By Sherry Listgarten
Grand pronouncements vs nuts and boltsUploaded: Nov 21, 2021
I was in a meeting recently where a staff member of a Bay Area city said they were looking to accelerate their carbon neutral goal from 2045 to 2030. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. Until a city has a convincing and vetted plan to put a charger in every full-day parking space and a heat pump (or two) in every residence and business, these pronouncements are not worth the paper they are written on. How many chargers and heat pumps need to be installed to hit carbon neutral? How many is that per week? What is the plan to achieve that? Has the plan been rolled out enough to achieve 5% of that? 1%? Has any pilot been shown to be sufficiently effective?
I am frustrated because getting this done is not easy and I’d rather we focus on results than on grand pronouncements. Consider that the latest version of the California building code doesn’t even require a charger in each residential spot for new construction. To achieve big emissions reductions, we need to go beyond and address existing buildings, which are even more difficult. What is the plan to put a charger in every parking spot in multi-family buildings, in single-family homes (including those with remote owners), in hotels? What about all staff parking spots at schools, city buildings, and small and large businesses? I have no problem if this is mostly 120-volt chargers, but it’s got to be something, and soon if the target year is 2030. We can’t just hope that people will replace their gas cars with EVs if they have no convenient place to charge them. Hope is not a strategy.
Heat pump water heaters (HWPHs) have also got to roll out quickly to meet any kind of carbon neutral goal for 2030. But adoption in these early days can take some patience and persistence. More people are getting these, but I also hear from people who want one but are stymied because of the cost or difficulty or because they have concerns about noise. Wrote one reader recently: “I'm contemplating giving up, between the trial I've gone through of finally finding a half-decent priced installer, and now the fear of getting a noisy unit.” A contractor told me a few weeks ago that he is taking a break from installing Rheem HPWHs because the risk of one exceeding its decibel rating seems to have increased with the latest version.
One contractor who has done many HPWH installations detailed the challenges he faces to do these quickly at low cost in an email to BayREN. The points he made were:
1. Inventory. The products are not reliably in stock. If an installed gas-fired water heater starts leaking and the customer wants to replace it with a HPWH, he may need to pay a premium to the few warehouses that do have it or install a temporary resistance heater while he is waiting. That is extra labor and materials.
I can relate to this. I ordered an 80-gallon 15-amp model in August, and just maybe it will come in next week. This isn’t specific to HPWHs, of course -- supply-chain problems are rampant -- but it’s something we need to take into account and pre-order if possible, or be flexible enough to use one that is in stock. I ordered mine before I need it, so the delay is no problem, but it’s longer than I thought it would be.
2. Permit/Rebate process. The paperwork and processes for permits and rebates are extensive, unpredictable, and not standardized across jurisdictions. He has had to hire someone to do nothing but this.
One of my neighbors can relate. She had difficulty finding out which class of historic district we are in, a piece of information that was needed to fill out the permit for her HPWH. She said: “One arm of the City is really encouraging us to go electric, while the permitting arm is making the process quite laborious.”
My mom can also relate to this. She wrote to me: “My HPWH permit application has become more complicated for the installers. They need to fill out an updated application form and get a license for Foster City. Both the installer and the electrician have to get FC business licenses. Yes, they got an emergency permit to do the work. BUT now that it is a HPWH the rules are different. I suspect they are not happy. Now I am going to write the installer a note thanking him for completing the rebate application since I imagine they are fed up with this.”
3. Product quality. Product quality is not as reliable as it should be. The contractor says: “We have had to make return visits to a huge % of installs because the clients complain about noise. We have spent hours talking to sales reps. We now stock replacement fans and have had to send our plumbing team back on multiple occasions to replace the factory installed fan in an attempt to quiet the machine. The product we install is listed as the quietest available, yet some of them are louder than a running gas automobile.”
You can find relevant threads here and here, as well as in the comments on the Rheem product page. I have reached out to Rheem multiple times for comment but they have not responded. Fortunately, if you do order a Rheem and are unlucky enough to get a noisier one, you can use the time settings so it doesn’t run when the sound will bother you, at least until your contractor is able to fix or replace it.
4. Site variability. There is a wide variety of installations. The contractor said they typically need to visit a site to assess electrical requirements, placement, venting, and more just to provide an estimate. “Each installation is a new puzzle to be solved.”
This is what reality looks like -- it’s much messier than carbon-neutral-in-2030 fantasies. These earlier adoptions can require extra patience on the part of all involved, and we need to learn from them and improve. I suggest that cities with aggressive climate ambitions proactively step in to help mitigate these issues before announcing audacious goals and asking everyone to electrify. For example, a city or partner organization might:
1. Stockpile inexpensive chargers and heat pump water heaters (especially larger ones, so that fewer people make the mistake of installing one that’s too small). This will help with availability and cost, and provide contractors with a backstop in case of reliability issues. It may also give us some influence with the manufacturers.
2. Train and incentivize installers. Determine how many we need and plan the training accordingly. I would suggest that rebates go to installers rather than customers. To the extent rebates are difficult to attain, it’s better for the installer to have their own motivation to pursue them. My mom shouldn’t feel like she needs to write an apology letter for wanting a permit and rebate.
3. Build out neighborhood expertise, so neighbors can help each other to evaluate charger or heat pump placement, electrical needs, and more. This can save contractors time. Consider developing a form with photos that customers can fill out to help installers more easily evaluate difficulty. Perhaps we can standardize prices for certain types/levels of installations, as guided by the forms. SunWork, for example, has an inexpensive price for a specific type of simple HPWH installation.
4. Right-size the permitting process, especially for EV chargers and tank-for-tank water heater substitutions. Try to standardize processes across the peninsula.
5. Consider stockpiling and educating installers about circuit splitters, which can make it easier to install a new 240-volt appliance. A heat pump could share a circuit with a nearby clothes dryer, or an induction stove and an EV charger could share a circuit, as the loads tend to be complimentary.
6. Follow-up on early installations. Ensure they are successful by understanding the customer experience after one month and again after six months. Share feedback with installers and adjust processes to help. Understand if people are using their space heat pumps for heating or only for cooling. Develop incentives to encourage the former if needed.
If a city is serious about reducing emissions, then it cannot just delegate the enormous number of installations needed to a cottage industry of small contractors. Cities and the utilities and other organizations they partner with need to more proactively recruit, support, and incentivize our contractor partners for the effort that lies ahead.
Current Climate Data (October 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
Stat of the week: EVs were 7.2 percent of global sales in the first half of 2021, up from 4.3 percent in 2020 and just 2.6 percent in 2019. (The US lags behind at just 3 percent, though that represents solid growth for our country.)
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