Living on a warming planet requires protecting your home from threats exacerbated by climate change. But protection doesn’t only mean playing defense: In addition to anticipating extreme weather or wildfire threats, for example, homeowners can make proactive upgrades to save themselves headaches and money, and to avoid unnecessary emissions.
Here are five ways you can think about climate-proofing your house.
Electrifying your home promises to lock in long-term environmental and economic benefits, although the upfront costs can be high and the process complicated. As many as 48 million US homes may also need electrical upgrades to handle the increased power demands of solar panels, heat pumps and electric car chargers, according to a 2021 paper by Pecan Street, a nonprofit that promotes building electrification.
How it works: For homeowners, it’s a matter of assessing what a house’s current system can handle, deciding which new technologies you want to invest in and planning your upgrades accordingly.
- Claire McKenna, a senior associate at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, recommends starting with heating and hot water; that’s “where the bulk of the energy use is in a home and where you’re going to see the most savings.” If your home has wall-mounted gas heaters, the best option is probably what’s called a ductless mini-split heat pump.
- Electrify your laundry room. Heat pump clothes dryers are relatively new to the US, but they’re 50% more efficient than conventional electric dryers, the usual alternative to gas dryers.
- Get rid of your gas stove. High-efficiency electric induction ranges are 40% more energy-efficient than gas ranges, which are also a substantial source of indoor air pollution.
- Consider solar panels. The US Inflation Reduction Act restored a 30% tax credit for residential solar systems, and extended the program to 2034. Depending on local utility rates, electric cars and home electrification can also significantly reduce the payback period for solar panels, thanks to savings on electricity costs.
Why do it: Over time, electrification upgrades are mutually reinforcing. Electrifying a house with solar energy that’s also used to charge an EV, for instance, eliminates fossil fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Battery systems likewise let homeowners store excess solar energy generated during the day and tap it at night to avoid high utility electricity rates.
Possible complications: Installing a new electrical panel can cost thousands of dollars — more if a utility needs to run a higher-capacity electric supply wire to the house. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a $4,000 rebate to help pay for electrical system improvements, but a growing number of technologies are also available to help homeowners sidestep the hurdles or reduce the price tag.
Replace your water heater
Nearly every home has a water heater, but people tend not to think about it until it breaks. This ubiquitous household appliance is increasingly top of mind, though, for the role it could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The focus is on heat pump water heaters, which transfer warmth from the atmosphere to a tank.
How it works: When renewable energy production peaks in the afternoon, a signal is sent that activates heat pump water heaters. After heating water, the devices shut down and store the hot water for use in the evening when demand spikes. That puts to use excess renewable energy generated during the day that would otherwise be wasted. It’s estimated that heat pump water heaters can store hot water for 12 hours or more, depending on the size of the tank.
Why do it: Heat pump water heaters are up to four times as efficient as conventional gas or electric water heaters. In California, for example, swapping them in could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from water heating by as much as 77%, according to a paper by the nonprofit New Buildings Institute. Another paper from the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that using a network of heat pump water heaters for energy storage would lower utility bills, boost renewable energy consumption, and strengthen the reliability of the power grid.
Possible complications: Heat pump water heaters are about twice as expensive as conventional water heaters and installation costs can add thousands of dollars. The Inflation Reduction Act acknowledges this obstacle with a rebate up to $1,750 for the purchase of one.
Read more about how heat pump water heaters are a secret weapon in the climate fight.
Improve your backup power supply
Blizzards, hurricanes and wildfires are all reasons you might find yourself without power, but suffering through a blackout doesn’t have to mean switching on a highly polluting generator.
How it works: As with home electrification, you can reverse-engineer a backup-power solution by thinking first about potential use cases.
- Keep it simple. If you just want to keep your phones, tablets and laptops charged, there are a plethora of small solar-powered devices available for around $100.
- Go medium. Portable solar-powered lithium-ion generators used to be geared at outdoor enthusiasts. No longer. Wildfires, hurricanes and the Covid-19 pandemic have boosted sales of power stations with capacities of 1,500 to 6,000 watts-hours, including models from Goal Zero that run $2,200 to $8,200.
- Go big. Installing rooftop solar panels and battery storage, or adding a battery to an existing solar array, is the best if the most expensive way to ensure much of your home remains automatically powered during a blackout. Companies such as Tesla Inc., Sunrun Inc., and SunPower Corp. offer integrated solar-and-battery systems that can supply electricity indefinitely as long as the sun is shining. Home battery storage systems can keep the power on even after the sun goes down.
Why do it: The growing frequency of wildfires and other climate change-driven disasters is making home backup power increasingly essential. That’s especially true during a pandemic, when those working from home often don’t have the option of relocating to the neighborhood café if the electricity goes out.
Possible complications: While federal and local incentives exist for upgrading your water heater or installing a home-solar setup, there are currently no federal incentives for portable lithium-ion generators.
Read more about improving your backup power supply.
Upgrade to protect against wildfires
Urban and suburban areas have historically been considered at low risk from wildfires. Not anymore. Rising temperatures and dense, tinder-dry forests have resulted in uncontrollable, fast-moving infernos that spawn their own weather systems and shoot showers of embers over long distances.
How it works: “You want to harden the house from the exterior and look for weak links,” says James LeCron, a principal with Arri/LeCron Architects, a California firm that specializes in fire-resistant design.
- Roofs made of wood or other combustible materials should be replaced with metal, clay tiles, or non-flammable composite shingles. The same goes for decks and balconies.
- Attic and foundation vents can suck in burning embers and burn the house down from the inside. Attach fine mesh screens to the vents or swap them for screens coated in materials that expand and seal the vent when exposed to high temperatures.
- Gutters and roofs should be kept clear of debris and vegetation pruned back at least five feet from the house.
- Make sure window frames are fire-resistant — commonly used vinyl frames will melt in extreme heat. Consider installing shutters that automatically close when exposed to fire.
- Exterior walls can be retrofitted with fire-resistant stucco or synthetic siding, such as environmentally friendly poly-ash.
Why do it: Making homes fire-resistant is no longer just a preoccupation of those living in the wildland-urban interface. The scale and ferocity of climate-driven conflagrations increasingly poses a risk to neighborhoods once thought safe from wildfire. Take Coffey Park: California had designated the middle-class subdivision in the city of Santa Rosa as a low-hazard area, until a 2017 wildfire burned the neighborhood to the ground.
Possible complications: “There’s no one silver bullet,” for fire-proofing a home, LeCron says, noting the effectiveness of a retrofit or new construction depends as much on the design and way the materials are assembled as the materials themselves.
Read more about how to make a home more fire-resistant.
Upgrade to weather a drought
Climate-driven drought is making the once unthinkable possible: Your faucets might run dry. One 2019 study found that multiple regions across the US could face water shortages in the coming decades, which puts a premium on making homes more resilient to drought.
How it works: Using technology that monitors consumption and recycles water can maximize efficiency and minimize waste.
- The first step is figuring out how much water your household uses and where. If your water district uses smart water meters, the information might be available online. If you have a “dumb” meter, you can attach a device called a flow meter, which measures consumption and makes the data accessible via app. Flow meters typically cost around $200 and some water districts offer rebates to customers who install them.
- A flow meter can also help you locate leaks. One 2016 study found that about 14% of indoor consumption is lost to leaks — older houses are particularly susceptible — and the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly a trillion gallons of water can be squandered annually.
- Every home has a source of water that usually goes untapped: greywater. That’s water from showers, bathroom sinks and washing machines that household plumbing funnels into sewer systems. With some low-tech modifications, that water can be diverted to irrigate yards and gardens. A simple greywater system can be professionally built for $1,000 to $2,000 by installing a three-way valve to funnel water from a washing machine to a hose or pipe that disperses it to the landscaping. More elaborate setups can cost about $10,000 and reconfigure a home’s plumbing to redirect water from bathroom sinks, bathtubs, showers and the laundry to an irrigation system.
Why do it: Drought threats in the US already have water utilities asking residents to curtail consumption. While greywater systems don’t offer much of a financial return on investment, they do reduce demand for fresh water and the energy needed to pump it to cities and to operate wastewater treatment plants. Nutrient-rich, greywater is also well-suited for irrigating trees, shrubs, and other larger plants, and using it in your yard keeps phosphates out of rivers, lakes and oceans where they’re harmful to aquatic life.
Possible complications: Soap and water nutrients clog drip irrigation systems, so using untreated household water will require dedicated greywater lines, or adding filtration. More fraught are the rules and regulations covering the use of greywater, which vary by state and locality.
Read more about how to upgrade your home to weather a drought, and how greywater systems can lower utility bills and save water.
To contact the author of this story:
Todd Woody in San Francisco at firstname.lastname@example.org
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