Sunday, November 17, 2019

A roadmap to get your home off fossil fuel

It took our family a few years and some investment, but it’s not that hard

Our 12-year-old son helping
move bags of pellets.  Each 
bag heats our house for a day.
by John Ackerly

Fifteen years ago I never imagined that our house and cars would be 90% fossil fuel free. It seemed like a futuristic goal that my son may achieve, but not me. Our approach is possible for millions of families who may not realize that they can do it too. With some modest upfront expenditure, it all fell into place.  

When I say fossil fuel free I am talking only about our home and cars, not our food or the junk we buy from Amazon or a store, nor our flights. But we are starting to think about those too and have some strategies.

We this did partly out of a realization that climate change really is an emergency and we don’t want to saddle future generations with a hotter world. But what we did was also smart investing that has drastically lowered our utility bills and transportation bills. Getting your home and cars off of fossil fuels may get as good a return as investing money in the stock market the next 5 to 15 years.  

We began our journey by weatherizing our house, and therefore reducing our demand for heating and cooling, as well as buying 100% wind energy into our grid through the utility company. Later on we began heating with wood pellets, added solar panels, and purchased electric cars. During the winter months when our solar panels don’t supply 100% of our electricity, at least we’re still purchasing energy through a renewable energy electric supplier. Making these changes is a process, and we still use some gas for heating and cooking.  It’s also been a journey of surprises and connections that go all the way back to my grandparents who told me about how wonderful it was when they switched to coal heat.  

Weatherization and energy reduction

Anyone interested in saving energy and reducing their carbon footprint should begin with a home energy audit, often subsidized by utilities. Ours was the best $100 we ever spent, because it made the house much less drafty and immediately started saving us $10 – 20 per month in both summer and winter utility bills.  If you walk around with the energy auditor you can understand each step they take and ask lots of questions. Our house was pretty well insulated already, but there were many gaps where the cold or warm air could escape around ceiling lighting fixtures and behind floor and ceiling molding. As a result, one of the most strategic investments we’ve made in energy efficiency over 20 years was buying about 30 tubes of caulk, sealing up the various places that the auditor’s infrared camera surfaced.  

Other initial, obvious steps to reduce energy consumption is replacing every single lightbulb with LEDs. These bulbs are subsidized by utilities in many states, including Maryland. Whether your state subsidizes them or not, places like Costco have amazing prices for big boxes of bulbs.

Heating with wood pellets

Two tons of pellets comes on 2 four
foot high pallets of 40 lb. bags and
they need to be stored in a garage,
basement, or shed.
Last week we had two tons of wood pellets delivered to our driveway. It took an hour and a half to restack them in a shed behind our house. They cost $500 ($250/ton), plus a $75 delivery charge by Lowes. Our house is about 1,900 square feet with an open floor plan. In Maryland, winters are mild, so our Ravelli pellet stove does a good job heating the house on all but the very coldest mornings. The stove cost $3,000 and installation was another $500. My family and friends love hanging out in front of it. It’s a wonderful focal point for our family, cat and dog all winter. Some states have rebates or tax incentives to buy a pellet stove, including Maryland, Idaho, Vermont, Maine, New York and Massachusetts. Maryland gives a $700 rebate which is more than half the price of one reliable, highly rated and reliable pellet stove brand, PelPro.

Our pellet stove is a wonderful focal
point for our family, requires very little
work, and makes no visible smoke. 
Pellet stoves take a bit of work – about 5 minutes a day to load the hopper and clean out the firepot. Then you just push a button and it runs all day long. This is a lot less time and effort that mowing a lawn or walking a dog – but like a dog, you have to spend a few minutes a day taking care of it, or it can leave a mess on your floor.  It’s important to buy pellets that are certified by the Pellet Fuel Institute (PFI) to ensure the pellets meet quality standards and are 100% natural wood. 

This year, we bought Green Supreme pellets made by Lignetics, one of the companies dedicated to using the PFI certification scheme. They also have good values, motivated to help families across America end the cycle of using more convenient forms of fossil fuels with residuals and low-grade wood produced by the lumber industry. So I’m back to using a solid fuel, just like my grandparents did, which takes a bit more effort. I expect my son to enter a generation that will one day have 100% renewables on the grid, enabling him to also choose a heat pump in what will hopefully be a net zero house that makes as much energy as it uses. 

Another benefit of heating with a pellet stove is that the blowers on our gas furnace cost about $25 a
In much of the US, heat is the biggest 
single source of a home's carbon
foortprint, other than yoiur car(s).
month in electricity, whereas the fans and auger on the pellet stove only cost $5-8 per month. As a point of comparison, previously we heated with a wood stove, using free wood that local tree trimmers were happy to dump in our driveway whenever we needed to split, stack and season more. But with both my wife and I getting up and out of the house in the morning for work, we basically only used the stove each evening and on weekends. This meant relying more on the gas furnace and doing much more work loading the stove and trying to keep the air adjusted properly. 

I had three different EPA wood stoves over a period of 20 years (catalytic & non-catalytic), partly in search of a really good one that could run easily with no visible smoke. Using dry wood, I could usually get them to run without visible smoke, but it wasn’t always so easy and I didn’t feel good about putting smoke in a suburban neighborhood. I bought a high-quality indoor PM sensor and then a second one and found that my indoor air quality was always quite good, but the wood stove wasn’t good for the exterior air that was seeping into my neighbors’ homes. While applauding our success in not relying on fracked gas to heat our house, two neighbors agreed that the excess smoke from wood stoves concerned them. Most neighbors said they liked the smell, one of the enduring paradoxes of a pollutant which is not good for you.  Our neighbors can't even smell, much less see the tiny emissions from our pellet stove.

Solar Electricity

We did not have a south facing roof, so
they put 8 panels facing east and 10
panels facing west, which worked well.
When we remodeled our house in 2006, we unfortunately didn’t consider the potential of solar energy. But the roof still had good enough angles and enough sun. In 2016 we put on 18 panels, rated for 5.4 kW, enough to cover 100% of the household usage, after switching to all LED bulbs, and doing other DIY energy efficiency measures. We paid $18,000 up front, got $6,000 back from the federal tax credit the following April and had no electric bills most months, aside from the monthly $12 connection fee. We worked with Solar Energy World who did a great job. Maryland, like most states, has a net metering law that requires our utility to buy back electricity we produce and don't use. It’s a good deal for our utility too, since we put our excess solar electricity back onto their grid when they need it most – the middle of hot summer days when electricity demand peaks in the Washington DC area.  Not a bad trade-off. 
The blue shows the months we used
more electricity than we made and the
green show when we made more than
we used. 

Once we bought two electric cars and let a neighbor also charge her Chevy Bolt at our house, we now have average $50 monthly electric bill.  Powering a house and keeping 2 and a half cars full of gas could cost 5 to 10 times that much.

Solar panels are great because you don't have to do anything and they work month after month, year after year.  In our case, we spend an hour or two each year trimming a few tree limbs to prevent them from shading the panels too much.  If some of our neighbors hadn't done it first, it may have taken us years longer to make the plunge.  

Purchased wind RECs

Our utility estimated our
household  usage based on
a questionnaire of appliances.
About 15 years ago, long before adding solar panels, we signed up with WGL, a company that provides 100% renewable electricity for only about 10% more than our local utility Pepco charges for their filthy mix of coal, gas and nuclear. It felt so good when we realized we could avoid that.  The way it works is that you buy RECs (Renewable Energy Certificates) from a company that sends your money to a wind farm who is only allowed to sell a limited number of RECs. First make sure the company you buy from is reputable and is part of a third party verified system. WGL is Green-e certified and meets environmental and consumer protections standards set by the non-profit Center for Resource Solutions (CRS).  

There are many companies to buy renewable electricity and most of them buy into big wind farms in Texas and the mid-west, which helps them grow and fill those grids with renewables. We don’t actually get the electrons made by those wind farms, but we pay for them. I don’t really want to subsidize companies that do large solar farms because its often not an optimal use of land, compared to covering our rooftops, parking lots and garages, etc. 

This is one of the easiest things that most people in the country can do in one hour and be an important part of the renewable energy revolution.  Don't wait.

Electric cars

By fueling our own cars at home
and rarely needing maintenance,
we basically never go to gas
My wife and I had never paid more than $10,000 for a car and I thought I may go through life without ever buying a new car.  But the federal $3,750 tax credit brought the Chevy Bolt down to $26,000, which is what most people pay for cars anyway. With a 250-mile range, it can get us to New York City on one charge. To go on longer road trips, we have to build in more time, and plan where we stop for meals and charging. The state of Maryland gave us a 40% rebate ($400) to install a level 2 charger in our driveway, which was a prerequisite for us. Since we have solar panels, we are not eligible to participate in Maryland’s pilot time-of-use program. That would have made it even cheaper to charge the car at night, when electricity is cheap.

A downside of electric cars now is that most people don’t opt in to purchasing renewable energy, so they are still driving on fossil fuels. It’s still a lower carbon mode of transportation, but it’s so easy to go all the way and select a renewable energy provider for your whole house.

Water heating

Our Rheem heat pump water
heater enabled us to switch
gas to renewable electricity.
Last year our footprint shrank even further when our 15-year-old gas water heater died.  A bit of research led to purchasing a hybrid heat pump water heater, which uses highly efficient heat pump technology. The energy needed is now covered by the electricity from our solar panels for 7 months of the year and from purchased renewable electricity during the other months. This technology requires a big enough basement for it to have enough air circulation, as well as higher up-front costs for the tank and its installation, which come to about $2,000.  The state of Maryland offered a $500 rebate, offsetting the costs. Heating water only cost us $5 - 15 a month before, and now it’s even less. While the monthly savings is small, it’s an important step to get one more appliance off of gas and onto renewable energy. We use it in an eco-mode only by turning off the hybrid features that would allow resistance heating when needed.  Running it solely on the heat pump mode has been good enough to provide us with plenty of hot water for a 3-person household.

Costs of getting off fossil fuel
Solar panels and  electric cars are the big ticket items.  We did it year by year, waiting to upgrade our cars when they needed it.  The solar panels can also be leased, with no upfront costs or financed.  Many hearth retailers provide financing for pellet stoves and Home Depot could have financed the heat pump water heater.  The lowest cost impact is probably signing up for renewable electricity since its starting to be the same price as fossil fuel electricity.  Still, we recognize many families don't have anywhere close the finances that we had to do this.  If your household income is over $100,000 and you periodically buy a new car anyway, you can do it too.  The onlyother thing you need is some time to go through the steps. And you need to care enough about your carbon footprint or climate change, and understand that over the long run, these steps will save you money.  Having kids that care about this stuff helps as they are often the ones educating us parents.

What’s left?

Gas stove. Like a lot of people, we are very attached to our gas stove, which also happens to be antique. We are focusing on the bigger picture and not getting too hung up on every last detail and this will be one of our non-guilty pleasures. That said, we know people who love their induction cook tops and that will probably be in our future.

Gas furnace and gas clothes dryer. Even though we make 80% of our heat from renewable wood pellets, we use the gas furnace for 30 minutes on the coldest mornings to get the house up to temperature while the pellet stove gets going. In the warmer than average February 2020, our gas bill came to $29 for the furnace, cooking and clothes drying, and $11 of that is the fixed system charge. This is not an insignificant amount of gas, far more than our old gas cooking stove. A heat pump space heater for our kitchen/dining room area would probably work pretty well and cut gas heat down to nearly zero. But with only a $150 annual gas bill and maybe $150 for summer air-conditioning, we are starting to get into even longer paybacks. Our gas clothes dryer will be replaced with a electric heat pump clothes dryer when it needs replacing.  Air drying clothes is cheap and in the summer we do it a little and is one of those lifestyle changes that is a hurdle for us.  Part of this energy journey is chipping away at the easiest and highest impact biggest things and then figuring out next steps. We are still working the role of natural gas in our household equation. 

Your income is likely the largest determinant of your carbon
footprint.  Wealthier people have both the ability and the
responsibility to buy renewable RECs, add PV panels, etc.

Lawn mower.  We already had a junky old cord electric mower and we just teamed up with our neighbor to split the cost of a top rated Consumer Report Ego battery powered electric lawn mower ($200 each).

Flights: We have cut down on flying a little bit but still our family flies more than most, taking one or two domestic trips a year for pleasure and many more for work, including international flights. We plan to start buying offsets for our personal flights, which is a first step, albeit not a great one.

Home battery: A home battery, like the Tesla Powerwall, is a way to keep power during a black out for a day or two. I'm not at all convinced it’s worth it yet with a $5,000 - $8,000 price tag. Our neighborhood doesn't experience many blackouts, but they may be more frequent with climate impacts already visible. During the warmer three seasons, we can ride them out pretty easily, only losing the food in our fridge and freezer that we can't eat fast enough. We already have 2 big lithium batteries in the driveway, and it would be far easier if we could top those off before a storm and just run them backwards to power the house, instead of buying another one which would just sit there, virtually doing nothing for 99% of the time. If we had time-of-use (TOU) pricing, we could fill a battery at night and then use energy during the day, but we don't have that yet and it still may be a long payback for a battery.

Good luck with your journey and leave a comment below about how its going for you.  The sooner you begin, the more you will save in the long-run.


  1. You mention the Pellet Fuel Institute and their standards, without much detail on what they ensure the consumer. Do you consider your biofuels (i.e., pellets) to be carbon free?

  2. This is very interesting. I am impressed. I now have a better understanding of why you have switched to pellet stoves. We are s till attached to our non-eco Godin, but it is time to get a responsible stove for our mountain hut.

  3. John - thanks for sharing all of the detail on your home transformation. We have been fossil free for heating our NH home (and water) for over 12 years. Need to work on our electricity sourcing to get better. Charlie Levesque