outside air temperature is warmer than -15°C, but performance drops off when it gets colder. The Zuba delivers 80% of peak capacity at -25°C. We also installed a 60,000 BTU-per-hour electric resistance furnace that provides additional heat needed when temperatures get really cold and the heat pump is at its limit.
Initial results were encouraging. Heating with the electric heat pump cost us about the same as we were paying for natural gas. In the first full year after making the switch, our total energy costs—electricity plus natural gas—were unchanged. This contradicted everything we had been told beforehand.
More importantly, the heat pump took a large bite out of our household carbon footprint. Emissions from home energy use dropped from 3.7 to 0.55 tonnes per year, a decrease of 85%. This reduced our total footprint by 25%.
Eager to build on our success, we paid for a professional energy audit to look for other things we could do to reduce our home energy use. In Canada, these audits follow a standard procedure developed by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), a ministry of the federal government. The audit estimated how much energy use can be reduced for a set of actions to upgrade our house.
Our energy audit identified upgrading insulation in the walls as the action that would deliver the greatest savings in energy use. Drilling a hole through the living room wall revealed that our house was built without any insulation in the walls. This is not unusual for houses built 100 years ago.
We added blown-in cellulose insulation to the walls in 2019. This reduced the amount of electricity we use for heating by about 20%, close to the savings estimated by the energy audit. But adding insulation did not have a big effect on our household carbon footprint, because our electricity is nearly fossil-free.
We are doing other things to reduce our climate impact. We drive less, and we eat more vegetarian meals, but no other single action we take will have the same impact as replacing our old gas furnace with an electric heat pump.
Five years after taking the leap of installing a heat pump, we took the final step to make our home free from fossil fuels. In September, 2021, we replaced our gas oven with an electric induction unit. We had replaced our gas hot water heater with a hybrid heat pump model as part of a home reno project about eight years ago. So the new oven completed our conversion to a 100% electric home, and we closed our account with the gas utility.
This last step reduced our annual energy bill by about 10%. The cost of the gas we used for cooking was negligible. The savings come from no longer paying a $20-per-month customer service fee on top of the cost of the gas we used. And the air in the house is cleaner without the gas oven.
In my youth, 50 years ago, new all-electric, suburban homes were being sold as the epitome of comfort and convenience—the American Dream. But when it came time for me to move into a house of my own, the advantages of living in an older, inner city neighborhood won out.
The lure of the “new” endures. Owners of older homes who dream of reducing their climate impact quickly encounter a difficult choice. The market will tell you that drastically reducing your home’s carbon footprint requires giving up the advantages that many older homes offer and moving to a new, energy-efficient home. These homes are built to rigorous Passive House or Net-Zero standards of construction.
However, our experience shows that living in an older home need not be a barrier to realizing your dreams. Converting an older home to run on 100% electricity can be done even where climate and conventional wisdom are a challenge.
Making buildings more energy efficient is a move in the right direction, but energy efficiency is not the solution to the climate crisis. To stop climate change, we must stop burning fossil fuels entirely.
Bill Nuttle is on Medium as a hydrologist, engineer, and renewable energy advocate writing about the personal side of technological progress.