The fight for energy choice
Sign Up for News Updates
Remodeler Emerson Clauss likes to leave his homes more energy-efficient than he found them.
With a lot of aging homes in his central Massachusetts market, it’s usually not hard to have a big impact.
“There’s a lot of old housing stock out there that needs all sorts of updating to it, especially on the energy front,” he says.
On a recent project in Natick, for example, Clauss is completing a full makeover of a dark ranch-style home, removing walls to create a more open floor plan and creating massive views to the back of the home. But the existing ground floor has no insulation, so Clauss is adding modern insulation and energy-efficient windows and doors, and having his clients consider additional exterior foam insulation to bring the efficiency level even higher.
For the mechanicals, Clauss removed a “monstrous” old oil boiler that left his workers covered in soot, replacing it with a cleaner and much more efficient propane furnace and tankless water heater. “I was shocked at how dirty this old system was,” Clauss says. In addition to enhancing comfort, the new propane furnace system will be less expensive to install and operate than electric alternatives, given Massachusetts’ high electric prices — which is why his clients were shocked to hear about attempts in the state to ban propane and natural gas systems.
The impact of gas bans
In addition to his day job as president and managing partner of Allegiance Construction & Development, Clauss serves as the president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts. The association joined a commercial builders group in suing to overturn a Framingham, Massachusetts, law that would have banned propane and gas in future construction projects. The law was overturned by the state attorney general last year, but Clauss continues to battle attempts by other jurisdictions to enact their own bans.
“For us builders, that’s a nightmare on several levels,” he says. “If every town’s going to have their own set of rules, from a business standpoint, it’s so inefficient. I think it’s a big end-around to public policy.”
The policy also takes away the choice from clients like the Natick homeowners, who have very real reasons for preferring the benefits of propane and gas appliances. With the state decommissioning existing nuclear and coal power plants and making little progress on renewable alternatives, Clauss foresees the state’s sky-high electric prices and unreliable grid only getting worse.
Comfort and upfront installation costs also play a role, Clauss says. Electric equipment would cost about 30 percent more than propane furnaces, which would have equated to about $12,000 more when he installed two propane furnaces at his own house. And while heat pump technology is improving its function at lower temperatures, Clauss and many of his clients prefer the warmer heat produced by propane furnaces during a cold snap. And with the power grid so unreliable, many homeowners would need to install large propane or gas standby generators to keep all those electric heating systems running.
“The reality is a lot of my first-time homebuyers are returning service people trying to get in their first house or college kids just getting married who have college debt,” Clauss says. “Will they be able to return home if we keep mandating all this extra stuff?”
Beyond the equity issues and the lack of affordability for future buyers, losing access to propane would take away many of the most in-demand features around the home. At the Natick project, the propane tankless water heater will be installed close to the home’s primary suite to provide quick, on-demand hot water. In other cases — and soon in his own house — Clauss likes to use a recirculation pump to keep wait times for hot water short.
In his own home, Clauss also has mapped out an outdoor cooking area between the back of his house and his garage that will feature plenty of propane-driven cooking appliances.
Losing access to the efficiency, affordability, and lifestyle amenities that propane provides would be frustrating enough to new-home clients. But Clauss sees potential disaster in proposals that would forbid propane or gas systems in homes that are being 50 percent updated or even 10 percent — a category that could encompass minor repairs after fire damage, for example.
“Now you’re going to lose your fuel for that furnace that’s only five years old,” he says. “Who’s footing that bill? And why?” Alongside his fellow builders, Clauss is leading the charge to give builders and their clients the freedom to choose the ideal energy sources and amenities they want in their homes.