League of Women Voters

How and why to decarbonize your home

A profile of John Smilie


John Smilie remembers learning in the fourth grade that most of the world’s energy came from non-renewable sources and one day they’d run out. Yet as he grew up reading science and tech news, most of it seemed optimistic. There was always an innovation on the horizon, except when it came to the rise in the earth’s temps. As the years passed, the news grew more grim.

Smilie didn’t refer to history lessons about the Industrial Revolution, when the U.S. and Europe rapidly deforested their rural lands and hollowed the earth for coal which darkened the skies with smog when burned, water was polluted and safe sewage systems didn’t exist. As late as the Eighties, we read of the smog that hovered over LA and Shanghai like the Canadian wildfire smoke we experienced in Indiana this summer.

By then, the industry that produced carbon-based fuel had been warned for at least two decades. In 1959, Edward Teller, one of the inventors of the hydrogen bomb, told petroleum industry professionals at the “Energy and Man” conference that burning carbon-based fuels created a greenhouse effect. In 1965, the president of the American Petroleum Institute Frank Ikard referred to a report that pointed to catastrophic consequences of pollution from the industry. By the late 70s, the industry formed a secret committee to quietly monitor climate science. In 1980, Stanford scientist John Laurmann told the committee that global warming would be noticeable by 2005 (but barely) and catastrophic by 2060. By the late 90s, the rest of the population became aware of the significance of the problem. Depending on your generation, the urgency that accompanied the significance varied.

Smilie’s generation grew up knowing their future required change. His sense of urgency amped up in 2017.

“I realized there wasn’t any leader, anyone bigger than the ordinary person to take charge,” said Smilie. From January 2017 to January 2021, the executive branch of the federal government rolled back 112 environmental rules. By the time the 2019 heat wave scorched Europe, Smilie’s wife Katie realized her husband’s worry was becoming unhealthy, so she urged him to transform his anxiety into action. He joined the Citizens Climate lobby, got politically active, and began to think about the home they’d purchased in 2017.

Built between 1890 and 1920, his home needed upgrades, including the furnace, which was 30 years old and the AC unit was 28 years old. The furnace died in December 2018, so Smilie found himself in the usual situation, needing to replace his HVAC under duress, when he didn’t want pipes to freeze. Wanting to make a financially sound choice — Smilie is a corporate financial planning and analysis advisor — he chose a high-efficiency furnace to reduce his gas and electricity usage. In 2018, he was using 7,600 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and just under 28,000 kWh of gas, for a total of about 35,500 kWh. By 2019, the new furnace dropped his kWh to 27,600, but most of those were still from gas, which is less expensive but also emits toxins inside the home.

A little over a year later, in January 2020, curiosity had him asking about the old ducts in his ceilings and insulation, so he hired a contractor to conduct a blower door test and advise him on how to waste less energy and another to blow cellulose insulation into the attic, filling the hobbit-sized closets. He kept one open, laying down foam board so he could still store his Christmas tree. Then he began doing some basic DIY work, spray foaming his crawl space, weather stripping and caulking around windows and doors. On a cold day in February, he walked around his house feeling for the cold air, a task he revisited over the next couple of winters, once feeling cold air in a surprising gap in the glass on his front door. The wood frames had no insulation. He replaced five single-pane windows.

Smilie also learned that at the rim joists, a key area at the top of the foundation and basement where the house rests, there is rarely insulation, This is where contractors often drill holes for plumbing, cable, gas, and AC. With some foam board and rope caulk, both of which are very inexpensive, he sealed the rim joists and any cracks where cold air seeped in around windows.

By the end of 2020, he was using less gas — about 20,000 kWh — but more electricity (about 6,600 kWh). Overall his usage dropped by 1,200 kWhs with just a few hundred dollars of DIY work. He was also falling under the average 28,000 kWH usage of a Hoosier household.

Knowing that he’d have to replace his water heater soon, Smilie researched heat pump water heaters, which eliminate the heating element and instead draw warm air from around the unit to heat the water. They are three to three and a half times more efficient; whereas a gas water heater uses about five to seven dollars of gas a month, a heat pump water heater uses four to five dollars of electricity. Some heat pumps have downsides — they can be noisy if close to a bedroom or living area and in the winter, if they’re in the basement it will use more energy because it’s colder in the basement.

In 2021, Smilie had a few more projects including sealing of the chimney to keep bats out of the house and plumbing upgrades. Then there was that old AC unit. This time, he and his wife planned to replace the unit before it went kaput. Knowing that a heat pump was far more efficient and could both cool and heat his house, they invested in a heat pump, so they could shut off the furnace until the very coldest days of winter. At the time, he couldn’t purchase one of the newly released cold-climate-rated heat pumps which work at full output at 5 F and at some level down at -13 F. Presently these work so well that the state of Maine gives rebates for its residents to install them. They’re popular in cold climates like Sweden. By the end of 2021, his total kWh dropped to 22,171 and down to about 16,500 in 2022. While his reliance on electricity increased, his gas usage was under 8,500, huge compared to the Indiana average of 20,729 kWh.

He completed all these projects, including adding an electric panel upgrade, an attic radiant barrier, and thermal curtains and blinds for about $35,900, though much of it he had to invest to upgrade his old home. He spent more than most would on the furnace and heat pump, knowing that he would reduce his energy bills drastically. Had he done all this after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, he could have used tax credits and rebates. Smilie encourages anyone updating any aspect of their house, from inexpensive weatherization and replacing windows and doors, to visit energy.gov/save outlines all the ways renters, homeowners, and drivers can save. Almost all of it qualifies for rebates or tax credits. His heat pump water heater gets a tax credit for 30% of the cost up to $2,000.

Some incentives include an energy audit, replacement appliances, HVAC, energy production and storage, heat pumps, energy-efficient air conditioners, clothes dryers, electric stove/ovens, and induction cooktops. Some other incentives cover electric panel upgrades, battery storage and solar, and ventilation. Like Smilie, this may take you years. Most everyone has to take these investments in small chunks and budget for them, but the weatherization ­— the caulking and sealing — is not only affordable and makes an immediate difference, but you can do it yourself.

Doing all these things made a world of difference for more than Smilie’s finances. He knew he was contributing, and that collective action now helps him fight that climate depression and grief he once felt. As a parent, he realizes it’s critical to contribute for the future of kids. Though he knows the world may be unrecognizable for future adults, though it’s not clear to him how it will be.

“There will be a multi-decade transition. By 2050, things will be different, we will have wind, solar, EV automobiles, enhanced geothermal, and carbon fiber materials. When my son is 36 the world is going to be unrecognizable, but I’m not sure how yet. It could go bad or go well, what will happen is a bit of both at the same time. We may have reduced pollutant sources, but we may also spend a chunk of summer with the boreal forests of Canada burning, and he will deal with bad air day today due to this,” he said. In short, there’s still work and innovation to pursue.


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