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Climate Column: Three big home-improvement projects with huge environmental impact

Easy ways to decrease your environmental footprint while improving your home.|

What has six sides and is filled with tubes of methane? Most likely, your home!

Look around and you can probably count three or four natural gas appliances that are critical to your home’s performance – water heater, furnace, cooktop, and clothes dryer, perhaps? But “natural” gas is actually about 85% methane -- a super-potent greenhouse gas. On its way to your house, it escapes into the atmosphere through leaks in the pipelines. Once burned, it releases dangerous indoor air pollutants like carbon monoxide and formaldehyde into the sanctity of your home.

In June, we talked about four super simple, everyday actions we can all take to reduce our impact on the environment. Today, we’re going to tackle three big-ticket items that are larger projects, but have huge benefits.

Why is this of critical importance?

“Buildings represent around a third of our country’s emissions and for most people their homes are the biggest polluters in their life,” explains Panama Bartholomy, Petaluma Climate Action Commissioner and executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “Electrification with highly efficient appliances has the potential to significantly reduce pollution and, as the grid gets cleaner, puts us on a path to fully eliminate pollution from our buildings.”

Lucky for us, we have very clean electricity coming from Sonoma Clean Power. If you opt in to their EverGreen program, you’ll be supporting 100% renewable electricity from a unique mix of local solar energy projects in Sonoma and Mendocino counties during the day and geothermal energy from our geysers at night.

Sonoma Clean Power also created the Advanced Energy Center in downtown Santa Rosa to showcase the most efficient equipment available and act as an educational hub. Chad Asay, the director of the center, took 40 Cool Petaluma members on a tour of the beautifully designed space (think IKEA showroom meets Apple store). Asay was quick to point out that the easiest thing we could all do was sign up for their EverGreen program, but then dove straight into the top three major equipment upgrades for homeowners.

First, replace your older gas water heater with an electric heat pump water heater. Using two to three times less energy than gas, this technology will not only eliminate the methane pollution, but it can also save you money every month.

As I learned from personal experience, it’s much better to replace your water heater before it breaks.

Last year, I proactively replaced my own old gas water heater and it was a simple, low-stress project. Since it was located in my garage, I took advantage of the cold air that the heat pump expels and built a pantry around it to create a cold storage room which I happily filled with wine and potatoes.

Six months later, my mom woke up to a wet kitchen floor – the bottom of her water heater had rusted out. Of course, the plumbing was old and turning the water intake valve off didn’t stop the flow so we ended up having to turn the water off at the main, which meant she had no water at all! Long story short, we were left with two choices: leave my mom without water for three weeks while we waited for the upgraded electric version, or replace it immediately with another gas water heater. Despite my best intentions, expediency won out. Had we noticed how old the water heater was, we could have planned ahead.

Second, replace your older gas furnace with electric heat pump technology called mini-splits – those small, ductless wall units that are already the norm in Europe. I also did this last summer and have enjoyed the added benefits of having individual room temperature control and built-in air conditioning for those few hot nights.

Third, replace your older gas range with electric induction. The fossil fuel industry has put a lot of effort into convincing us that gas is superior for cooking, but don’t be fooled by their manipulative advertising campaigns. Induction cooktops are nothing like those electric coils you’ve used in the past. Induction is super-fast (you can boil a pot of water twice as fast as on gas), super-safe (you can’t burn yourself on the burner and you don’t have to worry about gas leaks), and super-convenient (they are easy to clean and only heat the pot, not the kitchen). All of these reasons make them preferred by many restaurants – just ask Naomi Crawford at Lunchette or John Crowley at Aqus Café.

If all of this sounds complicated and expensive, don’t be discouraged! Ask for personalized advice from the Advanced Energy Center. They can connect you with all of the exciting and ever increasing incentive programs, qualified local contractors, 0% financing, and even a free set of cookware to go with your new induction cooktop! If you are feeling dismayed because your living situation makes these renovations near impossible right now, they also have a whole section dedicated to simple, low-cost options that will work for anyone, including renters.

Climate action can take many forms. Being aware of what is available and helping to spread the word is yet another way to contribute to the team effort.

Natasha Juliana is the campaign director for Cool Petaluma. She can be reached at natashaj@coolpetaluma.org For information on how to get involved, visit coolpetaluma.org.

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