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A Climate Friendly Historic Home

While we love the historic aesthetics of our Capitol Hill homes, they tend to be drafty with minimal insulation. Heating and cooling them is an ongoing challenge. Catharine and Charles Ferguson have lived in their Capitol Hill rowhouse for 25 years.  They’re concerned about climate change and want to do their part to be a part of the solution.  Could they make their 1900 home both gas-free and comfortable without breaking the bank?

As a part of their commitment to being part of the climate solution, the Fergusons installed solar panels on their rowhouse roof in 2009. With the District’s Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), the system quickly paid for itself and began making money for them. The Fergusons wanted to switch to all-electric systems to further reduce their carbon footprint, but they were daunted by the negative press they’d read and their own experience.  They’d lived in houses with electric heat and an older generation heat pump in the late 80s and 90s.  The experience had not been good. “I spent the winter of 1988 rolled up in my electric blanket and still freezing,” said Catherine.

Small is beautiful! This small utility closet provides electric hook ups for a new heat pump and an eventual water heater and induction stove. Photo: C. Ferguson

To learn more about what individuals can do to address climate change, Catharine began volunteering with the Sierra Club DC Chapter Clean Energy Committee. She heard positive stories about heat pumps as a heating and cooling source for homes. “We thought we had a couple of years to make the transition, but then our heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) unit died in 2023. When our HVAC guy started mapping out the process for replacing out current gas system with another gas system, I mentioned our desire for a heat pump. To my relief, he didn’t bat an eye.”

But installing the heat pump involved some creativity.  They ended up running electrical wires from their circuit breaker to the utility closet through a very7777ght crawl space. “Since someone was going to have to crawl through that space, and we were committed to going all-electric in our home, we ran the cables for the heat pump and an eventual induction stove and electric water heater simultaneously. We were worried that we might not have enough capacity on our circuit breaker, but it all worked out with little fuss.”

With the heat pump installed, the Fergusons are now shopping for an electric water heater and induction stove. They had a tankless gas water heater, but as Catharine notes, “Tankless electric water heaters have extreme electricity needs that most houses can’t handle.” While it’s taking time to find an electric water heater that will fit in the utility closet, they’re optimistic that they can find a suitable model. And, while a new stove was not a necessity, Catharine’s volunteer work with the Sierra Club measuring nitrogen dioxide from gas stoves convinced her to make the change now. “I was quite shocked by the levels of indoor pollution they create.”

For the Fergusons, electrifying their home has been a positive experience, and it has cost less than they anticipated. Catharine notes, “The heat pump controls humidity and has made a huge positive difference in how we experience temperature in our house. The cost of the heat pump was on par with a standard HVAC installation thanks to manufacturing and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) rebates. We estimate that the new water heater will cost $2500 before rebates, while the induction stove will cost less than $1,900 before rebates. Frankly, the worst part of the entire process was sending someone through that crawl space.”

Ben Burdick, Senior Director of Operations at the District of Columbia’s Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) notes that in addition to Federal IRA tax credits and rebates that will be available later this year or in 2024, the Fergusons may also be eligible for additional rebates. He notes, “The DCSEU offers rebates to make qualifying efficient electric appliances, heating and cooling equipment, and electric lawn care equipment more affordable and accessible to District residents. We encourage all residents to check our website (www.dcseu.com) when they are considering energy efficiency upgrades in their homes.”

The Fergusons are feeling good about their investment.  Their upgrades are more energy efficient, so they’re saving money while reducing their carbon footprint and bringing their historic home into a new era.  The rebates that are available make these changes all the easier.  The Fergusons’ advice to other historic homeowners? “Don’t let the naysayers win.  It’s feasible and affordable to make a historic home climate-friendly!”

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and an active member of the Sierra Club DC Chapter. Perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.

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