My own climate home makeover plan
A climate reporter turns to her own house.
(Above: My husband tries out our freshly installed home car charger in January)
Last week I interviewed Laura Norton Amico about her new project, Climate Comes Home. It's in the early days, but she's organizing her work around the idea that local communities can offer the best information for people who want to make climate-friendly changes to their own home. Laura's project dovetails with a lot of reporting I've done and read about cutting carbon pollution from buildings. As she said:
When you look at how many adaptation actions are organized, you see that there are hyper-local specifics, including service providers and financial assistance, that influence the answers to these questions. And so a network of trusted neighbors becomes really important.
This week I'm turning to my own house as an example and showing my work with a few key questions from my own roadmap.
We live in a 70-year-old, semi-detached brick home in Washington, DC. We have an electric air conditioner to cool the house, a gas furnace to heat it, a gas-fired stove and range top and tankless water heater, all installed by the previous owners.
Given my previous reporting, you’d think the stove would be at the top of my home renovation list. Do I lose my mind a little bit every time I cook food? Certainly. But when it comes to the largest emissions impact, heating is bigger deal than a stove.
According to literally everyone, this is the time I should be planning to replace the heating system, when it’s working and a few years out from its replacement date. The idea would be to replace both the AC and the furnace with a heat pump.
But I know our house is not air-tight and probably is not as well as insulated as it could be. A heat pump works best in an efficient house. So my first question is: How energy inefficient is my home? And what efficiency upgrades do I need to do in order for a heat pump to make sense?
The stove, which we cleaned top to bottom after the 2023 Mice Incident, is more likely to fail first. But if we wanted to go for an induction stove (or probably any electrical stove) we’d need to add a 240v outlet there. After moving in, we realized that our electrical wiring is… wacky, to put it kindly, so we've approached any project that touches electricity with crossed fingers. Second question: how complicated would be it be to add a 240v outlet to our kitchen?
Now the biggie: solar panels. We have a great roof for them -- flat, south-facing, newly-replaced. Our next door neighbors recently doubled their installation size. The mid-Atlantic grid still heavily uses fossil fuels, so this would be a big impact, but our temperamental electric system gives me pause. Third question: Does the status of our electrical wiring make solar panels an issue?
So what have we done so far? Fixing something that bothered us so deeply for the past few years of renting: not having a dedicated car charger for our plug-in hybrid.
But our parking spot is the very back of our backyard, down a 25-foot slope in an alleyway. The vast amount of the cost would be running a wire so far away from our electric panel, well above what it would cost to install a charger on the side of a house or in an attached garage.
We decided to do it anyway, even though the official pay-back time was a little silly, given how little we drive. But we’ll be able to use IRA-related tax credits to pay for part of the installation cost.
So why choose this relatively small emissions impact project first? It was a special thrill to pull our car into our own parking space for the first time and charge. It hasn’t really worn away. More importantly, we have future proofed the house in a way I don’t think anyone else in our block has.
In something I couldn’t script if I tried, as we were finishing the charger install, our alleyway neighbor pulled her Tesla into her parking spot. “Oh, we thought about that,” she said, mentioning she needed to go to the Supercharger soon. “I’m very jealous.”
Postscript: As I was writing this, I came across this extensive and readable guide of how one Chicagoan went about preparing for and installing heat pumps in his 100 year old house. It's given me a lot of ideas about what next steps I need to take from these baseline questions.
More local climate action stories
- "Leaders in North Port St. Joe had big plans for tourism, real estate, even a Black history museum. Then they found out, almost by accident, that elected officials had been pushing the LNG terminal for years without telling them". I've been reporting on the push for giant gas export terminals in Louisiana and Texas, but this story about a potential terminal in Florida shows the potential impact of even a smaller sized facility.
- Georgia’s hedge against climate change: the Okefenokee’s peat
- Remember the Cultivando air monitoring edition? The refinery nearby them had yet another hazardous leak
- Bill banning greenhouse gas analysis from permitting decisions is in the hands of Montana's governor
- Why Texas, a 'clean' energy powerhouse, is about to hit the brakes on renewables
- Tucson signs pact with local utility to pursue 100% renewable energy for government operations
- A California state law calling for utility bills to be based on household income could drive adoption of EVs and heat pumps — or punish rooftop solar and efficiency.
- 12 power plants among the largest industrial climate polluters in Pennsylvania