Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

She’s a clean-energy pro. Electrifying her home was still a slog

In just 15 months, Judy Ko got a heat pump, solar, a home battery, insulation, an EV and more. Here’s what was easy about the process — and what was just crazy.”
By Alison F. Takemura

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Collage of solar panels on a roof, cityscape and skyline color-treated green and blue, with a photo of a woman with glasses.
Judy Ko had solar panels installed on the roof of her San Francisco home to make clean power. (Judy Ko)

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. 

Cutting fossil fuels out of our homes and commutes can be a formidable challenge. But the climate dividends would be huge: more than 40 percent of U.S. energy emissions come from our appliances, home energy sources and cars, according to electrification nonprofit Rewiring America.

In 2022, Judy Ko decided to take up the challenge and start electrifying her 1965 San Francisco home. The principal of climatetech consultancy LK Hillside admits that, even though she’s a clean-energy expert, the project was a bear. I wasn’t able to tackle it until I had a six-month sabbatical,” she told Canary Media — a chunk of time most people don’t have access to.

Her home isn’t totally free of fossil gas — the gas stove lingers — but she’s made immense progress. Over a 15-month slog, Ko has successfully swapped her gas furnace and water heater for an uber-efficient heat pump and heat-pump water heater, put in insulation and bought an EV. She also installed solar panels and a home battery to power her home and car.

That makes Ko among the early movers toward an electrified life, and her still-ongoing journey is rife with lessons that could help the rest of us. Canary Media caught up with her to ask about how she managed it, what projects were toughest — and what benefits she’s reaping now.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

There are so many pieces to electrifying our homes and vehicles. How did you decide where to start? 

Our game plan was based on: What is the natural end of life for some of the big pieces of equipment or portions of the home? When is it time to redo the roof? When are our furnace, water heater and car getting close to their end of life?

Part of it was also [asking] what’s the biggest bang for the buck. We knew insulation would make a really big difference.

So we decided to go ahead and do the insulation, the solar and the heat pumps. And the sequencing was logical. For example, roofing is tied to when you install the solar. And we were trying to size the solar system to account for an EV and heat pumps, so I worked with the solar company to estimate the number of panels.

I also spoke with QuitCarbon [a home-decarbonization company based in California]; they helped me think through all of the pieces.

[And] I talked to my electrician, who I’ve used for many years. But he’s clearly influenced by the conservative media’s take on all this climate stuff. He was pooh-poohing heat pumps: Natural gas is great. If you get a heat pump, the grid’s going to collapse!” 

Did he remain your electrician for the heat-pump job?

No, I ended up working with someone else. I still like him; I work with him on our normal electrical jobs. But he was sufficiently skeptical that I wanted to work with someone who was more on board.

You tackled a wide range of home-decarbonization projects with varying levels of difficulty. What were the easiest projects, and why?

The solar install and the re-roof were easy. We were able to find a local contractor that was able to do both. They were also, frankly, a very good contractor: well-organized, easy to work with, good communications.

They also ended up doing the electrical panel because they have an electrician in-house. Later, they installed the battery. Having [a contractor with] three trades in-house — the roofing, the solar and electrical — made things a lot easier.

And those projects were also just not that invasive. The electrical panel and the Powerwall [home battery] are down in our garage area; if we lose that space for a while, it’s not a big deal.

Replacing the water heater with a heat-pump water heater was also quite easy. 

Let’s get to the juicy stuff. What was the hardest project? What challenges did it throw in your way?

Going from a gas furnace to a ducted heat pump was a little painful because we had to redo some of our ducts. Heat pumps need a higher volume of air circulation to work because the temperature differential isn’t as strong. [Editor’s note: In some cases, but not all, switching to a heat pump may require getting larger ducts.] 

In a utility room, grey water heater tank tank, silver-colored ducts run to large grey metal boxy appliance - blower.
Ko installed a heat-pump water heater, heat-pump air blower and new ductwork. (Judy Ko)

But by far the most painful piece of the retrofit was the blown-in insulation. We had to Swiss-cheese our walls and move every single piece of furniture in our whole house because the contractor needed 4 feet of working space around all the walls.

Interior of a room at night with tennis-ball sized holes pierced in regular rows in the walls and furniture covered in tarp.
To get blown-in insulation — which is inserted through holes drilled in the walls — Ko and her family had to move all their furniture, and they moved out of their home for three weeks. (Judy Ko)

Having gone through it, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect most people to add blown-in insulation while they’re living in a house. It’s just crazy. I think a sane person would only do it if they were undergoing a big transition — like selling a house or doing a kitchen remodel and moving out anyway. Or if you’re buying a house and you do it before you move in.

We’ve got to figure out how to do insulation from the outside. That’s what we ended up doing with our roof. We have a flat roof like a lot of San Francisco houses. Since [the contractors] were pulling up our roof anyway, they just put in a layer of insulation; it’s polyiso foam board that’s about 2 inches thick. They put that down and [installed] the roofing material on top. That worked great. It added maybe just six hours of labor. 

Large, flat foam boards with beige sides and white centers are stacked inside and outside of a garage.
Using polyiso foam board made insulating the roof from the outside fast and easy. (Judy Ko)

To do the insulation project, you moved out of your house for three weeks. Where did you go?

We went on vacation for one week, and then we squished into my mom’s two-bedroom condo — my husband, two kids, me, a dog and a cat. My kids are teenagers; they take up a lot of space. 

What were the challenges of working with multiple contractors?

In essence, I became a general contractor; I was essentially coordinating all these subcontractors because there were dependencies between the projects.

For example, since we needed to put the compressor unit for the heat pump on our roof, there were dependencies on getting the roof redone and getting electrical run up there. But the people who did the heat pump didn’t have electricians in-house, so we were using the electrician from our solar company. 

Taken from a rooftop overlooking other homes and a blue sky. Black solar panels and boxy, cream heat pump box on roof.
The heat-pump system’s outdoor compressor/condenser unit could only be installed once the roof was redone and the electrical wiring was run up. (Judy Ko)

It’s interesting — they both said to me upfront that they would coordinate with each other, and that they had both worked on projects together before. (I worked with two local, not national, companies.)

[But then] all of the communications went through me and my husband; [the companies] did not talk to each other directly at all. I’d have to get the circuit specs from one company to send to the other, then we’d have to align on timeframes. If something got rained out, then we’d have to reschedule.

And then there was a kerfuffle around who was responsible for getting inspections for certain things. One contractor assumed the other contractor was going to schedule an inspection with San Francisco — and that [added] like a month.

There are actually some general-contractor companies that specialize in home decarbonization. It’s an emerging field.

It’s going to have to grow. Or we need to find a way to get more of the trades under one [contractor’s] roof. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to get people to retrofit — it’s just going to be too hard. 

How has making all of these upgrades changed your life? What benefits have you noticed?

There are certainly economic benefits. Partially because we were able to get our [solar] project in under NEM 2.0 [net-energy metering compensation program] here in California, my utility bill now is like 14 bucks. Now that we have an EV, we don’t spend any money at the gas pump.

And the house overall is much more comfortable. Before it was insulated, there were huge temperature swings. The top floor was incredibly hot in the summer, and like most San Francisco houses, we didn’t have air conditioning. My husband has definitely enjoyed having cooling on the hot days.

As someone who thinks a lot about climate and, frankly, has a fair amount of climate guilt, this alleviated a significant portion of that. We’re making a reasonable dent [in our emissions].

You’ve written that your husband noticed the resiliency benefits in the first 27 hours of having solar and a home battery. Could you share more?

We had a nuisance outage — the power went out for a couple of hours. I was traveling that week, so he texted me: Hey, I just got this ping, and our block is blacked out. I didn’t even notice! We still have power here. This is great.” 

What advice do you have for others looking to decarbonize their homes?

I think most homeowners can do something, even if it’s as simple as installing a heat-pump water heater. That was a relatively small project. [And] I think a lot of people could do solar.

So at least try to do the easy stuff. And if something is just too hard, it’s OK. That failing is not on the homeowner — it’s on the industry, and we have to come up with a different solution.

So many people in my social network who believe in climate change don’t know what to do. And I’m talking about people who, in other facets of their life, are extremely empowered. 

I’m trying to show that you can do something.

Interested in turning your house into a clean-energy dream home? The U.S. government has a bevy of incentives. Figure out which ones apply to you with this cheat sheet to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits and forthcoming rebates.

There’s even a tax break for getting a home energy audit, which experts recommend as a first step to your home-decarbonization journey.

If you want to build a personalized home-electrification roadmap, check out Canary’s coverage of a free tool to do just that.

Find more tips and resources on starting your electrification journey here.

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