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Furnace or boiler expiring soon? Here's why you should consider an electric alternative

In order to hit 2030 emissions reduction targets, B.C. must rapidly electrify hundreds of thousands of homes, states a new report.
Two-thirds of B.C.'s gas-powered home heating equipment will expire by 2030.

Two-thirds of B.C.’s gas-powered home heating equipment will need replacing by 2030, according to a new report

The report, titled “Stuck: Why home electrification is lagging in British Columbia and what must be done to break the deadlock on residential carbon retrofits,” was produced by OPEN Technologies, Vancity, Circular Citizen and statistician Majid Koury.

It states that this phase of mass replacement could either be “a huge electrification opportunity or a massive blow.”

Ground-oriented homes and other buildings in B.C. account for about 12 per cent of the province’s carbon emissions, according to the report. When compared to other sectors, this percentage increases drastically in urban areas. In Metro Vancouver, these buildings account for 25 per cent of emissions and in the City of Vancouver, they account for nearly 60 per cent.

Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver’s Climate 2050 Roadmap pledges to reduce building emissions by 35 per cent by 2030. The City of Vancouver, Victoria and the District of Saanich have also set targets to reduce operating emissions by 50 per cent in the same timeline.

Donovan Woollard, co-founder and CEO of OPEN Technologies, said the purpose of the report was to determine what barriers are preventing homeowners from choosing to decarbonize their homes through electrification.

In the group of about 900 homeowners surveyed, about three quarters of them reported natural gas as their primary source of space heating, the report states. As these homeowners replace their expired furnaces and boilers over the next eight years, they will incidentally decide the fate of the next generation of building emissions. 

Woollard said this chance for homeowners to install electric heat pumps could be critical in achieving the city’s emissions reduction target.

“If we just replaced those two-thirds [of furnaces or boilers] that are coming up for replacement anyways, with heat pumps, then we're a long way to our target,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

What’s stopping the transition?

The problem, according to the report, is that the majority of homeowners are more reactive than proactive when it comes to their heating systems.

Approximately 60 per cent of the time, homeowners wait for their furnace or boiler to fail, or at least believe its failure is imminent before they replace it, the report states.

This lack of preemptive action plays a huge role in preventing the switch to electric heating, Woollard said, and it’s why these preexisting heating systems are aging out so quickly.

“Homeowners' motivations to deal with a system that, you press a button and heat comes out of your wall, [are low],” Woollard said. “It works great until it doesn't.”

In the moment, Woollard said homeowners are much more likely to just stick with what they know than to retrofit their house with a whole new system.

“[Furnace failure] doesn't happen in the middle of August, that happens on a cold February night,” he said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100 that requires a very rapid response and a like-for-like replacement.”

When it comes to convincing homeowners to think proactively, Woollard said the complexity of installations is a central barrier, especially for people with older homes.

“The [retrofitting] process disconnects between getting people motivated in the first place to look into this proactively, and then once they start on that journey, to keep their momentum up,” he said.

The disconnect is systemic, Woollard said. Even for those homeowners who are enthused about going electric, the systems are not in place for them to retrofit their older homes easily or at a reasonable cost, the report states.

“A lot of homeowners are very motivated and committed [to go electric], but if they don't have the right type of home, it's much much harder for them to make that switch,” Woollard said.

Filling the contractor gap

Adding to the list of complexities is a lag in available contractors for heat pump installations.

Up until recently, the Home Performance Contractor Network (HPCN) that qualifies residential heat pump installers in B.C. had only listed five installers who could serve the City of Vancouver.

This limited database has made it difficult for city residents to get a contractor to commit to their home electrification project, the report states.

Woollard is one of those homeowners.

“I've been going through this on my own house and getting them to call you back is hard, because they're not just installing, they're also educating homeowners,” he said. 

However, these numbers recently saw a huge positive spike for homeowners. 

On July 1, provincial government regulations will change so that homeowners wanting to receive a rebate from projects such as heat pump installations, have to employ an HPCN member.

The impending change, according to the report, led HPCN to expand its database to include 70 qualified contractors, with 500 more pending. Woollard said this number will continue to grow as more companies recognize the demand for heat pump installations. 

“People are seeing the business case for doing heat pumps,” he said. “That's all in response to a regulatory shift. So that gives me some hope that things can move and they can move quickly.”

Those who care the least are doing the most

So which homeowners are setting the example for home electrification? According to the report, it’s not who you'd expect. 

A survey of consumer attitudes and values found that those who prioritize the climate in their lifestyle choices were not those most likely to have a heat pump installed in their home. Instead, the survey group labelled “Work hard, live large,” who are the least concerned about the climate, were most likely to own a heat pump.

The common denominator uniting this group is the type of home that they live in. Typically, the report found that recently constructed, southern Vancouver Island or suburban Lower Mainland single-family detached homes, were most likely to be heated electrically.

Meanwhile, the survey groups labelled “Waste not, want not” and “Healthy life and planet” had negative percentages in terms of heat pump ownership likelihood.

“This reinforces other findings in this report that structural market factors are more important drivers of heat pump adoption than sustainability considerations,” the report states.

Once again, Woollard said, it comes back to the structural problems. He said the government needs to set a phase-out date for existing homes to stop using gas as a primary heating source, similar to how it set one for new homes.

“Most of the homes that we're going to have in 2030, and even 2050, are already in existence today,” he said. “How do we make it so that the industry is motivated… and homeowners are motivated so that we can decarbonize existing homes?” 

Help for homeowners

As many home heating systems near their expiration date and more homeowners are faced with the decision of whether or not to go electric, OPEN Technologies and Vancity are developing programs to guide a homeowner's choice in a climate-friendly direction.

Woollard said OPEN Technologies is taking the findings from the report to work on a software product over the coming months. The product will provide homeowners with information about heating alternatives that are consistent with their values and budget, he said.

Vancity is taking a similar approach, according to Alison Coates, director of climate strategy and performance.

The community credit union just launched its Home Energy Advice service that provides free guidance for its members through the complex journey of home retrofitting, Coates said.

“I think in the report… there are some graphs with sort of squiggly lines that can be really complex for homeowners,” she said. “So that Home Energy Advice service is really meant to simplify that [retrofitting] journey.”

With plans in place to help grow the number of heat pumps in existing homes, Woollard said he’s hopeful that the city's 2030 emissions targets can be met if this rate of growth continues to accelerate.

“I am more confident in the changes that we're seeing,” he said. “Are they enough? Are they fast enough? I don't know. But they're still faster than a few years ago, so that gives me hope.”