Living

How To Get Your Home Off Natural Gas

The emissions from your house may not be as obvious as the exhaust from a tailpipe, but they’re just as real. The good news? The latest electric options for heating, hot water and cooking are worth exploring—and there are financial incentives that make them even more appealing.

An illustration of a woman cooking a dish over a stove, surrounded by smoke for a feature on how to ease your home off gas

(Illustration, Michael Byers)

When my husband and I bought our century-old home, we needed to replace all the appliances. We wanted to save energy and pay less for electricity, so we opted for a high-efficiency gas furnace and water heater. As foodies, we bought into the hype about cooking with gas, so we got a gas stove. But it wasn’t long before we had regrets.

As time went on, and our climate anxiety grew, we talked more about how we could shrink our carbon footprint. We didn’t own a car, and we had started to eat less meat, use less plastic and buy local produce whenever possible. But these lifestyle choices couldn’t negate the fact that our home was guzzling gas. We’re not alone: More than half of Canadian homes are heated by natural gas, and 70 percent of water heaters are fuelled by it.

Despite its innocuous name, so-called natural gas is mainly methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 84 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. And it starts polluting the environment long before it reaches your home.

“I think something people overlook is where this natural gas is coming from,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Most of Canada’s natural gas is mined in northern B.C. through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” A well is drilled down to rock formations where natural gas deposits are trapped, and a slurry of chemicals, water and sand is blasted in, fracturing the rock and releasing the gas. Some of the toxic soup stays underground, and some returns to the surface, where it’s stored in open frac ponds. One fracking well can use and pollute more than 10 million litres of fresh water, most of which is permanently removed from the water cycle. And it pollutes the air and soil as well. With more than 20,000 fracking wells in B.C. alone, the damage is mind-boggling.

“It’s a highly polluting process that’s destroying farmland, using up huge amounts of water and exposing people to high levels of pollutants in northern B.C.,” says Lem.

Once natural gas is piped to your home, it continues to pollute. Running your furnace, taking a hot shower and cooking on a gas stove all produce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), natural gas was responsible for 36.7 megatonnes of residential CO2 emissions in 2018; the bulk of those came from space heating (66 percent) and water heating (19 percent).

“[Natural gas] is really one of the biggest sources of GHG emissions in Canada,” says Julia Langer, CEO of the Atmospheric Fund, a regional climate agency that invests in low-carbon solutions for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. “And all along the chain, from fossil fuel mining to the use in your furnace and water heater, that’s a contribution to climate change.”

The good news? Switching to electric appliances can slash your home’s GHG emissions—and there are government grants to help you get there.

The future is electric

Canada has committed to reducing GHG emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. (At net zero, we either emit no GHGs or offset any emissions through actions like tree planting or carbon capture.) But we’ll never achieve those targets without getting off gas.

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, an independent organization that conducts climate research and makes policy recommendations, says converting to electric heat sources is “critical.” “There’s no path to achieving our net-zero targets—which is what our climate needs—without electrification,” says Langer. “That’s because you can’t use coal or gasoline or diesel without making greenhouse gases.”

Canada’s electricity supply, on the other hand, is among the cleanest in the world. More than 80 percent of the country’s electricity is generated from non-emitting sources, such as hydro. So unless you live in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Nunavut or Saskatchewan—which get most of their electricity from fossil fuels—you can drastically shrink your carbon footprint by switching from gas appliances to electric.

How the government is helping make the switch more affordable

In May 2021, the federal government created the Canada Greener Homes Grant, which provides up to $5,000 for improvements such as insulation, new windows and doors, and energy-efficient appliances.

There are also provincial and municipal incentives that you can tap into. In Toronto, for example, the city’s Home Energy Loan Program provides low interest loans of up to $125,000 to cover the cost of home energy improvements. Homeowners can repay the loan via their property tax bill. British Columbia’s CleanBC program offers low-interest financing and provides rebates of up to $6,000 for switching from a gas furnace to a heat pump, $2,000 for switching from a gas water heater to a heat pump water heater, and $1,000 for necessary electrical service upgrades.

It all starts with a home energy audit

In order to qualify for rebates through the Greener Homes Grant, you need to get an energy audit. A registered energy advisor (you can find one through the NRCan website≠) will assess your home to determine its energy efficiency and make recommendations for improvement.

Sarah Grant is co-founder of Goldfinch Energy, a Toronto-based organization that helps Canadians adopt clean technology. She says an energy audit takes about two hours and costs $300 to $600 depending on the size of your home (the cost is covered by the Greener Homes Grant).

The energy advisor will examine your windows, doors and appliances, and find out if your insulation is up to snuff.

After the audit is complete, you’ll receive a report summarizing the advisor’s findings and outlining the steps you’ll need to take to make your home more climate-friendly. Actions could include insulating walls, replacing windows or sealing air leakages. Your advisor can also help you navigate the various rebate programs and recommend energy-efficient appliances and knowledgeable contractors.

Once you’ve made your home more energy-efficient, the next step is to consider making the switch to lower-carbon equipment for heating, hot water and cooking. Here’s what you need to know.

Decarbonizing your heat source

Switching from a gas furnace to an electric heat pump can drastically shrink your carbon footprint. The technology has been around for more than 150 years—and thanks to ongoing advances, it’s now a viable option for cold Canadian winters.

Heat pumps are named for their ability to push heat from one place to another. To warm a space, they pump heat inside; to cool one, they pump it outside.

There are three types of heat pumps: water source, ground source (geothermal) and air source. Air source heat pumps, which move heat between the indoor air and the outdoor air, are the type most commonly used for home heating.

To cool a space, an air source heat pump works like an air conditioner. A fan inside blows air over an evaporator coil, which contains refrigerant, a compound designed to absorb heat. Once heated, the refrigerant circulates to a condenser coil in an outdoor unit. A fan blows air across the coil, releasing the heat outside. The heat is sucked out of your home, lowering the indoor temperature.

To provide heat, the system works in reverse. First, the outdoor unit extracts heat from the air and transfers it to the refrigerant. (Even on a cold day, there’s still heat to draw from.) Then the compressor raises the temperature of the refrigerant, which flows to the indoor unit. The fan blows air over the heated refrigerant, warming the air inside. Some cold-climate heat pumps can operate in temperatures as low as –30 degrees C.

Because it takes less energy to transfer heat than generate it, heat pumps are way more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems. Even a high efficiency gas furnace operates below 100 percent, meaning not all the energy from combustion is used to heat the air. A heat pump, on the other hand, provides more thermal energy than the energy it uses. In ideal conditions, a heat pump can achieve efficiencies of 300 to 400 percent.

Aside from being super efficient, heat pumps also make your home more comfortable. Unlike a gas furnace, which scorches the air, a heat pump simply moves heat from one place to another. It operates slowly and steadily, circulating naturally humid air—without drying out your skin and sinuses. (Another bonus: It’s also much quieter than a traditional air conditioner.) The cost of a heat pump varies depending on the size of your home, how efficient the unit is and whether you have ductwork. According to Michael Nepom, owner of Toronto-based Mckinnon Heating Cooling, a heat pump can range from $4,000 to $19,000, including installation.

Operating costs vary depending on the size and efficiency of your home, as well as the price of electricity versus natural gas where you live. The Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, ran the numbers for a single-family home in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, comparing a high-efficiency gas furnace and an air source heat pump. The annual cost for running the gas furnace was $375, while that of the heat pump was $300 to $400.

If replacing your furnace and AC isn’t financially in the cards right now, or if your gas furnace is still going strong, consider a hybrid system—a lower capacity, less expensive heat pump with a gas furnace as your backup. With a hybrid system, the heat pump provides all the cooling and the bulk of the heating, and the furnace only kicks in when the temperature plummets. (This is what I have. The gas furnace is programmed to turn on if the indoor temperature dips below 18 degrees C, which it hasn’t so far.)

An illustration of how an air-source heat pump works

(Illustration, Michael Byers; Illustration reference, Energy.gov)

How an air source heat pump works:  To heat your home, the pump’s outdoor unit extracts heat from the air and transfers it to the refrigerant. Then the compressor raises the temperature of the refrigerant, which flows to the indoor unit. The fan blows air over the heated refrigerant, warming the air inside. To cool your home, the heat pump works in reverse—extracting heat from the indoor air and pushing it outdoors.

Decarbonizing your water heater

With each Canadian using an average of 75 litres of hot water every day, water heating is second only to space heating when it comes to energy use, according to Dianna Miller, chief of the Energy Star program, a certification program for energy-efficient products run by NRCan. She says the most efficient solution is a heat pump water heater.

Unlike conventional water heaters, heat pump water heaters don’t warm the water directly. Instead, they capture heat from the surrounding air and transfer it to the water tank. Often referred to as hybrid electric water heaters, they can work entirely on heat pump technology, electricity or a combination of the two.

A heat pump water heater uses up to 50 percent less energy than a conventional electric water heater. So it not only uses less electricity—putting less strain on the grid—but it costs less to run. A heat pump water heater costs between $1,300 and $3,000; by comparison, gas water heaters cost anywhere from $700 to $3,000.

“If all Canadian homes used heat pump water heating, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by more than three megatonnes,” says Miller. “[That’s] the equivalent to taking about one million cars off the road every year.”

An illustration depicting how a heat pump water heater works

(Illustration reference: Small Plant Supply)

How a heat pump water heater works: Unlike conventional gas or electric water heaters, heat pump water heaters don’t warm the water directly. Instead, they capture heat from the surrounding air and transfer it to the water tank. Often referred to as hybrid electric water heaters, they can work entirely on heat pump technology, electricity or a combination of the two.

Decarbonizing your stove

Gas stoves (both the burners and the oven) not only produce CO2 emissions through combustion but they also leak methane. A recent study from Stanford University estimates that methane leaking from gas stoves in U.S. homes has the same climate impact as about 500,000 gasoline-powered cars. For an eco-friendlier way to cook, your best bet is an induction range.

Induction technology uses electromagnets to heat pots and pans directly, rather than heating an element. When the stove is turned on, an electric current passes through a coiled wire under the cooktop. This creates a magnetic current throughout the cookware, which heats it up. Because no heat is lost in the area around the element, induction cooking is more energy-efficient than cooking with gas or electric stoves.

Induction stovetops are also healthier than gas because they don’t emit harmful pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. As well, while cooking with any type of range creates particulate matter—a mixture of droplets and fine particles that can be inhaled, potentially harming your lungs and heart—cooking with induction produces about half as much.

Induction stoves are also safer if you’re cooking with kids. You need to have a pot on the element in order for it to generate heat, so you don’t need to worry about budding chefs burning their fingers. And the stove will shut off if a pot boils over.

They’re also great for cooking: They can boil water up to 50 percent faster than gas or electric, and maintain a precise, consistent temperature. Because they’re able to operate at a lower temperature than gas or electric stoves, it’s easier to melt chocolate or simmer soups and sauces without scorching them. And since the stovetop isn’t heated, splatters and spills don’t bake on, making cleanup a cinch.

An induction range costs from $1,595 to $6,095. You’ll also need induction-ready cookware: Stainless steel, cast iron and enameled iron pots work, but aluminum and copper ones typically don’t. Check your cookware with a magnet; if it sticks, it’s compatible with induction.

If you can’t afford to buy an induction range, or you rent and don’t have the option to switch, you can purchase a single burner induction cooktop for about $50. You can also reduce the emissions you create—and inhale—by doing more of your cooking with electric appliances, like a microwave, pressure cooker or toaster oven.

Regardless of the type of stove you have, always use your range hood. Liu Sun, a researcher with Health Canada who has studied the effectiveness of ventilation on removing particulate matter, says using a high-speed range hood that vents outside while cooking can remove up to 80 percent of pollutants. If your hood is less effective, leave it on for another 15 minutes after you turn the stove off.

An illustration depicting how an induction range works

(Illustration, Michael Byers)

How an induction range works: Induction technology uses electromagnets to heat cookware directly, rather than heating an element. When the stove is turned on, an electric current passes through a coiled wire under the cooktop. This creates a magnetic current throughout the cookware, which heats it up.

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