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Bruce Nilles House Electrification

Gas to Electric: A Success Story

By Camille LeFevre Rise Home Feature Editor
May 5, 2019

In a recent video Rise produced, Bruce Nilles, a senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), talked about the decision to transform his home from one with gas-powered appliances to an all-electric home. The former director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, Nilles has focused his work at RMI on replacing remaining US coal plants with clean energy, using a new initiative that promotes switching from gas to electrical power in buildings. About a year ago, he realized that his family’s biggest carbon footprint was their Oakland home. (See his recent New York Times op-ed piece he co-authored with Justin Gillis: Your Gas Stove is Bad for Both You and the Planet.)

Induction Stovetop
Bruce Nilles Induction Stovetop

In part due to utility company advertising, homeowners have long believed that natural gas is a cleaner energy option than using electricity to power home appliances. That used to be accurate, Nilles explains. “A decade ago, the majority of our electricity came from coal, and the only appliance options were inefficient energy guzzlers. Now coal use has halved. Clean energy sources like wind and solar are booming. Modern electric appliances are upward of two to four times more efficient. A recent RMI report concludes that electric homes are now cleaner and will only continue to get cleaner as our electric grid shifts from coal and gas to wind and solar.”

Gas, however, is still a non-renewable fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx), a precursor to smog. Around 48 percent of homes in the US still rely on propane or natural gas for heat. Nilles learned that “in California, we burn as much gas in power plants as we do in our homes—that’s 40 million people burning gas, a fossil fuel,” he says. “That knocked me over.”

Moreover, he realized that burning natural gas inside his home was unhealthy for his family. “Natural gas plants in California have pollution controls; the gas-powered furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and clothes dryers on our homes do not,” he says. Studies conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that in 2014, during any given week during the winter in Northern California, when homeowners close the windows, 12 million residents with gas-powered stoves are breathing levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that the EPA has recognized as illegal outside.

So, Nilles and his wife Bonnie got busy. They replaced their aging gas stove and oven, water heater, and clothes dryer with electric versions. They installed solar panels to power the house and replaced their gas-powered car with a pre-owned Tesla. They now live with their two young children in an all-electric, emission-free house.

“It’s a solvable problem,” Nilles says of converting home appliances from gas to electric. “It’s time to connect the dots between pieces of the carbon footprint we leave and figure out what parts we can solve. Converting to electric is one of the quickest and easiest things we can do.” Here’s how they did it.

Contractors and Permits

Nilles started by calling several contractors about converting to electricity. “They asked why,” he recalls. “I explained. They thought I should keep gas because that was all they knew. They weren’t listening, so they weren’t the right people for the job.”

As Build With Rise’s editor, Melissa Rappaport Schifman, had noted about her own home, “When we built our house ten years ago, it was all about efficiency… natural gas was [a] more efficient and less expensive choice for heating. In addition, natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal. Because the electrical grid was primarily fueled by coal, natural gas-powered equipment was the cleaner choice for our air.”

The electrical grid, however, has been getting cleaner in the last decade, Nilles says. Even though “utilities and efficiency experts keep pushing gas, electric is quickly becoming a cleaner, safer option.” Eventually, Nilles “found a contractor who is an evangelist for the conversion from gas to electric. He’d done a bunch of houses, including his own.” Nilles set out to get the necessary permits from the City of Oakland. “They were super nice but said no, you couldn’t have a permit.”

A supervisor went over the California legal code with Nilles. “It said homeowners weren’t allowed to install resistance electric, the old-fashioned kind of electrical current used in appliances akin to incandescent lightbulbs. But I was going to use heat pumps,” a device that moves thermal energy in the opposite direction of spontaneous heat transfer, by absorbing heat from a cold space and releasing it to a warmer one. Nilles got his permit—three of them, in fact—for mechanical, plumbing, and electrical work. Price tag: $925.

Next, Nilles hired an electrician to upgrade the fuse box from 110A to 200A and run wires for the clothes dryer, stove, furnace, hot-water heater, and Tesla. Price tag: $5,000.

Selecting Electrical Appliances

Because gas appliances had come with the house when Nilles and his wife purchased it six years ago, they were about ten years old. One option for them was to convert to electric piece by piece, replacing each appliance over the next couple of years on an as-needed basis. Instead, they decided to do it all at once. Here’s how they did it.

The stove and oven were first. “It’s the appliance we interact with the most, several times a day, every day,” Nilles says. Bonnie hesitated. She did most of the cooking and loved how fast and responsive the gas stove was. Then they saw that Nate the House Whisperer, on Twitter, recommend an induction hot plate.

“We bought one on Amazon for $70,” Nilles says. “The hot plate gave us great insight as to how fast, sensitive, and safe induction is. It’s the Tesla of cooking.” They splurged on a GE Café with knobs. “It’s beautiful, does just what we want, and is a real workhorse,” Nilles says.

Electric Dryer
Bruce Nilles Electric Dryer

Next came the clothes dryer, which the family uses on days when they can’t hang their clothes outside. They found one made by Whirlpool. “If you operate an electric resistance dryer on the lowest setting for twice as along, it’s getting close in efficiency to a heat-pump dryer,” Nilles says. “We use the eco setting on our Whirlpool dryer, which uses a lower temperature—better for the longevity of our clothes—and less electricity.”

During a visit to Home Depot in Emeryville, all they found for hot-water heaters were gas or resistance electric. So Nilles did more research.

Nilles’s contractor supplied the home with an A O Smith water heater. “We had a 40 gallon previously, so we thought because of the way heat pumps work—slow and steady—we might want a bigger hot water heater,” Nilles explains, “so we bought a 65 gallon, which we don’t need. Fifty would have been sufficient.” An unexpected bonus of having a heat-pump hot-water heater in the basement? “It also cools and dehumidifies the space,” Nilles adds.

A new energy-sipping Carrier Performance heat pump heats the home in the winter months. “I did the research and realized heat pumps are three to five times more efficient than a gas furnace,” Nilles explains, “so an additional way we saved money was downsizing the heat pump to the maximum capacity we might need.”

Bonus: A heat pump can run in reverse to provide air conditioning in the summer, which the family hadn’t had before. They love that the heat pump heats their home with a lot less noise and provides gentle, consistent heating without giant bursts of hot air, which they experienced with the gas furnace.

Time for Solar

Three years ago, Nilles had looked into solar. Because most of the home’s energy use was natural gas, and the family used a gasoline-powered car, solar looked expensive. “With all of our new electricity use, and because we also now have an electric vehicle, we had the scale to make solar work for us,” he says. A crew installed 19 panels, 7.2 kilowatts (kW) system, in a day. “It was an amazing operation,” Nilles says. “It looks like we’re on track to meet all of our electricity needs on an annual basis, so we’ve zeroed out most of our utility bills.”

Solar Panels
Bruce Nilles Solar Panels

Nilles projects a six-to-nine-year payback for the solar installation. “For homeowners, the payback depends, in part, on how you attribute the cost of new electrical appliances,” he explains. “If you assume you’ll have to replace them anyway within the next couple of years, the cost only seems slightly expensive. But we’ve also factored in the fact that we now have air conditioning. As climate change continues, with more fires and smoke in California and hotter summers, air conditioning is an asset. And it’s solar-powered, so we’re not contributing to climate change.”

Make the Change

At Rise, we wholeheartedly believe that switching from gas to electric-powered appliances is one of the most impactful things we can do to our own homes to fight climate change. Thanks to leaders like Bruce Nilles, we see how it can be done—and that significant health benefits come with it!

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: 2021-08-17T20:07:05+0000
Camille LeFevre

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Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.