Electrification: a big shock

When a Midwestern Man swaps his lawn tools—take notice.

The joke is that Chicago has only two seasons—“winter and construction”—but in my native land, the suburbs, “winter and lawn care” is more like it. From the time they can stand, Midwestern children receive training in lawn tools, beginning with the humble rake, advancing progressively through leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers, and finally, lawn mowers, the most promising taught to use chainsaws, and mulchers.

And it all ran on gas. I remember thinking what a strange choice it was when our neighbor a few doors down opted for an electric mower sometime in the mid-’90s: sure, it never needed gas, but you were forever on the lookout for the cord. But the bigger problem: it was wimpy. One stick, one dangling root, it was game over, the high-pitched sound coming to a stop.

But that choice—going electric—is a choice many of us will make soon. A confluence of factors—chiefly high-performance lithium-ion batteries—means today’s electric tools get all the upsides of electric (simplicity, reliability, safety) with none of yesterday’s performance downsides. But it won’t stop there. A cleaner grid, distributed electricity generation (rooftop- and community-scale solar, wind, and geothermal), and tougher environmental regulation have raised the odds your next water heater, car, or stove will be all-electric. A growing “electrify everything” movement advocates electric vehicles and “cutting the pipe”, preferring electrical versions of cooking, heating, drying—everything.

Despite its benefits, the road to electrification isn’t all smooth. First: heat pumps are great, but lose efficiency in cold climates, requiring high-power resistive heating that can drive bills to $400-600/month even in small apartments with inexpensive electricity. Second, we’re going to need a lot more capacity—in our homes, and in the grid. And finally, the workforce isn’t skilled for it—it’s going to take a lot more electricians than we have now to build all this, presenting one fo the biggest workforce opportunities in decades.

The benefits

For some, going green is enough—but at what cost? Illinois has a long history of clean nuclear power, but that didn’t stop my childhood neighbors from avoiding electric lawn tools. The nice thing is that, today, you don’t have to choose: you get all the benefits of electric, with equivalent performance as gas.

Start with safety: who doesn’t want to get explosive, carcinogenic chemicals out of their house? As the son of a career manufacturing/factory guy, I grew tired of seeing “Caution” signs all over the house, but my dad had a point: 30 years in a factory around spot-welders and cold-rolled metal had taught him what’s actually dangerous, vs. what only appears so. Gasoline is the former—it’s dangerous. Gasoline spills onto floors, gets into rags and clothing, and evaporates into fumes that collect near the floor, waiting for the tiniest bit of static electricity to spark, incinerating your house or garage in the process. Natural gas is better, but given the chance, wouldn’t you choose to eliminate pilot lights, one more source of failure and fire? And how about a world where carbon monoxide poisoning, exhaust fumes, broken flue pipes, and leaky gas lines were a thing of the past?

And then there’s reliability. Gasoline engines are remarkable pieces of engineering—hundreds of moving parts smashing into each other to create and harness mechanical work from thousands of tiny chemical explosions. Doing this well requires oil, sparks, cam shafts, timing rods, fuel injectors, and hundreds of other small, but critical things. All the complexity of an electric vehicle is in the design and control of its power system—the battery—the motor is little more than magnets, and a conductive wire. Heating is better, but pilot lights go out and electric ignition systems fail—electric heating elements rarely do either.

And finally, the environment—electrification offers the potential to reduce direct carbon emissions from engines and appliances, sure, but what about the rest: pipelines, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and periodic disasters (Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez), all in consequence of the search for oil and gas? The good news is, at least in the United States, things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly—a dozen coal bankruptcies in the past five years, rapid growth in utility- and rooftop-PV (solar cell) deployment, wind farms dotting the Midwest, and growing sales of electric vehicles. Over the last few years, a lot of Ford guys have ended up taking my dad’s community college class on basic electrical principles, re-skilling to be EV mechanics and assembly guys. This isn’t the future—all of this is here, now, today.

“Fix my bill!”

The benefits are real, but getting there will be bumpy. That realization hit me one Saturday morning, when I got an angry call from Dorothy, a tenant who’d just moved in to an apartment building I own, near my parents place in Illinois. The building has been all-electric since I got it in 2019, somewhat unusual for the Chicago area, but giving me a glimpse into what’s coming.

Dorothy lives here. Two-story building, formerly 8 x 1br, converted into 4x1br upstairs, on top of two 3s downstairs. They kept the meters (8 total), forcing the downstairs folks to have two utility accounts for power. This was stupid, so we hired Nicole to “jumper” the two meters (the horizontal pipe between the two groups of two meters), allowing one to be deactivated, meaning one utility account could get closed.

Overall, Dorothy was great—an intelligent, reasonable woman who’d retired after a career working for the IRS—but she was quite sure her electrical bill, $700 for the month of January, was incorrect. Especially because her apartment was only 1200 square feet (110 square meters), with two interior walls, shared with the other apartments. She was doing OK—a good pension from all those years working for the federal government—but still, a $700 electrical bill would probably get anyone’s back up. Certainly mine.

I looked into it, and while $250 was initial deposit and setup fees, the rest was correct—$450 for a month of heat in her place. She insisted it was mis-wired, but I knew it wasn’t—I’d actually just hired a very competent electrician to replace every breaker and service panel in the building, who happened to be Dorothy’s next-door neighbor. After a week of back-and-forth, she finally understood a basic reality: resistive heating is expensive.

The jury is out on whether heat pumps work well in climate zone 5 (most of Illinois and Indiana).

What about heat pumps? My friend Ed (the guy who asked me about SEO) had been installing these for a few years during his time in South Carolina, but couldn’t get the numbers to work in Illinois (known in HVAC circles as CZ, or “climate zone”, 5). If you don’t know, a heat pump is basically just a fancy refrigerator chiller—a machine with compressors and refrigerant for moving heat one way or the other—capable of moving heat into your house in the winter (outside -> inside), or vice versa in the summer. The issue is that, like a refrigerator, when the temperature difference gets big, two bad things happen: the refrigeration system gets less efficient—it’s harder to get the refrigerant hotter/colder than the outside (to draw heat in or out), even through the compressor is still working at 100%—even as the losses through the insulation get bigger. The result is that, in cold climates, many HVAC pros specify resistive “emergency heating” (“strip heat” is the term) for cold temperatures.

Technology is advancing rapidly; there may be a heat pump manufacturer that’s figured out how to make them efficient in very hold/cold climates. Ask a good HVAC pro, and leave a comment, I’d love to hear!

Super-size me

And did I mention, powering all this stuff—cars, heaters, heat pumps, water heaters, etc—is going to take a ton of power? Talk about a retrofit job; it might be time to take up a career as an electrician, or own an electrical contracting company…or a copper mine?

Interior electrical systems: as late as the ‘90s, new-construction single family homes got by on 100 amps (everything in this section assumes 240V). Today, all but the smallest cottages or tiny houses are wired for 200—and already, it isn’t enough. I’m not sure whether it will come from rooftop solar, nuclear, or a home-scale battery—probably all three based on time of day, weather, and where you are—but single-family houses will need 300-400 amps service; small apartments, 200-300. Just look at the numbers.

Start with electric vehicles: you’ll need 11 kW—that’s 60 amps of panel capacity (upsize actual continuous load by 25% from 48A to size the circuit, per code)—just to charge your Tesla. And you’ll wait an hour to add just 35 miles of range. My wife and I are city people with just one car, but a lot of suburban families in the US have two, and it seems inevitable faster chargers will hit the scene when weekend campers and skiers want to add 350 miles of range between getting home at 9pm and leaving for work the next day at 7. That’s a minimum of 120 amps. Add another 60 amps, which seems a reasonable lower bound for the usual major appliances: dryer, washing machine, dishwasher, and microwave, reaching a total of 180. Air conditioning or heating, and you’ll need another 40-50 amps, at least, especially if it’s the whole house (220-230 total).

Somewhat to my surprise, the big question mark is water heating: 20-40 amps is sufficient for a moderate-sized storage (tanked) heater, but I’m not sure whether that will become “standard”, or the efficiency (and continuous operability) benefits of tankless heaters will prevail. If tankless prevails, get ready—Rheem’s 7.1 gal/min tankless consumes a whipping 36kW—160 amps—at full production. Granted, 7.1 gallons/minute is a lot of hot water, but you’ll need it for two showers and a dishwasher. Add it up, and you’re at 400 amps to be comfortable; 500 if a tankless is in play.

150 amps. This thing is a monster. My dad thought I was crazy until I sent him this graphic, showing the full required 4 x 40A configuration suggested to power it.

Zooming out to a block / city, it’s not just higher utilization, but variance: loads are getting “chunkier”. EV charging, tankless water heaters, and other equipment will cause minute-to-minute swings of 100 amps or more, putting more strain than ever before on the grid, requiring distribution systems (substations, transmission lines) to carry more headroom everywhere—higher averages, but much higher peaks relative to previous patterns of consumption. Looking forward, it seems energy rates will have to increase as only “bad loads” end up on the grid, with utility operators moving closer to a “supplier of last resort” position, forced to cope with hard, transient loads other systems can’t take. Electricity rates have already been pushed into negative territory several times by excess supply—expect to see more of this, as distributed generation and supply become widespread.

The bottom line: as a homeowner, electrification will likely require a lot more current capacity in your home energy system—even if you don’t use all of it at the same time.

Electric vehicles in multi-unit settings

One other point: I live in a condo. We have a 400-space, three-level garage underground, and figuring out how to handle EVs has been, to put it mildly, a circus.
Start with whether we should allow them at all: California’s Civil Code §4745 prohibits blanket bans, but residents already have them, and are using association (shared) power to charge. I’m on my association’s board, and last year, introduced a policy with tiered billing (explained below), only to be shot down by a faction that insisted, contrary to any evidence, that EVs are dangerous fire hazards, owing to their large lithium batteries. Nevermind that the alternative is to have gallons of explosive liquid under each car, emitting carbon monoxide every time someone pulls in and out—with exhaust fans that only began working again last year, after years of disrepair.

400-space garage. It got a bit wet, owing to a spinkler leak.

There’s also the issue of who pays for the electricity. Eventually apartments will need EV chargers, and I suspect that when they arrive, the most straightforward solution will be a direct tap off the unit’s meter, to the charging point. In larger buildings, as in my condominium, distance might make this impractical—I suggested flat-rate billing, with plug-in EVs paying a simple $25/month tariff, but again, couldn’t sell it to the board—the idea that one person might take a nickel more than someone else didn’t seem fair, so a year later, I’m off the board, they want to measure and bill for individual use, and nobody has put forth any practical idea for implementing any of this. Meanwhile, the anti-EV group has realized a blanket ban is illegal, and are now advocating for full outsourcing, causing residents to pay what’s likely to be a 10-20% markup on every kWh of power drawn to charge their vehicles—not ideal.

Third point: at the scale of a 400-unit garage, adding capacity for EV charging gets into transformers, and even grid operations. My building is across from a police station, meaning I haven’t had a single power outage in four years—apparently we’re part of a “network transformer” setup—nice, but also, apparently very difficult to upgrade. Once again, a problem that, if someone could solve, a great business awaits.

Help wanted

The same thought kept popping into my head as I wrote this—we aren’t ready. Business opportunities come from changes in the economic environment, and electrification / decarbonization is a big one. It’s easy to succeed in a growing industry, and this one is going to grow like crazy.

Start with the basics: nuts-and-bolts electrical work. Basic electrical work—service panel upgrades, new breakers, replacing broken ground rods or receptacles—will be required every time someone gets an electric vehicle, converts a gas furnace to a heat pump, or switches from a gas to electric stove. Most of this work will be like dentistry: not unduly complex or high-end, just needing to get done in an affordable, workmanlike manner.
I find appliances particularly interesting. Today, most appliances stores don’t bundle electrical, permitting, and design. Replacing like-for-like (e.g. ordering a new refrigerator) is one thing—but converting a furnace to a heat pump is quite another. Doing that requires a blend of design, permitting, and multi-trade coordination (electrical, plumbing, HVAC) not unlike Best Buy’s “Geek Squad”. I don’t know who’s going to own this space, but someone will arise to fill this need.

And finally, how we charge EVs presents a ton of opportunities. Again, there will be product companies that make the chargers and panels, but what’s really needed is a single vendor that blends design/specification, compliance/permitting, and contracted installation, with specialty practice areas for strip centers, apartments, and even condos. As a building owner, I want to ensure I’m getting a solution that works as a unit, in the exact circumstances of my building (including government regulation and grid connection), which requires design services, permitting, and even working with the local utility to ensure enough capacity is available.

It’s an exciting time. A lot of things will change and I think what results will be a cleaner, safer, and more environmentally sound world.

Discussion questions

I’d particularly like to know:

  • Do you own / manage a condo or multi-unit building? How are you handling EV charging?
  • Do heat pumps work in your area? What exact make/model/brand are you using?
  • What do you see as the greatest challenge to electrification? Greatest opportunity?

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One thought on “Electrification: a big shock

  1. My new condo has a heat pump. I’m in a slightly warmer climate (just outside of Washington DC). I don’t know yet how cost effective it will be since I haven’t been through winter yet. I’m using a McQuay W.FMS.1.024. I was told the utilities are pretty low in my condo.

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