Did you know that half of all the owner-occupied homes in Massachusetts were built before 1962? Even if your home isn’t quite that old, energy-conscious solutions for insulating, heating, cooling, doing laundry, and cooking were most likely not a priority for your home’s builder or its prior owners.
Given that in MA, 42% of greenhouse gas emissions come from our residences and vehicles, planning for the decarbonization of our homes and transportation is crucial to help Massachusetts reach its climate goals. Communities and individual homeowners have the opportunity to reduce emissions and get the benefit of cost savings and technology upgrades as they make home improvements and vehicle purchases.
The Clean Energy Home
Replacing fossil fuel inputs to heating, home appliances and transportation with electricity enables you to power your life with increasingly cleaner electricity sources like solar, wind, and hydropower.
Renewables generated over 20% of the electricity we consumed in MA in 2020, and Massachusetts law requires that they generate 40% in 2030 and 80% of grid electricity in 2050. In contrast, heating, home appliances and transportation that depend on fossil fuels will remain as polluting in future years as they are today.
Why We Created Clean Energy Lives Here
Over the years, MassCEC has helped tens of thousands of homeowners learn about, acquire, and redeem incentives for heat pumps, solar electricity, EVs, and more through our community-based programs like SolarizeMass and HeatSmart. That expertise that we developed during over 100 community engagements is the foundation for Clean Energy Lives Here.
We take the mystery out of home technologies that are unfamiliar to you, and give you the facts so you can have an informed conversation with contractors and service providers about your home system and appliance choices.
Here are some ways for homeowners to use Clean Energy Lives Here:
- Browse Clean Energy Solutions for Your Home to see a list of home technologies that we cover
- Use our Introduction to the Clean Energy Home guide to see what clean energy systems and appliances would be right for your home
- Visit our Resources section to watch videos, read individual technology guides, and explore blogs about real homeowners who have tackled clean energy projects
- Check out Benefits + Savings to see what to expect for up front and monthly costs, savings, incentives and greenhouse gas reduction
- Fill out a Clean Energy Home Plan to document the condition of your current home systems and appliances, along with notes on what you might replace them with when they stop working or they are part of a renovation
- Use our Installers page to find clean energy professionals who serve your community
If you are a renter, while you might have less control over the space you live in there are still ways you can benefit from clean energy and influence the conversation about clean energy:
- If your building doesn’t produce its own solar electricity onsite, as an electric bill payer you can sign up for clean electricity in any of the following ways, all of which are explained further in the Buying Clean Electricity section of our site:
- Opt into your town’s Community Choice clean electricity plan
- Choose the renewable electricity option offered through your electric utility
- Join Green Energy Consumers Alliance’s Green Powered program
- Join a community solar farm
- When systems or appliances in your unit or building are at the end of their useful life, inform your landlord and provide input on the benefits of electrified home technologies as replacements for fossil fuel-powered versions. Our Introduction to the Clean Energy Home guide helps your landlord get to know these products and provides links to more detailed resources.
- If you notice that your building’s roof seems to have good sun exposure, suggest to your landlord that they investigate adding solar electric panels. We’ve got a Solar Landlord Toolkit to help them understand their options.
We’re In This Together
Whether we’re homeowners or renters, many of us face unique challenges with our quirky, lovable, and (in many cases) decades-old dwellings here in Massachusetts! Be a discerning customer of energy sources. Help the climate as you improve your house or apartment. The energy decisions of the past won’t dictate our energy future if we are informed consumers of energy and select clean, efficient systems and appliances when replacing legacy home technologies.
Type of home: Various
When first built: Various
When last renovated: Various
Heat pumps can serve as a whole-home heating and cooling solution in Massachusetts. That was the primary takeaway of MassCEC’s Whole-Home Heat Pump Pilot, which ran from May 2019 through June 2021. And whole-home heat pumps will be fundamental to the Commonwealth meeting our goal of one million households using high-efficiency electric heating systems by 2030.
Whole-home heat pumps are essentially heat pumps that serve 100% of a building’s heating needs. While heat pumps are increasingly common in Massachusetts, many are supplementary to fossil fuel heating systems in homes. However, as the state increasingly electrifies its buildings, more and more will rely on heat pumps for all of their heating needs.
Whole-home heat pumps offer many benefits. First, they deliver a comprehensive heating and cooling solution that serves the whole house, increasing comfort and convenience. Second, they do not require homeowners to maintain and operate two separate heating systems. This eliminates the need to maintain fossil fuel pipes or tanks and keeps the homeowner from needing to maintain and potentially replace a second heating system in their home. And last, whole-home heat pumps deliver superior emissions reductions and will continue to get cleaner as the state’s electricity transitions toward being carbon free.
MassCEC’s pilot worked to demonstrate that whole-home heat pump systems offer a high-performance solution today and that the market is ready for significant expansion going forward.
Background on the Whole Home Heat Pump Pilot Program
MassCEC launched the Whole Home Heat Pump pilot shortly after ending our larger Residential Air-Source Heat Pump Program, which had run from November 2014 through March 2019 and supported the installation of air-source heat pumps at over 20,000 homes. In January 2019, Mass Save® expanded its incentives for supplemental air-source heat pumps – at least for customers switching from oil, propane, and electric resistance. This allowed MassCEC to shift its focus to demonstrating the benefits of whole home air-source heat pumps.
In order to ensure that supplemental heat pumps are being used for heating and to access their higher incentives, Mass Save® requires oil and propane customers switching to heat pumps to either install integrated controls that operate both their heat pumps and their fossil fuel system or remove their fossil fuel system. When Mass Save® launched their incentive, they discouraged the removal of the backup system due to concerns about customer comfort at the coldest temperatures, but they recently removed this language, reflecting growing acceptance of the ability of cold-climate heat pumps to serve as a stand-alone heating solution.
A major goal of MassCEC’s pilot was to demonstrate that heat pumps can be stand-alone solutions, so hopefully our pilot has helped contribute to acceptance of this approach as another option for customers along with integrated controls depending on the customer’s situation and goals. MassCEC also hoped that the pilot would surface cost-effective and efficient design strategies for whole-home air-source heat pump solutions. Some of these cost-effective projects are highlighted in the case studies below.
Awarded Funds under the Whole Home Heat Pump Pilot Program
The MassCEC pilot offered a flat incentive of $2,500 per home for existing homes that were switching from natural gas to whole-home heat pumps or new construction/gut rehab homes that had whole-home heat pumps and had no fossil fuel appliances in the home. In order not to overlap with Mass Save incentives, the MassCEC pilot was only open to residents that heated with natural gas (and were therefore not eligible for the higher Mass Save® incentives). Based on current fuel prices, customers heating with natural gas have the lowest value proposition for switching to heat pumps, but MassCEC knew that there were residents interested in making this transition, and we wanted to support these projects while gathering project data that could be used to inform future state programs and policies. The MassCEC pilot offered higher incentives for income-qualified customers and, towards the end of the pilot, MassCEC created an adder for projects that included other efficiency or electrification measures as part of the heat pump project.
In the two years that we ran the pilot, we awarded funds to 168 whole-home heat pump projects: 31 new construction projects and 137 retrofit projects (including 11 gut rehabs). About a quarter of the projects either received an income-based adder for low and moderate income homeowners or were affordable housing projects. A total of 39 installers participated in the pilot.
The primary lesson learned is that whole-home heat pumps are a feasible solution, not only for new construction, but also for retrofitting existing buildings, including older homes. See the case studies linked below for stories of homeowners who have been heating their homes with heat pumps. We surveyed pilot customers six months after project completion, and 95% of respondents were somewhat or fully satisfied with the level of comfort for heating, while all were somewhat or fully satisfied with the level of comfort for cooling. We encourage homeowners thinking about whole-home heat pumps to start with making their home as efficient as possible. Tighter homes can install smaller and/or less heat pump equipment, will be more comfortable, and will have lower operating costs. A no-cost Mass Save® Home Energy Assessment is a great place to start if you live in Mass Save® territory. Homeowners across the state can refer to MassCEC’s Weatherization Checklist.
Costs for Whole Home Heat Pump Solutions
Costs were higher than we hoped. As shown in the table below, median project costs for the pilot were $18,400. We saw less expensive costs for new construction projects versus retrofits, probably largely because new construction homes had smaller loads so they could install smaller/less heat pump equipment. Also, the heat pump equipment could be designed with the house from the beginning instead of retrofitted. For retrofits, some of the more affordable projects that we saw were for projects that could reuse existing ductwork and/or had smaller homes without a lot of small rooms. Some of those projects are described in the case studies below. Our hope is that costs for whole-home heat pumps projects will go down, as installers become more comfortable with the capabilities of heat pumps and manufacturers offer more options. However, because heat pump technology is relatively mature worldwide I do not expect to see the rapid price declines that solar photovoltaic projects have seen (although I hope I’m wrong!), so I expect that incentives will continue to be necessary to achieve the state’s electrification goals, especially for low and moderate income homeowners.
Whole-home heat pump projects can be complicated and require an installer who is comfortable with the approach. Of the retrofit projects in our pilot, 25% required an electric service upgrade, while 38% reported that their natural gas heating system also provided their domestic hot water, which meant that homeowners either had to leave their natural gas boiler in place just to heat their hot water or else buy a new hot water heater as part of the project. In the pilot, we heard many anecdotes from homeowners who were the main champions for a whole home heat pump solution and sometimes faced hesitation from installers, but our hope is that over time installers become more comfortable navigating and promoting whole-home heat pump projects. Some of the contractors participating in our pilot do have the level of experience to confidently recommend and design a whole-home approach. If you are considering a whole-home project, ask your installer about their experience and comfort with a whole-home scenario. MassCEC’s Guide to Air-Source Heat Pumps has a list of questions that homeowners can ask when they are considering getting heat pumps.
In reviewing the applications, we almost never had a question about whether a system was sized adequately to heat the home; installers tend to be conservative on this front (for good reasons!). Instead, we often were pushing installers to consider sizing down equipment so that heat pump systems would not be over-sized. For ductless projects, our technical consultant (Bruce Harley), often recommended multiple outdoor units and especially single-head units (one outdoor unit connected to one indoor unit) for less cycling and more efficient operation. Sometimes, homeowners still preferred multi-head units due to lack of space for outdoor units. Ducted units can be an economical solution if a home already has ductwork, but if new ductwork needs to be built ducted projects tend to get more expensive. Compact ducted units can be a good solution for serving several small rooms.
MassCEC has put together profiles of several whole-home heat pump projects where the homeowner has lived with the system for at least part of a winter:
- 1880s Salem House (Ducted)
- 1930s Boston House (Mix of Ductless & Ducted)
- 1940s Medford House Case Study (Ducted)
- 1980s Bedford House Case Study (Ducted)
- New Construction Northampton House Case Study (Ductless)
As an aside, I am putting my money where my mouth is on the issue of air-source heat pumps. At the end of last winter, my oil tank sprung a leak. It was going to be $3,000 to replace the oil tank, so that was the push my family needed to get heat pumps and remove the oil heating system. Because I was heating with oil, I was able to take advantage of the Mass Save® rebates. While I have not lived through a full winter with the heat pumps yet, it’s been great to have better cooling in the summer, and we’ve enjoyed the extra space with the oil tank removed from the basement and the radiators removed from the rooms.
MassCEC has the flexibility to pilot new technologies or innovative applications of technologies, like whole-home heat pumps, but we do not have the budget to scale these approaches to the mass market. So as MassCEC wraps up the Whole-Home Air-Source Heat Pump Pilot, we are excited to see what entities like Mass Save® will do to promote whole-home electrification options on a broader scale. Recently, Mass Save® has begun supporting air-to-water heat pumps and ground-source heat pumps. All signs indicate that heat pumps will be a major focus of Mass Save’s three year plan for 2022-2024. In particular, it’s great to see enhanced incentives for moderate-income households in Mass Save’s draft three year plan, since, as discussed above, whole-home heat pumps continue to have high upfront costs. For MassCEC, our next step in residential decarbonization will be launching our Decarbonization Pathways pilot. The Decarbonization Pathways pilot will build on the lessons of the Whole-Home Air-Source Heat Pump Pilot and offer more comprehensive support and coaching to homeowners and better integrate other efficiency, electrification, and renewable opportunities with heat pump projects.
Additionally, MassCEC has contributed some funding along with NYSERDA and the foundation E4TheFuture for a study that The Cadmus Group is conducting on the future of residential cold-climate air-source heat pumps. That study monitored around forty homes in Massachusetts and New York that use heat pumps as their primary or only source of heating over the last month. Results of that study are expected to be made public sometime this fall.
Location: Concord, MA
Type of home: Single Family
When first built: 1974
When last renovated: 2019
We bought our 46-year old, wooden clapboard house about five years ago and it seems like we’ve been immersed in home projects since then. The house has 2,600 square feet of living space on two floors, an unfinished basement, and a two-car garage with an unfinished space on the second floor above it. Not all of our projects have been energy-related but we’ve tried to improve efficiency as we’ve tackled deferred maintenance.
We moved in near the end of the cold and snowy winter of 2015, and immediately we learned three things: 1) the house was chilly and drafty even when the thermostat was set to 70⁰ F, 2) the roof on one side of the house was prone to ice dams, which caused leaks near the ceilings in two of the bedrooms and 3) animals were living in the attic. Our clean energy home journey so far has been intertwined with correcting these three situations.
Electric service upgrade
We upgraded the electrical service to our home from 100 amps to 200 amps at a cost of $2,500 during the first month we lived in our home. Modern electric service enables us to do things like run a hairdryer and a microwave on the same circuit at the same time, which wasn’t possible prior to the upgrade. It also enabled us to install a solar PV system, which I’ll talk about later.
Attic insulation and weatherization
In our first Spring, we got an energy audit from Mass Save®. From that assessment, we got some free LED lightbulbs, learned that the attic insulation was inadequate and confirmed that numerous squirrels had taken up residence there. It turns out that a poorly insulated attic also transmits heat from the house to the roof. In the winter, this creates ice dams on a snowy roof and contributes to leaking. In the spring, we cleaned out the attic, evicted the squirrels, and then had the attic air-sealed and re-insulated by a contractor recommended by MassSave. The attic air-sealing makes the space more airtight and blocks animals from getting in, and the insulation has made the upstairs floor of our house feel much warmer in the winter.
I’ll take a serving of energy efficiency with my windows, garage, and lighting, please!
We did a more comprehensive round of home improvements at the end of 2018 through early 2019. Though most of the house’s windows are double-pane with fiberglass frames, we had some original wood-frame windows left on the house that were deteriorating. We replaced them with double-pane windows, which are more insulating in winter than the windows that were there before. They have a U-Factor of .30, on a scale of .25 – 1.20, with a lower number being best. I do see that they are Energy Star certified for mid-Atlantic states but not MA, and I would definitely prioritize windows that are efficient for the MA climate in the future.
In addition, the part of the garage where the wood meets the foundation, called the sill, was rotting & needed to be replaced. In the course of that project, the garage walls were insulated with blown-in cellulose insulation. Why insulate the garage walls if we don’t live in that space? We think we might eventually finish off the space above the garage and it’ll be more efficient to heat and cool that room if it’s not exposed to extreme heat and cold underneath it. Its also great for the garage to be warmer than the outdoors in winter, since it shares one wall with our current living space.
We had almost no overhead lights in the house and craved a brighter environment. We had recessed LED lights installed in multiple rooms and learned that instead of the tall cylinders that used to be required to achieve the same look, now there are much thinner light assemblies that don’t disrupt the insulation above and around them. Whereas “can” lights used to require an insulating box around them or need air sealing, the new version is hassle-free and compatible with our insulation improvements.
The winter of 2019-2020 was the first one with the house out of renovation mode and with weatherization and energy efficiency measures in place. It was also a warmer winter according to the number of “heating degree days” as compared to past winters. Our gas bill from that winter was about $300 lower than in previous years. You can see in the graph above that our natural gas use correlates closely to the number of heating degree days within each bill cycle. The gas usage from June – September is associated with cooking and hot water only.
I think it’ll take a couple more winters to accurately quantify the savings from our energy efficiency and weatherization improvements. I can attest that the house felt cozier last year and seemed to be a more even temperature in all the rooms. Eventually we’ll replace our gas furnace with heat pumps, but that’s a topic for a future blog!
Even on a wooded lot, solar works for us
We didn’t really think our house got enough sun to be a candidate for solar panels. But using the Project Sunroof tool on the EnergySage website, we were able to see that our roof had good sun exposure. Here’s the view of our southwest-facing roof, now with the solar panels on it.
We learned that our investment in solar panels would pay for itself over time, meaning that the electric bill savings and SREC-II payments we’d get would equal what it cost to install the system and then we’d be cashflow positive after that. The idea of generating clean electricity and making money using our roof space appealed to us.
In late 2017, we had a 7.7 KW system installed. Given that the roof had previously been leaking during the winter, we decided to also replace the roof on the part of the house where the solar panels were being installed. That increased the cost of the project but gave us the peace of mind that the roof beneath the panels will last at least as long as the panels, and wet weather won’t damage our house. We chose to purchase our solar energy system, rather than enter a third-party ownership arrangement, because we had the financial flexibility to do that. Here’s an interesting graph that shows our electric bills the year before we had solar installed and the two years after:
Here’s how the investment in solar has worked out financially, so far. We love seeing really low (and sometimes negative, meaning we’re getting credit towards future bills!) amounts on our electric bills. We’ve only gone through one full year with the system and its associated payments and credits. Right now it looks like the cost of the system after incentives and tax credits will have been paid back by our electric bill savings and SREC-II payments after 7.5 years.
What we’ve learned
- Standard free energy audits won’t cover the entirety of the energy efficiency measures you need to take in your house. Feel empowered to start with those free recommendations and take it further, especially in older homes.
- Contractors or architects won’t always have energy efficiency front-of-mind when discussing home improvement plans. Be comfortable advocating for solutions that serve a shared purpose of reducing your home operating costs, lowering emissions, and improving the way your home looks.
- Export your utility bill history from the respective online billing portals. Even if you haven’t made energy-related improvements yet, you need a baseline to compare your improvements to. I found it hard to get more than three years of billing history, even though we were the ones paying those bills in 2015 and 2016.
- Keep records that help you articulate the value of your energy-related home improvements. When we eventually sell our home, its monthly operating cost will likely be lower than other competing homes of the same age that are for sale. Until then, we are happy to enjoy these improvements that make us more comfortable and help reduce the carbon footprint of our home!