6 burning questions on home electrification, answered

Solar for renters, heat-pump water heaters, home electrification as a service — it’s all here in Electrified Life’s first mailbag edition.
By Alison F. Takemura

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collage of heat-pump water heater, solar, heat pump heater/AC, and single-family home.
(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

Canary Media’s Electrified Life column shares real-world tales, tips and insights to demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and lives to clean electric power. 

If you’ve read this column even once — or ever tried to decarbonize your own home — then you’re aware that embracing the electrified life can be tricky. There’s a confusing array of contractors, tax credits, rebates and equipment to navigate.

We do our best each month to answer what we feel are the most pressing questions on this topic. But in this edition, we’re turning it back to all of you — our readers.

Last month, you sent us your biggest questions about home electrification. In our first-ever mailbag edition, we have answers to six resonant queries, diving into everything from solar for renters to whole-home electrification as a service. Let’s get cracking.

(P.S. If you missed the call for questions, make sure to sign up for our newsletter to catch the next one.)

As a renter interested in solar energy, I’m facing a dilemma. There are no community-solar options available in my area for me to enroll in, and I’m unable to install solar panels on a property I don’t own. Is there a solution for me to pursue solar energy despite these challenges? –JaMar

Well, you could always try to talk to your building owner about having them install panels on the property. They might be motivated by the health, climate and even property-value benefits of solar. Or maybe hearing about the generous federal (and often local) solar incentives available could spur them into action.

But because tenants usually pay the electricity bills, your landlord might remain unmoved. No matter — you’ve got other options.

First, check whether your utility offers a green-power plan, which can support solar (and clean energy in general) indirectly, or find out if you have the option of switching to a community choice aggregator that procures clean power.

You might also be able to donate to or work with community groups that install solar on lower-income homes, or you could get involved in conversations around local solar installations: Maybe the school board is mulling whether to invest in solar.

Or you could directly help others put solar on their roofs. When John Smillie, a finance manager in Indiana, couldn’t install solar panels at home, he donated the money he would’ve spent on them to a local nonprofit to get solar instead. He’s also volunteered his time to help organization leaders grasp the federal solar incentives that can dramatically drive down costs.

And don’t forget systemic solutions: Let your representatives and utility regulators know you want more solar-friendly policy.

Do old-fashioned air conditioners, providing only air cooling, count as heat pumps? Are the new generation of heat pumps — providing both air cooling and space heating — more efficient in either direction, or are they considered more efficient because they can provide both space cooling and heating? –Aaron

Conventional air conditioners are indeed heat pumps,” but they only work in one direction: cooling mode. What we now commonly refer to as heat pumps provide both space heating and cooling because they have a reversing valve that allows them to move heat indoors in winter and dump it outdoors in summer.

As heaters, heat pumps are also routinely three to four times as energy-efficient as fossil-fuel or electric-resistance systems. And they can be more efficient in cooling mode than conventional ACs. Just like cars have different miles-per-gallon ratings, you’ll find heat pumps and ACs can vary widely in their energy efficiency. To find the most efficient models, check their seasonal energy efficiency ratio, or SEER, ratings: the higher the number, the more efficient the unit. (The same holds true for heating seasonal performance factor, which is used to measure heating efficiency.) 

We need new heaters, and I want to look into heat pumps, but we’re having trouble finding a contractor. All the heating contractors seem to want to push gas furnaces, like what we already have. How do we find contractors that actually want to help electrify our house? –Julie

Cora Wyent, director of research at nonprofit Rewiring America, recently came up with a savvy way to address this problem: She prescreened contractors by checking whether their websites mentioned heat pumps.” If not, she didn’t waste her time with them. She also recommends scouring Google and Yelp reviews, checking that customers specifically name this technology. If there’s a whole-home decarbonization company in your area, you could also go that route; they’ll stan heat pumps.

You could also reach out to local climate-action groups and ask if anyone can recommend a heat-pump installer. You might even find a community heat-pump or electrification coach, who will be eager to help you navigate your own clean energy transition.

Also, if your state offers incentives for heat-pump installations, they might list contractors, too; New York state does this, for instance. 

How do I know if I need to upgrade my electrical panel before embarking on widespread electrification in my home? –Anonymous

This is a tricky one, because whether or not you’ll need to upgrade depends on what type of equipment you’re planning to install, how much power it’ll use and how much planning you do ahead of time.

First, check how much electrical service you have now by looking at your main circuit breaker, often found at the top of the panel. If you’ve got 200 amps or more, you’re likely good to electrify without an upgrade. But if you’re running on 60 amps or less, you’ll almost certainly need to boost the amount of power delivered to your home — also known as your electrical service. The cost of doing so can vary widely but is usually steep, somewhere from $2,000 to $30,000.

The midrange is where things get tricky: Electrifying on 100 or 150 amps is often doable, but it takes planning. You might need to weatherize your home; choose heat pumps and EV chargers that require a trickle of power rather than a torrent; and install power-management devices that hammer down peaks in electricity demand. (If you’re interested in diving deeper into these strategies, we wrote about them here.)

Ultimately, you’ll need to consult with an electrician about whether you’ll need to upgrade your electrical panel or service. Try asking a few; you might get different answers. 

How do heat-pump water heaters compare to traditional water heaters in terms of total cost of ownership, reliability, efficiency, etc.? –Anonymous

Heat-pump water heaters are up to five times as efficient as gas and resistance water heaters. (Gobsmacking!) And their reliability is comparable to conventional water heaters, with the heat-pump versions having an expected lifetime of 13 to 15 years.

They do cost more upfront. For example, a 50-gallon heat-pump model from leading manufacturer Rheem has a price tag of $1,699 — more than double that of the comparable resistance water heater ($789).

But the tech can net substantial savings on energy bills. Consider a family of four swapping out a gas water heater to install a heat-pump model; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates they’d save $200 each year. Switching from resistance, they’d save an estimated $550 per year.

The federal government also has incentives to drive down the cost of heat-pump water heaters. A 30 percent tax credit (up to $2,000) covers equipment and installation costs. For lower-income households, generous federal rebates (up to $1,750) are coming soon.

Are there any concierge services that help with developing a long-term plan for electrification and then execute it? It would be very helpful to know who can advise this process holistically and consider insulation, appliances, the electrical panel, load management, batteries, solar, heat pumps, EV-to-home solutions, cost implications, permitting, etc., as a whole-home project. –Austin

Companies do indeed exist whose top priority is to help grease the wheels of home electrification. Some one-stop shops can upgrade electrical panels and wiring, weatherize homes, and install heat pump heaters/​ACs, heat-pump water heaters, heat-pump clothes dryers, induction stoves, EV chargers, solar and batteries.

On the financial upside, they’ll typically find and manage for you all of the incentives you’re likely to qualify for.

A few notable startups in this space include Elephant Energy (Colorado, Massachusetts), Helio Home (Colorado), GeoSolar Technologies (Colorado) and QuitCarbon (California). The companies generally build up networks of contractors to carry out the work of electrification.

Because it takes time to learn about different housing markets and grow these networks, the startups in this space don’t operate everywhere. To find out if there’s an option near you, check out QuitCarbon’s list of home-electrification startups (as well as incentive programs) around the U.S. and the world. You can also scour the internet for local contractors who have metamorphosed into whole-home electrification service providers. Wyent of Rewiring America expects we’ll see more companies make this move.


Stay tuned for more answers to come in a future mailbag edition. What’s more, some questions we got were so juicy that they deserve their own stand-alone articles. In the meantime, if you’ve got more home-electrification questions, keep them coming!

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.