There is some debate among scholars over when humans first learned to control fire. A large body of evidence suggests people have been using it for around 600,000 years, but recent discoveries have pushed the date back to as far as 1 million years ago. Regardless of when exactly it started, there is no question that controlling fire has changed the course of human evolution. Fire allowed our ancestors to cook food, fend off predators, and venture into harsh climates. It encouraged people to gather together in groups and stay up into the night, and for millions of years it has made our dwellings warm and comfortable. But as amazing as it’s been, using fire is not without problems, especially as our population gets larger and environmental concerns grow.

In today’s world fire still provides most of the heating needs in our dwellings. The two largest uses are for space heating and water heating. Of course, the way we use fire today is a bit more sophisticated than our ancestors, as we have multiple fuel sources to choose from. Obviously, there is wood, which has been a fuel since the beginning. Then there is coal and in some places peat, which the Irish have used for years. Add to the mix fuel oil, natural gas, propane, and other fossil fuels and you see that we now have a wide variety of things to burn in our homes. The real question, though, is why are we still burning things at all?


There’s nothing like a blazing fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter’s day. Trees are, in theory, a renewable resource (as long as the wood isn’t burned faster than it can be grown) but wood does not burn very efficiently. Typical open-hearth fireplaces are energy hogs, only converting about 15 percent of wood’s energy into heat. In addition, the process of burning the wood releases fine particles and combustion by-products up the chimney and into your home, which is a health hazard. Then there’s the fact that a fireplace is not automatic: you have to wake up in a cold house and start the fire. Improvements in technology have helped; new EPA rated wood fireplaces can be up to 75 percent efficient, and burning wood can be automatic if you use a pellet stove with a feeder that allows the fire to burn continuously.

But even with all of the improvements, heating with wood alone is not a realistic option for the majority of homes. With regulated no burn “Spare the Air” days and the large amount of labor required, relying on wood as a primary fuel is not very practical. Even if you can use wood for space heating, it’s pretty darn hard to meet your hot water demands with a wood stove alone. Another consideration is the fact that in states like California, to get a mortgage on a house you must have an automatic heat source with safety controls, which for the most part rules out wood as a sole source of heat.

If you’ve ever visited or lived in a city that has issues with temperature inversions, like Salt Lake City, Denver, or Los Angeles, you probably know that when it’s cold outside and lots of people are burning wood, you get smog. Whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s hard to deny the human contribution to air pollution when you drive from a place with clear mountain air through brown haze into a basin filled with smog from wood-burning fireplaces.


Most of the US has moved on from burning wood. In the Northeast, fuel oil and boilers are king. Fuel oil has its share of problems: it’s fossil fuel based, messy to deal with, and is subject to seasonal price fluctuations. Efficiency is a concern, especially with older boilers, which are only around 56 percent efficient. In rural areas where there is less infrastructure for other options, many people use propane, another fossil fuel.

In the West and many other parts of the country, natural gas is the fuel of choice. Natural gas has been used in buildings for many years. It’s abundant, it burns pretty clean, and the appliances that use it are very reliable. It has allowed us to automate water and central heating using systems that require little to no attention for years. As a low cost, reliable option for so many applications, it’s no surprise that gas is such a popular option across the country.

Looking forward, however, there are a number of reasons to question the idea that natural gas is the best fuel for the future. First off, like oil, natural gas is a fossil fuel, which means it’s a limited resource. Its price fluctuates along with the cost of crude oil. Not to mention the fact that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse-gas, which means that it traps heat in the atmosphere, making the surface of the Earth warmer. In fact, methane on a short-term timescale, traps 25 to 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

Natural gas transmission depends on a vast underground network of pipes and storage facilities, many of which are aging and starting to fail. Studies indicate 46 percent of our natural gas transmission pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s. These pipes are now approaching their life expectancy and leaks are common. It’s estimated that as much as 30 percent of the natural gas we produce never makes it to the end user, due to leaks in the distribution system.

Natural gas releases have a huge impact on our planet. In late 2015, a leak at the Southern California Gas Aliso Canyon underground storage facility was discovered. The gas spewed into the atmosphere out of control for weeks. It took 112 days to contain the leak and stop the emissions. It has been estimated that during this period the facility released 109,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, which is more greenhouse-gas than 440,000 cars emit in one year. So far, this represents the worst man-made greenhouse-gas disaster in US history.

Natural gas is also an extremely volatile fuel. In September of 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric Pipeline in San Bruno, California exploded during routine testing. The explosion leveled 35 homes, damaged many more, and eight lives were lost. It was later determined that this tragedy could have been avoided if safety procedures hadn’t been reduced in order to save money. There is no question there’s risks when you deliver a volatile fuel through aging pipelines. The real question is, how long will it be until we see another disaster such as San Bruno or Aliso Canyon?

When we use natural gas, or any other combustible fuel, we are relying on fire to create heat. When you burn anything, there are dangerous byproducts. In residential situations, one of the most dangerous byproducts is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that produces symptoms that are very similar to the flu. Undetected, it causes drowsiness often causing victims to fall asleep and never wake up again. An unsuspecting plumber can cause a carbon monoxide issue by simply installing the wrong size flue. Furnaces and water heaters can be damaged during shipping and cause carbon monoxide issues. There are a whole host of situations that can lead to carbon monoxide problems. This is part of the reason carbon monoxide detectors are required by code in California.


So we’ve identified the problems inherent in burning things to heat our homes and make hot water, but what choice do we have? It turns out the answer is pretty simple and already a part of everyday life: electricity. We can use the energy in electricity to provide all of the heating and hot water needs in our buildings, without combustion, using time-tested technology.

One way or another, electricity is the energy source of the future, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In part, this has been due to the high cost of using electricity to heat water and homes, and the fact that historically, producing electricity (usually using coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear power plants) hasn’t been very clean.

However, the electric grid in places like California is significantly cleaner today than it was just a few short years ago. Using renewable energy, California is now ahead of climate goals that were thought to be unachievable when they were enacted. Large amounts of clean energy are being fed into California’s electrical grid, not just from residential rooftop solar but from large “utility scale” solar and wind farms. As more and more of this clean electricity enters the grid, it’s obvious that this should be our fuel of choice for space heating and water heating in buildings.

There are some hurdles to switching from a fossil fuel economy to electricity. Some of the challenges are actually embedded in our building codes. When California’s energy codes were written, electricity generated from fossil fuel plants was not very clean and it was expensive. When legislators wrote the energy codes they favored natural gas, as it was the best option at the time. As things have changed, building codes haven’t kept up. In California, the ability to switch fuel from natural gas to electricity has been limited by an outdated regulation called the “three-prong-test”. Effectively, the cost considerations in this metric strongly discourage switching from natural gas to electric heating, even when most people agree it makes sense. Efficiency First California has been working with the National Resource Defense Council and the Sierra club to help change this restrictive legislation. We are starting to see some progress on the policy side but we still have a long way to go.

Advances in technology also favor electricity, particularly when you consider efficiency. We can now heat our buildings and make hot water with heat pumps, which are often 200-300 percent efficient. Next up are heat pump clothes dryers which don’t require a vent to the outside, and induction cooktops, all of which are more efficient than our current electric appliances. In almost every case, modern electric appliances are more efficient than their gas counterparts. And electric appliances are significantly safer than combustion-based alternatives.

When you eliminate combustion (fire), carbon monoxide and other by-products are completely eliminated, gone, no longer a concern. This alone should be enough of a motivator to pursue an all-electric future.

When we switch to electric appliances, especially those that utilize heat pump technology, we are selecting the safest and most efficient option. As the grid becomes cleaner by incorporating more and more renewable sources to produce electricity, the choice becomes even more clear. If efficiency and safety are the goal, the path is obvious. Electricity is the future fuel for buildings and we should support the transition to this clean energy future.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California

Image from iStock

Originally posted on

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Tags: Advocacy, Charles, Cormany, Efficiency, Electrification, Energy, Healthy, Homes, Performance


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Comment by Walter Ahlgrim on March 10, 2018 at 3:34pm

 “From an efficiency standpoint electricity is a clear winner.” Baloney not when you count the losses at the power plants most plants are 45% efficient and you lose another 7% in distribution and transmion.  The very best solar panels are just 30% efficient.

I agree that heat pumps are 2 to 4 times better at heating than incandescent light bulbs but what does that prove.

If we define efficiency as, BTU per dollar as billed by the unities in your location. Anywhere city gas is available it is always the most cost efficient option.

I like my heat pump but I loved my gas furnace but without city gas a heat pump is my best option.

I have yet to see any electric power storage that does not require dangerous metals (lithium, cobalt and lead) I do not want tons of in and around my home.

If you are advocating for solar and wind power be honest and say so in the title.


Comment by Charles Cormany on March 10, 2018 at 1:17pm

A few points to consider from the author.

1. From an efficiency standpoint electricity is a clear winner. The best gas appliances are 98% efficient. Electric appliances using heat pump technology are 200% to 400% efficient. Combustion safety is a huge concern, byproducts (CO), flame roll outs, disconnected flue, explosions. Electricity is a more efficient and  safer option. 

2. We need to accept that there are societal costs to our lifestyle. Moving energy is dangerous - gas, electric, hydrogen, what ever method you choose. There is a cost for the privilege of coming into your home and flipping a switch to have lights, etc. One thing you need to consider is we can now site-produce and store electricity which means no transmission, this will never happen with fossil fuels.

3. Heat pump are not just for California. They have been in use in Alaska for over 30 years. Vermont just released a report about successfully using mini-splits in the North East.

We all use heat pumps every day - your refrigerator is a heat pump, it's proven technology.

4. There are commercial applications as well - Multi-family hot water supply, heat pump pool heaters, induction cook tops, the list goes on.

We are dependent on fossil fuels - we will need them for plastics, pharmaceuticals and a whole host of other things we depend on. We have options for how they are used in our buildings. Electricity, in most cases, is a better choice.

Comment by Walter Ahlgrim on March 8, 2018 at 11:43am

Let’s be honest Electric is not an energy source!

There are no electric mines, wells or fields. What electric is a convenient way to move other forms of energy and use it in our homes. Electric maybe very efficient from the meter on the side of your house to your induction cook top, but let’s not ignore there are losses in generation, transmission and distribution. While solar and wind as energy sources sound great they are not constant and predictable and not available when and where we need and want them they require gas power topping plants to operate 24 7 to pick up the slack when the wind stops or the clouds roll in.

Electric is far from safe as it kills 700 Americans a year  while carbon monoxide kill 430 plus 17 from gas explosions.  The failure of the Taum Sauk electric energy storage scheme is every bit as scary as any gas explosion.

The last time I looked Coal, Gas and Nuclear made 85% of electric. Electricity allows us to move the fires out of our homes and to a few power plants.


Comment by Barbara Smith on March 1, 2018 at 11:59am

Another challenge here is commercial buildings. Will restaurants give up their conventional stoves with open flames and wood-fired pizza ovens? Maybe not soon. You might have electric heat in your home, but if your apartment is above a restaurant, your building has combustion within. What about commercial bakeries?  Perhaps we build in more safe-guards to compensate until these sectors find acceptable electric stoves and ovens.  Zambonis at the hockey rink often run on propane though electric ones are available.  

Comment by Barbara Smith on March 1, 2018 at 11:37am

Useful ruminations. California is a good place to start. Heating with electric in a cold climate is challenging. It is predicated on first investing in better air sealing and insulation in homes. There are insufficient programs and systems to encourage this. Even brand-new homes are not super-insulated in many cases. Also, there's still far too much waste of precious electricity in our homes. If we let our guard down, we can let our aspirations toward widespread use of clean, renewable electricity distract us from the unglamorous challenge of "efficiency first." We must keep up the drive for conservation. Keep studying and advocating for renewable electric. But we have a whole economy developed around fossil fuels for many decades. Don't count on a silver bullet to deliver us simply from this problem.

Comment by Beverly Lerch on March 1, 2018 at 10:55am

Totally agree!  Fireplaces are the most inefficient heating source.  Fireplaces are also energy consumers.  A fireplace sucks out the heat and air conditioning and/or brings in the cold and hot air from outside.  Fireplaces also contain creosote, carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes that enter the home.  

Old fireplaces that have been burned over many years, can be impossible to clean and remove the toxins, since it has been absorbed into the fire bricks.  

A fireplace cannot be removed from a house, but only demolished and rebuilt.  Not an option for most homeowners.  The only solution I have come up with, is to cover the fireplace from inside the home.  This will allow all of the smells, toxins, hot or cold air, to escape up the chimney and go outside.  The fireplace cover will also keep the house a constant temperature.

Why do they still install fireplaces in homes, with all that we know?  The gas fireplace seem to be getting popular and replacing the wood burning fireplace.  Easier, but not better.  I believe more toxins and particulates are put out by gas burning fireplaces, especially with a constantly burning pilot light..  

There are new electric fireplaces, available.  A much better choice, after reading this blog.

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