Environment

“Just Get Rid Of That Thing!” — Visualizing Seemingly Interchangeable Home Energy Flows

The Power Squeeze That Inspired Me

Last month, I bought a house. I could have afforded something a lot nicer, but I didn’t feel like being in debt up to my eyeballs. So, I bought a doublewide manufactured home that needed some repairs that I could do. After the purchase and getting the basic things out of the way, I found out that the electrical service was more limited than I thought.

My house’s electrical service.

EV owners who’ve had rural adventures probably recognize what this is: an RV park-style pedestal, like you’d plug a car into to get level 2 charging. It even has a NEMA 14-50 plug in the box, but it has been disconnected inside.

The subdivision my house is in was never a “trailer park” where people rent spaces from a single owner and don’t own their little patch of land, but the electrical service for the subdivision was clearly set up for very limited power needs. Some of my neighbors with singlewide trailers even use the NEMA 14-50 plug directly (mine is hardwired inside the pedestal and fed into the house via conduit).

After consulting with an electrician and opening the box up, there was some good news and bad news. The service lines coming in from the electric utility can handle 100 amps. The bad news? Whoever wired the house up to this service only ran 6-gauge wire, limiting the connection from pedestal to house to 50 amps. Fortunately, there is headroom for me to add one more breaker and give my car 30 amps for level 2 charging, but that will require I run wires from the pedestal up to the driveway.

The house is still limited, though. The house itself was designed to get 100 amps of power, but until I upgrade the wires from the pedestal to the house’s breaker panel, that’s not possible. That leaves me having to make choices about what I electrify in the house. Normally, I’d run space heaters in the winter to avoid having a big gas bill and carbon footprint, but 1300 watts in seven rooms comes out to 37 amps all by itself, leaving no room for other needs like kitchen cooking, running the clothes dryer, or much else.

With EV charging and all other needs, there’s really not room right now to run a central electric-powered heat and air conditioning system, an electric oven and range, or an electric water heater.

“Just Get Rid Of That Thing!” — or The Interchangeability Of Energy

In the long run, I’m going to have to upgrade my house’s power service from the electric company to electrify everything. 200 amps would leave a lot more room for everything, but that’s expensive. This will probably happen at the same time I get solar and battery storage, and by putting everything on electricity, my house will be prepared for long power outages with no interruptions.

As I discussed these expenses, I had family members question my sanity.

“Just get rid of that thing!” one extended family member said, referring to my Nissan LEAF. The idea of upgrading or worrying about home electrical service to avoid burning gasoline seemed downright alien to them.

“Why worry? You have a gas furnace for heat, and cooking with gas is fine. Gas water heaters are better anyway,” another person in the family said. “You won’t have to upgrade your power if you just use natural gas like everyone else. Plus, gas is cheap.”

It was at this point that I realized just how interchangeable energy is for most people. They don’t care where the energy comes from, as long as the car keeps taking them places, the house is warm in the winter, and there’s hot water and hot food.

Why the House Survived on 50 Amps Since the 1990s

To many readers, 50 amps of power might seem downright anorexic. A house just can’t survive on such little power, right?

A combination of other power sources made this possible, though.

For one, New Mexico’s low humidity most of the year makes it possible to cool a house with evaporative (or “swamp”) coolers. This type of cooler only draws 10–15 amps @ 120 volts (so that’s only 5-8 amps of the house’s 240 volt service). This relatively small amount of electricity turns a motor powering a squirrel cage fan that sucks air through wet filter pads on the outside of the unit, cooling the ambient air 20–30 degrees and shoving it into the house. So, a mix of water service and power provided the cooling.

Heating, most cooking, and the hot water heater all happened with gas. An electric range/oven alone can pull 40 amps, or almost 10 kW all by itself. An electric water heater pulls 4 kW. Central refrigerated air with a heat pump can pull 15 kW. By putting all of that work on the gas pipes instead of the electrical service, there just isn’t much need for electricity.

All of this energy comes at cost, though. “Natural” gas is a lot cleaner than burning fuel oil, firewood, or coal, but it still emits carbon and produces a lot of waste heat. Getting water for an evaporative cooler requires not only energy, but uses a lot of water, and that’s not a great thing to do in a desert.

This Is The Status Quo

Looking at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s U.S. energy flow charts shows us just how normal this mix of energy is for most Americans. Around half of the energy going into the average American household comes in the form of natural gas, while half of the energy comes in the form of electricity. But, further up the chain, a big chunk of electricity generation is also natural gas and other fossil fuels.

As we know, electricity has the advantage of being able to change sources over time. A gas furnace will always burn gas, but an electric heat pump can run on whatever the power company runs on. Or, even better, one can run an electric appliance from solar panels and batteries mounted on their own house, ultimately making for nearly zero emissions while giving the household better resiliency in the face of disasters.

But, it’s tough to get people to want to spend their hard-earned money switching out their furnace, water heater, and gas range/oven for something that runs on electricity. In some houses, this could mean not only an expensive re-wiring of the house, but needing an expensive new power service from the electric company.

This status quo means many people would rather just buy another gas appliance when it comes time to replace it (usually because it failed), because that’s the cheaper option that will give people the smallest hit to their savings or credit card. For people renting, they don’t get a choice in the matter in most cases, and the property’s owner will replace the appliance with whatever’s cheapest.

Getting out of this status quo is going to be the key to the energy transition.

A Minimalist Approach Might Be Even Better

At the same time, though, I have to wonder whether cutting back energy use, including electricity, could be the most environmentally-friendly way to to here. But, that’s going to have to wait for another article.

Featured image: 2020 U.S. energy use flow chart from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy.

 

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