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career change

How Climate Change Motivated a Career Change for Joe Strommen

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Jul 22, 2019

Individual homeowners often ask what they can do to help combat climate change, as the problem is huge and the issue seems overwhelming. Rise, among many thought-leading organizations such as Rocky Mountain Institute, has been advocating for the electrification of buildings. Why? Because the electricity grid is getting cleaner and cleaner, as solar and wind have been replacing dirty fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. 

Translated for homeowners, it means we need to switch from natural gas to electric-powered heating and appliances—which usually means your home heating system, water heater, stove, and sometimes clothes dryer. But wait: there are over 138 million housing units in the U.S., according to the U.S. census, so in order to make this transition, we’ll be needing people on the ground, in every city, doing this kind of work. 

Rise sat down with Joe Strommen, the Founder of 2040 Energy, whose mission is to help people convert their natural gas-powered heating and water heating to electricity. Here’s his story.

1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in the HVAC industry.

My professional background is actually in the tech industry, where I’ve worked as a software developer for about 15 years. But I’ve also been pretty involved in the climate movement for the last 4 years. I worked on a startup to create a crowdfunding marketplace for clean energy projects, I’ve volunteered with a few local environmental NGOs, and I serve on the City of Bloomington’s Sustainability Commission.

I got involved in the HVAC industry simply by plunging myself into it and building stuff in my own home! It’s not easy, because most manufacturers will only sell through their dealer network. But I found some that sell directly to homeowners, and others that were willing to take a chance on my project. So I built my first hydronic plumbing system, the 2040 Energy prototype system, in my own basement. 

HVAC basement
Photo Courtesy of Joe Strommen

2. Why did you decide you needed to work on the electrification of homes as your full time occupation?

Because nobody else is doing it, and it is a massive opportunity. Equally importantly, it’s an opportunity to make the world better by fighting against climate change.It’s 100% clear to me that electrified heating is the future. Heat pumps and renewable electricity will continue to get better and cheaper, while more and more people—including policymakers and regulators—are understanding the problems caused by fossil fuels. 

 3. Why are you focusing specifically on home heating and water heating?

Home and water heating is a sector that is a major part of my own—and nearly every homeowner’s—carbon footprint, as the two combined make up over 50 percent of a home’s energy use. So far, there doesn’t seem to be much traction around solving it for cold climates. But we already have the technology! Heat pumps are well-established products that have been sold for decades. What’s missing is a way to make them cost-effective and appealing for existing natural gas users. The way we’re approaching this at 2040 Energy is to provide an integrated system: cooling, heating, and hot water, all working together. We also include thermal energy storage (i.e., a big hot water tank) to enable smart-grid technology, which can reduce electricity costs by up to 50 percent.

electric hot water tank
Photo Courtesy of Joe Strommen

4. What are the benefits to homeowners in getting off gas?

At this time, the biggest benefit to going all-electric is being on the forefront of sustainable technology in your home. A new all-electric system is better for the climate today, and will get cleaner every year. I think it’s in a similar position to electric cars 5 years ago, or solar panels 10 years ago.

A more concrete benefit is health related: carbon monoxide (CO) safety. About 20,000 Americans are treated for CO poisoning every year, and the leading cause is faulty gas appliances like furnaces and water heaters in our home. There’s also chronic CO poisoning, caused by long-term low-level exposure, which is very often undiagnosed and can lead to a whole host of medical problems. In my home, there is no longer any combustion, which means there’s no more risk of carbon monoxide. (But building code still requires that I keep the CO detector!)

Electric heat is also extremely reliable. Modern gas furnaces are complicated beasts with a lot of finicky moving parts that tend to fail at the worst possible times: on the first heating day after sitting idle all summer, or on extremely cold days when the system is stressed. Either way it’s an expensive emergency-service visit from a busy technician.

Another benefit specific to 2040 Energy’s electrified system is that we’re building an intelligent heating system. The system continuously monitors energy usage and heating/cooling output, so you always know how efficiently the system is actually running in your home. Our control software is continually optimized and updated, so your heating can get more efficient and cost-effective over time. We’re also monitoring temperature and pressure data inside the equipment so we can diagnose—and in some cases even prevent—maintenance issues. This is the sort of thing people are expecting of their technology in 2019, and no other HVAC system is doing this.

5. What are some of the challenges homeowners face in trying to go all electric?

The biggest challenge is backup heat. Any HVAC professional can install a heat pump for you, but when the polar vortex strikes and the temperature is -20°F, the heat pump will not be able to heat your entire home—so you need a backup heating system. Usually this backup is gas, but if you want to go all electric, then it needs to be electric resistance. 

Electric resistance is very inefficient and expensive to run. This isn’t a big deal, because a properly sized and configured cold-climate system will be running on backup just 5 to 10 percent of the time. But HVAC contractors do not want to install it, and they will think you’re crazy if you ask for it.

Another problem for the HVAC pros is that electric resistance heat can require significant electrical work. This usually means they need to call in a separate electrical contractor, which makes everything more complicated and expensive.

6. What are the cost differentials (upfront as well as ongoing)?

It really depends, and climate/region is a huge factor. If you are in a warm climate that rarely gets below, say, 20°F, going all-electric with an air-source heat pump will be cheaper up-front, and probably ongoing as well. Areas like this are already installing a lot of heat pumps because it makes so much sense.

For colder climates, you will need backup heating, and natural gas is really cheap right now relative to electricity. So you might pay $10,000 more up-front for a cold-climate heat pump with resistance backup, and 30-50% more for the energy to run it.

But you can get started with electrified heating for much less! If you’re replacing your air conditioner, it costs maybe $1,500 extra to replace it with a standard heat pump that will also cover about half of your heating load. But if you want to be able to completely disconnect your gas line, you will need to make a much bigger investment.

For 2040 Energy, this makes the Minneapolis area a perfect place to prove ourselves. By creating an electrified heating system that’s cost-effective here, we have something that we know will work great just about anywhere in the USA (and most of Canada).  And our modeling shows that by integrating thermal energy storage, we can compete with a natural gas system on operating costs! But it will be a few years before our up-front equipment/installation costs are competitive with a typical gas furnace.

7. What are some of the challenges you are facing in working with contractors?

My biggest challenge is that I’m trying to get contractors to install a new product; they are still installing old products. Also, many seasoned professionals have had bad experiences with new technology in the past, and would prefer to wait until the 2nd or 3rd generation before jumping in.

8. What would you recommend for people who have gas-powered furnaces to get started on the switch?

I would start with your other gas appliances, like your clothes dryer and your stove. These are smaller purchases that can get you started down the electrification path. And logistically, these gas lines might be branched off your furnace line, so it would be challenging to keep your gas dryer after the gas furnace is removed.

From there, you should choose whether you want to replace your HVAC system in a piecemeal fashion over time, or if you want to do it all at once. Making the big purchase all at once can be more challenging financially, but will actually cost less overall than separate installations for each piece of your system.

But many people will be more comfortable easing into electrification. So I would say the first step is to replace your air conditioner with an air-source heat pump that can both heat and cool your home. This is the biggest bang for your buck in terms of lowering your gas usage. Then, replace your water heater, and finally your backup heat.

outside heating cooling unit
Photo Courtesy of Joe Strommen

The 2040 Energy system is a fully-integrated system for heating, cooling, and hot water.  But you can still add components one at a time if you choose, starting with the air-source heat pump. And you will still get the full high-tech experience: energy and efficiency monitoring, automated diagnostics, and more.

9. Anything other caveats?

We’ve talked a lot about natural gas, but millions of people get their heat from propane or heating oil, which is much more expensive than natural gas. This makes electrification a lot more appealing. Pretty much anybody using these fuels for heat would save money with an electrified system; it’s a financial no-brainer.

We’ve also talked a lot about furnaces, but many homes do not have central ductwork: they are heated with boilers and radiators, so their situation is a little different. Most people with radiators are electrifying by installing mini-split heat pumps, which mount on the wall in each room to provide both cooling and heating. Then the boiler and radiators provide the backup heat. This works, but the unfortunate part is that there’s no coordination between the boiler and the mini-splits, so they sometimes work against each other. Many people find radiators to be a much more comfortable way to heat rather than warm air blowing out of the mini-split.

The 2040 Energy system can actually replace your boiler with a heat pump system, so you can power your radiators with clean, efficient, electric heat. There are only a few other niche products out there right now doing this, so I think we’re really creating some unique value in this space.

I’m installing in areas near Minneapolis and St. Paul, but I’m happy to help provide guidance for anybody that is working on electrifying their heating. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-08-06T15:21:53+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman