Taking The Leap FROM Natural Gas
Like most Minnesotans, we use natural gas to heat our home and our water, and we used it to cook our food. It’s an accepted fact that “natural gas is cheaper and easier to cook with.” But this remodel was all about looking into the future and rethinking common knowledge.
We had to ask ourselves, is it time we disconnect from natural gas?
The outlook for natural gas is not smooth sailing. While we seem to have “plenty” (estimates vary from an unlikely 100 years to 40 years), natural gas developers have had to turn to the more costly and damaging method of horizontal drilling (fracking) in order to tap natural gas reserves. Click through to the article above and you’ll see that wells accessed in this way deplete much faster.
So what we can see about the future of natural gas is a period of low prices, then price variability, then rising prices. Natural gas is, after all, a fossil fuel. It’s not a renewable energy source so once it’s gone, it’s gone. And it does produce greenhouse gases, though much less than coal and oil. So if we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels in all other areas of our life, we should also think about how we can reduce it in the kitchen.
Natural gas comes into play with heating the space and heating food with a gas stove.
The Range: We had a newer gas stove and we liked cooking with gas. But we had to move the stove and the gas piping. Now was the time to consider a switch. Was a gas stove really the best, most energy efficient option?
Peter had been watching infomercials about induction cooking. We didn’t know much about it so we started to research. I found this article about induction cooking on Wikipedia. Go way down the page to see information about efficiency and environmental impacts. It says:
“The energy efficiencies for cooking given above (84% for induction and 40% for gas) are in terms of site energies at the customer’s meters. The (US averaged) efficiencies recalculated relative to source fuels energies are hence 25% for induction cooking surfaces using grid electricity, 84% for induction cooking surfaces using on-Site Solar, and 38% for gas burners.”
Just to be sure I really understood this, I asked an engineer friend about it. He sent me a ranking of efficiency for various types of stoves (higher is better):
- 84%: induction stove powered by solar electricity
- 78%: smooth top electric stove powered by solar electricity
- 70%: induction stove powered by grid (wind generated) electricity
- 38%: natural gas stove
- 25%: induction stove powered by grid (coal generated) electricity
When it comes to greenhouse gas production, he said: “Electric stoves generate less GHG emissions if they are powered by solar electricity. If they are powered by grid electricity that is generated by burning fossil fuels, then the GHG emissions are on par with a natural gas stove.”
We have on-site solar, which operates most of the year (though not when covered in 3 feet of snow). We decided to make the switch to an induction cooktop and convection oven.
We don’t produce enough electricity to offset all of our current usage but we are grid-tied so we get electricity from Xcel when we’re not producing. We don’t have any more room on our roof so we can’t increase on-site production. Luckily a new opportunity has become available in our area. The Lake Street community solar garden is located just a few blocks from our house.
The cost of a panel on a community solar garden will vary on installation so it won’t be helpful for me to share exactly how much this one cost. What I can say is that it was more affordable than putting the array on our house. Plus, someone else does the maintenance to keep it snow free. We bought 3 panels to offset the added electricity we will be using.
Hot Water Heating: We have a standard tank water heater powered by natural gas. We have no space for solar hot water heating. We have considered a whole-house, on-demand electric water heating system but our current water heater is a high efficiency one and it’s still functioning fine.
The EPA says you can save 27%–50% on your water heating energy use if you install on-demand water heater at each hot water outlet. We decided to add an on-demand hot water system at the kitchen sink. It works wonderfully. We save water by not having to leave the water running for many minutes before hot water gets to the sink. We can use it to fill the french press for coffee, to make a quick cup of tea or canned soup or to get a pot of pasta started. We expect its use will also be offset by our solar garden investment.
Room Heating/Reducing Heat Loss
At the moment, we have no good options that would allow us to move away from gas home heating. Our goal, then, is to minimize heat loss so we use as little gas as possible. Luckily, we had a lot of room for improvement!
The Range Hood: Our first task was to change the range vent. Our 1921 bungalow had a hole in the wall with a fan in it, covered by a piece of tin. We pulled a cord, the piece of tin swung outward, and the fan started. On howling windy winter days, the tin rattled. I could SEE money seeping out around the edges.
It’s now screwed closed, with two types of insulation, wood, sheet rock and a cabinet between us and the outside.
Top of our list was getting a regular vent hood, which is insulated. Adding a hood above the stove determined where the stove would be located. That decision determined where everything else would go. The vent we chose had one other energy saving feature – LED lights.
Hot Air Vent Placement: While it was nice to have toasty warm toes while washing dishes, having the only hot air vent in the room located inside the sink cabinet was not wise. The sink moved but we couldn’t leave the vent where it was because it would have blown heat onto the back of the refrigerator. Our HVAC guys had to create an arduous path through overstuffed floor joists in the basement and through two closets to come up in the floor at the top of the stairs.
The Walls and Windows: Strictly speaking, we only had to take down one small interior wall to do the remodel, but we chose to take down all the plaster walls so we could see what was happening with the old insulation. (This also made it easier for the plumber and electrician to do their work.)
The walls on the first floor had been insulated more than 20 years ago – possibly much earlier. What we found was bulky foam from top to bottom between the wall studs but huge air pockets along every stud where the foam had pulled away. And there was no insulation between or around the windows.
We planned to spray insulating, air-blocking foam (you can see an example here) on the two exterior kitchen walls. It would give us maximum r-value. Unfortunately, a problem with the plumbing inspector’s schedule – and then the overall building inspector – meant we couldn’t spray on our assigned day. Getting on the insulator’s schedule again – or anyone’s schedule – would have put the project out 6 weeks.
We read all the do-it-yourself reviews and decided spray foam insulation was a project best left to the professionals. With a heavy heart, we kept a sizeable chunk of money in our wallet and installed regular wall insulation ourselves. It’s the best we could do and better than what we had.
You May Know Better
So, I’ve outlined our thinking and the choices we ultimately made regarding electricity versus natural gas. I’m not an engineer but I did my research on the current thinking and the currently available technologies. I may have made wrong decisions, but I hope we’re heading in the right direction, AWAY from fossil fuels.
In the end, it’s progress, not perfection. All of these technologies will eventually wear out and I can make a different decision later, if need be.