How do you switch from gas to electric at home?
Dec 13, 2023
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When Nathan Thomas opened his electricity bill last month he discovered, to his slight surprise, that he owed money. Not much: around $75, including the cost of charging an electric car, but still, it was the first time in nearly a year he’d had to pay anything. Certainly, gas bills are a distant memory for him and his partner – they don’t even have a connection.
They’ve caught the all-electric bug, done what they can to improve their house’s efficiency, generate their own power from solar and, as a result, largely avoid the energy price hikes the rest of us are having to endure. It’s not necessarily a cheap transformation, Thomas acknowledges. “Not everyone can afford these things because they require some upfront investment,” he says. “But if you don’t have the money, as you replace things like hot water systems, don’t go with those powered by fossil fuel.”
For decades, gas was promoted as a cheap, clean, “natural” source of power: stored sunshine. Almost overnight, though, this fossil fuel is on the nose: recognised as a major contributor to climate change, increasingly expensive and a potential health hazard in the home. The ACT and Victoria have just banned connections to new builds. While NSW hasn’t yet followed suit, the state is widely encouraging electrification and one of its councils, Waverley, has already pushed ahead and unilaterally banned gas appliances in new homes.
“Getting off gas,” says the Grattan Institute, “will be complex for governments and difficult for many people – but delaying action will only make it more so.” Renew, the independent sustainability think tank, has modelling that shows that households using gas for heating, cooking and hot water could face bill increases of up to $1900 over the next two years, while efficient all-electric homes with solar face more limited increases of $550 to $741. So if you want to get off gas and go all-electric, where do you start? What will it cost? What if you rent? And what’s the downside?
Ingrid Jolley and Chris Besley with their children, Mia (left) and Hazel, and their electric bike.Credit: Eddie Jim
For Ingrid Jolley, it was the hot water that started everything. When her old gas-fired system failed, she and partner Chris Besley were ready, replacing it with a $3000 Bosch electric heat pump, a technology relatively new to Australia that was not then widely known. Germany, in contrast, is considering banning gas boilers entirely in new buildings, with heat pumps likely to be the main replacement due to their higher efficiency.
Costing between $2500 and $5500, depending on brand and capacity, electric heat pumps work a lot like a fridge in reverse, gathering heat from the outside air and transferring it to water in a storage tank (in essence, they use a compressor and refrigerant that changes state from gas to liquid and back again). They are much more efficient than old-style electric and gas water heaters and can cost very little to run when drawing power during the day from a home’s solar panels, which Jolley and Besley installed next, aided by a government interest-free loan (more on that later).
Eventually, several more small improvements and around $6400 later (including the hot water system, $1400 for an induction cooktop and another $2000 for a reverse-cycle air-con), they were able to turn off the gas entirely. “We started doing this process in 2019,” says Jolley, a psychotherapist in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote. “While our motivation about going electric was really climate related, we have also benefited from the financial savings. I have definitely noticed a reduction in bills, which has just been an added bonus.”
Even with spending much more time working from home than pre-pandemic, she says, the family’s bills are $100 a month lower than in 2019. “Plus the cost of energy has gone up, so we’re probably saving a lot more than that.” An electric car is the next big-ticket item; in the meantime, an electric cargo bike has to suffice. (We’ll get back to EVs in a minute.)
‘You’ve got that air-conditioner sitting there – use it. Find the heat button. It’s a cheap source of heat, so it’s like a gift.’
If replacing your gas hot water right now is impractical, you could make a start with some passive improvements to reduce your energy usage, which are generally easy and relatively cheap. That’s what Tim Forcey did. The former chemical engineer slowly turned his house all-electric and now advises others on how to do it, both in person and through his Facebook group, My Efficient Electric Home, which has almost 100,000 members.
Seal draughty windows and external doors with weather stripping and automatic door seals for a few dollars from your local hardware store. This is basic, but draw the curtains or blinds at night in winter to keep heat inside. Block up the chimney if you don’t use the fireplace. In old homes, cover the wall vents. And if you have a reverse-cycle air conditioner already, then you’re at least part of the way towards turning off the gas heating. “You’ve got that air-conditioner sitting there – use it,” says Forcey. “Find the heat button.” Like heat-pump hot-water systems, modern air-cons use a refrigeration cycle to either cool or heat the air. And, again, they are much cheaper to run than gas-powered ducted or hydronic heating. “It is a cheap source of heat, so it’s like a gift.”
Tim Forcey has gone all-electric.Credit: Simon Schluter
Once you have reverse-cycle heating and cooling and heat-pump hot water, next comes the kitchen: replacing a gas cooktop with an induction hotplate. For many, this can prove the biggest hurdle. For generations, cooking with gas was considered superior to electric: instant heat that could be carefully controlled, far more responsive than the old-style electric-element cooktops. “You’re better off with natural gas,” claimed an iconic 1979 TV ad for AGL, where performers from the Sydney Dance Company mimicked gas flames around a giant burner.
What we have not known about gas, though, is its less-than-virtuous risk to health, especially our children’s. Burning it in our kitchens, it turns out, fills the air with pollutants including formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles categorised as PM2.5 that can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
“Scientists have long known that gas stoves emit pollutants that irritate human airways and can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems,” wrote Scientific American in January, recalling that a 1992 analysis of studies on the topic “found that nitrogen dioxide exposure that is comparable to that from a gas stove increases the odds of children developing a respiratory illness by about 20 per cent”. A study in December, meanwhile, attributed more than 12 per cent of cases of childhood asthma in the US to the use of gas cookers.
When The Age environment reporter Miki Perkins borrowed an air-pollution monitor from the Climate Council last year, she was in for a shock. “Half a dozen times, the monitor showed the amount of tiny PM2.5 particles in our kitchen soared to the same levels as the toxic air people were breathing in Sydney during the Black Summer bushfires.” Indeed, says Dr Kate Charlesworth, a GP who advises the Climate Council, “this is a major source of indoor air pollution in people’s homes, and it’s much riskier and much more harmful than we previously thought”. Gas cooking, she says, is associated with “increased risk of asthma, respiratory infections, coughs and wheezes and impaired lung development”.
Induction cookers produce zero emissions (in the home, at least) and, according to consumer publication Choice, are more efficient than gas – proving faster to boil a pot of water, for example. The psychological barrier is understanding how they work. Instead of a naked flame, induction cooktops – short for electromagnetic induction – generate a constantly changing magnetic field that transfers an electric current into metal cookware, heating it.
Digitally controlled cooking gives the ability to maintain exact temperatures and set timers, with no pan on the surface they stay cool and safe for children and pets, and they are easy to clean; the disadvantages are that you can’t see a flame, they’re not particularly cheap (good brands start from around $1500), not all pots and pans are compatible with them, and you will probably need an electrician to install a new connection direct to your circuit board. That said, you could test the water with a portable single-burner unit from under $100, which plugs into a normal socket.
Matt Piper and Steph Rich with their temporary induction cooktops. Credit: Jason South
Many people – including everybody interviewed for this Explainer – find the journey to electrification also encourages them to improve their home’s efficiency in other ways. First steps typically include a rooftop solar panel array and new or better insulation in the roof and under the floor for homes on stumps, which are reasonably affordable upgrades, from a few thousand dollars depending on the type of material used, such as natural wool, and the size of the home. Victoria offers rebates for solar (capped at a household income of $180,000); NSW has a scheme to provide solar power to qualifying low-income households for free.
Then there are the major purchases: double glazing, which typically runs into the tens of thousands, house batteries (which start at around $6000 but quickly run into multiples of that), electric cars ($40,000-plus) that can potentially reverse-power your home, and renovations or new builds designed to be as energy efficient as possible.
Nathan Thomas, a former chartered accountant, did nearly the lot, including double glazing that cost around $20,000 for a small two-bedroom home. His renovation, in Sydney’s Cremorne, incorporated the best passive design, packed with insulation and designed with roof eaves that allow the house to collect sunlight in winter but shade from the heat in summer. The result, he says, is extremely low energy use. “We can run the air-conditioner for 10 or 15 minutes and that’s enough because the house is well insulated,” he says.
But you don’t need to have unlimited funds. Architect Olivia George and her partner are turning their one-bedroom, 58-square-metre cottage in the Blue Mountains into electric-only on a shoestring, relying in part on two efficient fireplaces and collected firewood as back-up for winter electricity blackouts.
‘I didn’t want it necessarily to be perfect.It was about getting off gas and then slowly upgrading appliances to be more efficient.’
They bought a freestanding electric stove on Facebook Marketplace (induction was too expensive for now), alongside windows from a recycling centre and creaky old French doors. There’s a laundry in a shed made from the cottage’s old roofing materials. “I didn’t want it necessarily to be perfect,” George says. “It was about getting off gas and then slowly upgrading appliances to be more efficient.”
Matt Piper and partner Steph Rich, a sustainability and climate change specialist, meanwhile, have cooked on a pair of portable induction cooktops for the past six months while they plan to install a permanent unit. This is the second house they have retrofitted to be off gas; at their last place Piper, an operations manager for a mapping service, spent months during the pandemic laying insulation in the roof cavity and under the floor in his free time.
Now they are busy draught-proofing again, this time in their brick-veneer home in Reservoir in Melbourne’s north.
“We’ve put off the cosmetic renovations until we fix all the draughts,” says Piper. “We’ve got leaks through the walls and we’ve got leaks through the floor. We are getting insulation installed very soon to help combat this.”
Olivia George and partner Rowan in their Blue Mountains cottage.
Environmental concerns aside, making a change is all about return on investment for most householders. Bottom line: solar panels can cut summer electricity bills to zero, so a typical 4 to 6-kilowatt (kW) system, starting at about $4000, can pay itself off in a few years depending on how carefully you maximise solar energy over grid electricity in your home – diligently running dishwashers and washing machines during the day when the sun is shining, for example. House batteries, on the other hand, still run to tens of thousands of dollars and will typically run out of warranty and begin to degrade long before you’ve recouped the initial outlay. AGL, for example, is currently charging $16,502 for a 13.5kW Tesla Powerwall, or $276 a month for 60 months – which would buy a lot of grid electricity. Finn Peacock has a detailed analysis on his SolarQuotes site, that concludes: “If your main reason for buying batteries is to save money, then my answer is not yet in many cases.”
EVs have made up 8.4 per cent of all new car sales for 2023, with more sold this year already than in 2022. “We’re holding off until either the cost reduces or you can connect your existing electric vehicle to a house,” says Piper, whose Tesla Model 3 could, with a software upgrade, potentially operate as a stand-in for a house battery, charging from solar during the day then feeding the power back into the house at night. As part of a whole system, though, electric cars are becoming increasingly attractive as prices start to fall below $40,000 (the BYD Dolphin and MG 4 are currently the cheapest) and fuel costs remain high.
Thomas charges his Chinese-made BYD EV from his house’s solar during the day, and calculates that in the six months he and partner Maikol have had the vehicle it’s cost them $81.09 in electricity. And when there was a power blackout, they ran an extension cord from the car back into the house to run a heater. “We love our electric car,” Thomas says, on the phone from Far North Queensland, where they are currently road-tripping. “Everyone’s got an opinion on electric cars.”
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