In this podcast, Brett Rogenski from NETR talks with Dan Barrett from Gridly. They explain the benefits of whole home electrification. Then, they explore how Gridly can help organize and NETR can help execute the process.
John: Hi, I am John. I’m here today with Brett Rogenski, General Manager of N.E.T.R., Inc., an HVAC company in Massachusetts, and today we’re talking about whole home electrification. Welcome, Brett.
Brett Rogenski: I appreciate it, John. Thank you for having me.
John: Sure. Our special guest today is Dan Barrett, the Chief Operating Officer at Gridly Home Energy. Welcome, Dan.
Dan: Hi. Glad to be here.
John: Dan, why don’t we start with you and you can just tell us a little bit about what do we mean by whole home electrification? What is that?
Dan: Sure, yeah. When we talk about whole home electrification, really what we mean is removing all of those fossil fuel burning systems from your house and replacing them with clean, efficient electric systems, and then powering those systems with a renewable source of electricity, so that’s if you’ve got a gas burning furnace or an oil-burning furnace in your house, swapping that out for an electric heat pump system, if you’ve got a gas burning hot water heater, swapping that out for electric heat pump water heater.
John: Go into the why a little bit here. When I grew up, we had an oil furnace, and then later on we had gas. I think a lot of people do and they probably might not even be thinking about heating and cooling their home with just electricity. What’s the why? Why would somebody want to go ahead and make their entire home run off of electricity?
Dan: Sure, yeah. When we talk about that, we like to use the term green 2X. Maybe you want to save some money, so that’s one form of green, or maybe you want to make an impact on climate and the environment, and so that’s the other green. No matter how you slice it, using less energy is probably going to save you some money.
If you think about heating and cooling your house, that accounts for probably about 50% of the energy consumption at your house. Hot water is another 20%, so 70% of the energy that you’re using at your house comes from just those two main systems. If you think about a combustion system, the really good ones are rated something at like a 90+% efficiency rating, so what that means is 90% of the energy that it’s consuming, 92, 93% of the energy that system’s consuming is converted to heat or energy in your house.
Compare that to a heat pump, which is 300 or as much as 400% efficient. What that means is it’s producing three or four times as much energy as what it’s consuming to provide that heat. Really, what that means is for a heat pump, it’s just using electricity to move the heat from outside and convert it to usable heat in the house as opposed to those combustion systems which are actually creating the heat. That’s why it’s so much more efficient.
From an environmental impact point of view, a family of four using a gas hot water heater, that’s probably contributing about two tons of CO2 to the environment. For a typical gas furnace, that could be as much as 12,000 or more pounds of CO2 or what, let’s see, six tons. Oil is of course the worst and it’s about twice that, 24,000 pounds of CO2 every year for just the typical oil-burning furnace, so a lot of room for improvement with that. Again, if you switch to an electric system and you power it with a renewable source of electricity, that CO2 contribution goes down to zero.
John: Okay. Brett, what’s your take on this? Do you get calls from customers all the time saying, “Hey, I’m just dying to go all-electric and I want to get rid of my oil or gas?” Or is this something that you have to teach your customers about and say, “Hey, have you ever thought of going all-electric and getting rid of that old furnace that you have?” Which one is it? Are people really aware and they’re just dying to go all-electric or …?
Brett: Sure. You know what? I guess what I would say to that is that’s probably transformed itself over time and is continuing to do so. A few years ago, it was uncommon for someone to think of heating and cooling their whole home using a heat pump. Dan brought up a great point that most people don’t understand on that efficiency. You think about a 95% efficient gas furnace. You go, “Wow, that’s great. For every dollar I put in that thing, 5 cents goes up the chimney, the other 95 cents goes in.”
Well, and then you start thinking about heat pumps and to your point, 300 to 400% efficient, so for every dollar you put in, it’s giving you four back, in a weird way. Several years ago, that just wasn’t something that was on most people’s radar.
Also, heat pumps have evolved over time. There were a lot of paradigms out there about that they couldn’t heat in low temperatures. Here in New England, a lot of folks were like, “Oh, well that’s great if you live in South Carolina, but it won’t work here.” That’s not true. The truth is cold-climate heat pumps can easily handle our environment here. I guess what I’d tell you is over time we’ve gone from seeing very few people wanting to go to that all-electric to a lot of demand, and certainly, there’s a lot of really impressive incentivization out there right now.
Mass Save, as an example, on their whole home rebate, which is exactly that removing or disabling your fossil fuel system is offering rebates up to $10,000, so that’s helped peak a lot of interest as well. It’s changed over time, but it’s very popular now.
What we like to do is have the opportunity to sit with people who want to know more about that. They go, “Wow, that sounds interesting, but I don’t totally get it.” That’s what our comfort consultants do, and where they really separate themselves from everyone else is that education piece. We want people to make the right decision for them and to be educated consumers.
John: Right, absolutely. Yeah, so what are some of the common barriers or challenges that homeowners face when they’re transitioning to whole home electrification and how can people overcome those barriers?
Dan: Sure, yeah. I think like most questions in life, the answer is almost always money. Oftentimes homeowners look at the overall aggregate upfront cost for doing this whole home conversion and it maybe is potentially overwhelming, but in most cases when you crunch the numbers, you can actually get to a point where financially it actually makes a lot of sense.
Brett touched on the Mass Save incentives. Those are a tremendous tool for cutting the cost. $10,000 off of that heating system brings it down quite a bit and then the balance of that can be financed through what’s called a 0% heat loan and so you can finance up to $50,000 for as long as seven years and so you finance your heating system, your hot water heater with a 0% heat loan.
You then look at, if you’re going with solar to power those systems, there’s tremendous incentives now at the federal level with a 30% tax credit so you can lock off 30% right off of the top of the cost of solar and then finance that out. Once you’ve got all of the residual cost financed out over time, the monthly payment that you’re making for those systems that you now own is almost always less than what you’re paying for your monthly energy costs now, so when you step back and look at it, yeah, the price tag seems overwhelming, but when you get right into it, it actually can become a pretty good investment.
The other thing that’s kind of a barrier, too, is what I call inertia with homeowners and that’s almost always with a heating system and a hot water heater, they don’t think about replacing it until it breaks down, and so when your hot water heater breaks, you’re not thinking about, “Well, maybe this is a good time to convert it,” you’re only thinking about, “I need hot water and I need it tomorrow morning,” and so they’re just swapping in whatever exists, in most cases, and so a barrier to getting folks to do it is to think ahead and be proactive about converting these systems before they break, and you’re sort of limited on what you can do. Not going to sugarcoat it this, doing a conversion like this takes some planning and it’s not something that you’re going to be doing in an emergency situation.
John: Right. Dan, at the beginning you mentioned that there’s an important part of this conversion, which is then powering all of these electrical appliances in the home with renewable and sustainable energy sources. Talk a little bit about how whole home electrification can be integrated with sustainable energy solutions like solar or wind power.
Dan: Sure. There’s three routes that you can go here. From our perspective, the ideal solution is rooftop solar, so if you’ve got the appetite to take on that project, we think it’s really worthwhile because once you get a set of solar panels on your roof that are sized to provide all the energy you need for all those electric systems, then your dependency on the utility in terms from a cost perspective really goes down to zero.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you are disconnected from the utility. You continue to have electricity from your utility provider available to you when you need it because the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day, so during the day when you’re generating more energy than you need, that excess energy goes back into the grid and your meter literally spins backwards. Then at night, when the sun’s down and you need some electricity, you pull that back, so over time, not every day is sunny, there’s cloudy days, and then there’s a stretch of sunny days. But over time, if you’ve sized that system right, you end up with a zero electricity bill. That’s one option is rooftop solar.
If you’re not ready to tackle that, then you can go with a community solar program. If you look at your electricity bill, there’s actually two components. There is the supply cost, so you’re being charged for the electricity you use, but you’re also being charged for the delivery of that electricity, so if you’ve got national grid or ever source, those utilities are delivering energy to you, and in most cases, they’re delivering energy that they’ve produced at their coal plant or their gas-burning plant. That supply piece of it, you can swap that out, with community solar. Then the third option, which I’ll talk about a little bit as well, would be just retail renewable source energy.
But the way community solar works is you subscribe to a solar farm and you’ve seen those on the side of the road or whatever and subscribing to a solar farm simply means that you are allocated the amount of energy that you typically use for the number of panels in that solar farm for you and then that energy goes into the grid and then you use that amount of energy and so the energy that you are taking out of the grid is offset by the panels that you’ve been allocated in that solar farm. That’s a great solution, too, because in Massachusetts that’s a guaranteed discount of 10%, so you’re still getting electricity from your utility that maybe you’re happy with. They always get it to you and they’re really good when there’s a storm putting the power lines back up, which they are, they’re great, but you don’t also have to use them for the supply.
The other choice there is renewable. Again, you can swap out that National Grid or Eversource supply with something from another company, and there’s lots of them out there that are generating electricity through renewable methods, so that would be hydro or wind and solar as well, and so again, you can simply shop for it, subscribe for it, purchase it, rather, and then on your electricity bill, your supplies coming from a renewable source.
John: Okay, so talk a little bit about the stages of a complete home energy transition. What are the steps? Then maybe Brett can chime in a little bit on his part of it, which would be N.E.T.R installing heat pump systems for heating and cooling.
Dan: Sure. The easiest and quickest place to start is putting in a smart thermostat. Again, through the incentives that are available, you can get a top-of-the-line smart thermostat for really not much money. What that will do is it will ensure that you’re really only using energy when you need it. That’s a quick and easy place to start.
The next thing to do as kind of a preliminary step is to get a home energy audit, again through that Mass Save program. That’s a free service. Even the towns that produce their own electricity, what we call a municipal light plant, and so the electricity is not coming from a Mass Save sponsor, that town is producing it, every town that I know of that that provides a no-cost home energy audit as well, so pretty much everybody in Massachusetts can get a free home energy audit.
What that does is it identifies places in the home where maybe you’ve got gaps or leaks and provides instruction for how to seal up those leaks and identifies where your insulation needs to be improved and provides a report of what should be done there.
Then once you have that report, then obviously go ahead and get that work done, so have those gaps sealed, have your insulation optimized so that you are creating what we call a tight building envelope, so you want to have it be as well insulated and leak-free as possible.
Brett: That’s an important step because as people do go down that road of providing the heat in their home and the hot water and stuff via an electric source, to qualify for most of those rebates, you have to have had that audit done. But the thing that a lot of folks don’t realize as well is typically the cost to execute what they may find, so maybe you’re living a newer home and they come in and they find very little to do, maybe you live in a more mature home and they find some areas to improve, that exterior envelope, that air ceiling is always is at no cost through Mass Save. Then if they have suggestions for insulation improvement and stuff, the average is 70 to 80% of that cost is actually absorbed as well.
I recently had a friend in Winthrop who had some questions about some of this, and he wasn’t a good candidate for home electrification for a couple of reasons, but yeah, I was like, “Well, go get a home energy audit,” and they came in and did some improvements to his home and it cost him very little money and his home’s much more comfortable already. But that’s a very important step, Dan, you’re right, is to get that done to prepare yourself for the next steps.
Dan: That’s right.
John: Right, so what is the next step after you’ve done the home energy audit and then you’ve done the work to seal up your home and make it a little tighter?
Dan: Sure. Then next step would be to swap out those combustion systems, either your gas or oil furnace with a heat pump, and then swap out that inefficient electric tank heater or a gas water heater with a heat pump system, and that, of course, is where our good friends at N.E.T.R. come in.
John: Right, so talk a little bit about that, Brett, and what’s involved in converting a home completely over to a heat pump system.
Brett: Sure. In an optimal situation, the customer’s already had that home energy audit and they get essentially a certificate or a to-do list out of that, let’s call it that. A certificate says you don’t have to do anything. Mass Save’s giving you the thumbs up to do what you want to do next, so that’s one step. Or if you have certain improvements that are required, what they’re going to want you to do is get those scheduled to go forward so you can maximize rebates and that sort of thing.
That’s when you then go get ourselves involved and we come in. Heating, there’s a lot of things that it’s about, but one of the most important things that it’s about probably the most important thing it’s about is comfort. If someone doesn’t design your system right by doing an actual heat load calculator broken down by room, you may have rooms that are hot or rooms that are cold and this and that, so when you bring in a company like N.E.T.R., we come in, we perform.
First thing we ask you is, “What are you trying to accomplish?” so we all get aligned on what the goal is here. Then we go through and we design a system based on those goals that’s going to be properly sized so your home is comfortable in the ways that you want both in heating and in cooling, because with heat pumps, the beauty is you’ve got one system doing the thing that we used to do with two systems. We used to have a furnace and then an air conditioning condenser. Well, now you have one thing that’s covering both of those bases.
We come in and do that design and then we move downstairs. “Okay, what are we using for hot water? Okay, great, you have a gas hot water heater. Sounds good.” We then appropriately size a hot water heater again for your home. How many bathrooms, how many people are currently living there? You could have seven bathrooms, but two people living there, or two bathrooms and seven people living there, so we size that appropriately.
Then the last thing that we’re looking at in conjunction with that is, what is the home’s electrical service? Can it support all this electrification? A modern building code is typically for a single-family home, 200 amp service, so that means that there’s 200 amps available from the transformer on the street to your home, through the meter, and then down to a panel that can support that.
In New England, we have a lot of older homes. We’re a mature part of the nation, and years ago, the standard was a hundred amps and even years before that, in some cases it was 60 amps. Sometimes we have to work with the homeowner on upgrading that electrical infrastructure. That doesn’t mean ripping out all your wiring or something. It means potentially if you had a 100 amp service and your improvements are going to outstrip that thing’s capacity upgrading what they call the service from the pole to your house down to a new meter to 200 amp service. Then typically, on the inside that also requires a new breaker box so they can handle that.
One nice thing about when you work with us is that’s a turnkey solution for us, so we’re going to do the HVAC design for you with our own in-house teams. We have our own in-house plumbing division. We’re going to size and propose to you what you need for that heat pump hot water heater and we have our own team of electricians on staff that can do everything from the simple wiring that’s needed for the systems, but also we can handle and coordinate that service upgrade, so bringing your home up to those modern standards, 200 amps, so you have plenty of power. The best part is the homeowner doesn’t have to play project manager. If they chose to do all those things with us, we’re going to coordinate all those trades ourselves because it’s all of our own team members.
John: Dan, do you see any real exciting developments and innovations currently happening in the whole home electrification area and where do you see things going in the future?
Dan: Yeah, if you think about the technology, really, the future of heat pumps is now. The capacity and the ability for the systems to work in cold weather has been developed and so I think we really have our friends in Scandinavia to thank a lot for that.
They’re really on the leading edge of the adoption of heat pumps in their homes. If you look at Norway, for example, which is the leading country in the world in terms of per capita heat pump usage, more than 60% of the homes in Norway are using a heat pump, and that’s going up every year. They’ve essentially eliminated fossil fuels from their country and everything is in the process of being transitioned over to heat pumps. Yep, we’ve got some challenging winters here in New England, but I’d suggest Norway’s kind of worse than us, and they don’t have any problem.
Brett can talk a little bit more about that technology, but the cold climate heat pumps are rated for down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit, and so it’s more than good enough to get it done here. When we’ve had cold stretches, there’s almost a referendum for people to say, “Oh, how’d that heat pump work for you?” I’ve actually read quite a bit of post-cold-snap postmortem analysis on heat pumps and you really get almost zero complaints that they couldn’t keep up with it, so the technology is here now, and there’s no reason from a technology perspective not to switch over to a clean heat pump.
Brett: Yeah, you bring up a great point on the cold-climate heat pumps, and obviously, this past winter here, what was it, the end of February, we had that terrible cold snap weekend. It was the lowest temperatures had been in Boston in, what, 35 years, I think. Certainly, in the HVAC business, we fielded a large number of emergency calls. I actually went back through them, I noticed it at the time, and then we went back and combed them.
There was only one for a cold-climate heat pump and that was solved with a shovel because someone had not paid attention and had let… It was near a coastal area, and they had let a bunch of snow drift in there, which we put them up on stands. That’s actually quite a rare problem. But we had one on a true cold-climate heat pump and our technician got right out there and basically busted out a shovel and he helped him reboot the system and it did its job, so it’s applying the right technology.
But again, that was the coldest, coldest snap we’ve had in Boston in 35 years. And so did we have calls on other heat pumps? Yes. Were they cold-climate heat pumps? No, these were people who had put it in primarily for air conditioning, and now we’re looking to maybe have it do something else or people who had perhaps purchased elsewhere and not necessarily known what they were purchasing, so unfortunately sometimes like that we’re the bearer of bad tidings.
John: Yeah, they thought it was going to provide heat all throughout the winter and it wasn’t.
Brett: Well, yeah, and maybe who they worked with do many heat pumps and didn’t necessarily communicate it or understand it right, so yeah, but I thought that was a great testament to cold-climate heat pumps is negative, whatever it was, 13 or something like that on the thermometer, and then with windchill, -35 and 40, and again, one call solved with a shovel, so I’ll take that.
John: Right, and all the other calls that you had were for people whose furnaces went out.
Brett: Basically, yes, “My boiler doesn’t work,” “My furnace doesn’t work,” absolutely, yeah.
John: Right, right. Dan, how does Gridly help with whole home electrification and home energy transitions?
Dan: Yeah, so I think to understand Gridly is to maybe know our origin story a little bit, and then I’ll talk about exactly what we do. Our founder, a guy named Bob Rosenfield, he at his home wanted to undertake this whole home conversion, wanted to have his house have a net-zero footprint, and so as he dug into this process, he didn’t have a time clock, but he figures he probably invested about 150 hours just doing the research on, which systems are the right systems, who are the good installers, what type of rooftop solar am I going to need, what are the incentives that are available?
All of the stuff associated with this, he did all of this research and realized there was no one-stop place that had pulled all of this together. He was going on hundreds of different websites to get this information. That was the light bulb moment, it’s like, “It’s got to be easier than this.” What Gridly does is it pulls all of those things that we’ve talked about together in one place, one repository for information and for guidance on how to execute these projects.
The way Gridly works is you come to our site, put in your street address. We then go out and pull a bunch of publicly available data through our data partners and we then build a profile of your energy usage at your house, so we’re getting things like square footage, the age of your house, how many bedrooms, and then from that information, we run through a whole bunch of calculations and make some estimates of how much energy you’re using, so we know who your utility providers are and whether you’ve got a gas furnace or an oil furnace, and we know what the current electric rates are, we know what the current gas and oil rates are. Based on all of that, we estimate not only what your consumption is, but how much you’re spending, and if it’s off a bit, then you can go ahead and adjust it so that it’s more precise.
From that, we build what we call an action plan. We build a series of projects into one consolidated action plan to do that conversion. It’s essentially what we had talked about when you asked me the steps to do that conversion. That’s what your action plan is, so get a smart thermostat, get that energy audit, swap out your systems, and then repower your home with either rooftop solar or community solar or renewable retail. That action plan explains the impact of each of those individual projects, how much we estimate it will cost, and then we connect you with a vetted partner that can do that work for you.
In the case of rooftop solar, we’ve got partners that a Gridly user can connect with to go ahead and fulfill the project that we’ve spec’ed out for them. A couple of things that I’ll say about that, too, we are not a lead generator, we’re not a marketplace. If you are interested in my example there, rooftop solar, you pick the installer that you want to work with, and once you’ve selected that installer, that will be the only person that contacts you. We’re not selling your email out and you’re getting phone calls every night at dinner from somebody trying to sell you on something. That’s not how our systems work.
The other thing that our action plan does is it looks at your house holistically. I’ve described it as a set of projects, but each of those projects impact each other, so if you’re converting from an oil-burning furnace to electric, your oil usage is going to go to zero, but you’re going to have more electricity to power that heat pump. When we size out the set of projects, we’re sizing out the set of solar panels or the amount of electricity that you’re going to need from a community solar provider based on a whole home conversion, so you swap out your gas or oil systems for electric, the electric goes up, but we’ve sized out your systems so that they match.
One of the challenges that Bob had when he was doing this himself was he had the solar guy out to size his system and Bob said, “Hey, I’m planning to get rid of my oil furnace for a heat pump. How many more panels am I going to need for that?” And the solar guy said, “I don’t know. That’s not what I do. You show me how much you need and that’s the system that we’re going to put up there.” So again, there’s a gap there in the marketplace that there really isn’t anybody doing a holistic view of your house to build a whole system, so in our plan, that’s exactly how we look at it.
Then once we hand it off to a partner like N.E.T.R., they contact the homeowner. We give our partners all of the data that we’ve already confirmed about the property with the homeowner. Our partners love that because that gives them a running head start on what needs to be done with that customer, sets the right expectation with that homeowner, and then they run with it to confirm the precise sizing of the system needed, and then they get that done.
John: Is there a cost to homeowners for using Gridly?
Dan: There is not. No, it’s a free system. It’s a free website. There’s no charge. It’s www.gogridly.com is where you go, yep, and it’s available to anybody with a single-family house. We’re not yet doing condos or commercial buildings. We’re really calibrated for single-family homeowners.
John: Brett, any final thoughts on working with Gridly and your part in this home energy transformation?
Brett: Well, sure. We’re really excited about it and we’ve enjoyed working with Dan and his team. For me, and Dan was just talking about their site, when we first met, one of the first things I did was went to the site to say, “Well, okay, let me see what the customer experience is like here.”
I found it to be, first of all, very easy to use, very user-friendly. Second of all, I just found it to be tremendously informative as well, so if I did this, what’s the outcome? What’s the going from A to B? I congratulate you because I think that that site is tremendously usable and tremendously educational, so I really encourage anyone to check it out, use it.
You brought up the really, the whole origins of it, and I mentioned it a little bit earlier from our little part in this, the hardest thing for homeowners who want to go on some of this journey is, “How the heck do I do it? What product do I use? Who do I work with?” Well, and then let’s say you’re a pretty talented person and you say, “Okay, I know I’ve got to upgrade my electric. I know I want to go with X, Y, Z heat pump. I know I want to go with PDQ heat pump, hot water heater. Well, now I got to find an electrician and I got to coordinate with a plumber for that, and I got to coordinate with an HVAC company for that.”
Unless you happen to be in certain trades or construction, you probably don’t know any of those people, and so I think it’s tremendous that Gridly not only helps you with all that, with all the stuff about making your selections, but then literally immediately puts you in contact, or gives you the option to be in contact with people who can do all of that.
Then folks like us take over and we become your contractor for the project, so you don’t have to figure out how the electrician works with the plumber works with the HVAC guy. If we’re fortunate enough for you to choose to work with us, that’s all our problem, and because internally we’re all of that, but also even working with, in conjunction with the solar companies and stuff, that’s something we do very regularly now, so if we’re trying to coordinate trades, that’s what we do. It’s no longer the customer’s problem. It’s no longer the homeowner’s problem. Give it to the right people that do this every day.
John: Right, I’m a homeowner, I’m not a contractor. I need a contractor to deal with all these different people.
Brett: Yeah, I mean, most people, I mean, I say this in our office on a regular basis when we’re talking about it, it could be anything that we do, quite frankly, I’m like, you got to remember, because a lot of times we’re talking about it and it’s all very simple to us, and I’m like, “We do this all day every day,” for in N.E.T.R’s case, 34 years. Most other people are doing this once in their life this time, so never underestimate how challenging it is for someone who’s very skilled in a different area, but they’re not a construction manager.
Dan: Yeah. Brett, I’m really glad you mentioned that last piece because I think I rushed to the end about getting the systems put in place. I may have underplayed a little bit of a big component of the Gridly platform, which is the information piece, which you were talking about. I mentioned briefly at the top that we figure it’s probably about 150 hours worth of research that somebody may do to understand the incentives and understand the equipment and all that stuff, and so one of the things that Gridly does really well is spell all of that stuff out.
I talked a little bit about the tax credits and the rebates, but I really just sort of scratched the surface. There’s a lot out there. It can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be, and so we try to make all of that information available in one place, boiled down and simple for the homeowner to help them make the decision about then executing on those equipment installations.
Brett: Well said.
John: Well, that’s really great information, Dan. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Dan: Yeah, thanks for having me. Again, www.gogridly.com. Check it out.
John: All right, and Brett, as always, nice to speak with you today as well.
Brett: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
John: For more information, you can visit the N.E.T.R. website at netrinc.com or call (781) 933-NETR. That’s (781) 933-6387.