U.S./California: History of the "all electric home"

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Headline: The All-Consuming Bills of an All-Electric Home

Source: Los Angeles Times, 13 August 2001

URL: http://latimes.com/news/local/la-081301elec.story

Judy Gertner was ecstatic over the all-electric Costa Mesa home she bought in 1979, with its extra-large electric water heater, electric appliances and electric radiant-heat system that gently warmed rooms according to individual thermostats.

She was shocked, however, when her monthly electric bill rose to $200 in July. It was double the bill from June, when Southern California Edison's rate hike took effect, and equal to what she paid in the winter months during the 1980s when five people lived in the generously heated house.

"I never turn the heat on anymore," said Gertner, a UC Irvine administrative assistant who now lives alone. "It was 52 degrees in my bedroom all winter."

Yesterday's dream house has become today's budget-buster for thousands of Southern Californians who live in all-electric homes. As their utility bills skyrocket, these homeowners are taking drastic measures to conserve energy and change their living arrangements.

In cities such as Torrance, Long Beach and Thousand Oaks, the all-electric houses were the cornerstone of a nationwide electrical-industry campaign in the 1950s and 1960s that promised lower power bills and modern living through electricity.

The hundreds of thousands of these homes nationwide typically include electric water heaters and heating and air systems, as well as electric kitchen and laundry appliances. Some even boast electric curtain rods and baseboard heating, and in cold climates, electric snow-melting units in the driveway.

With soaring power bills recently, all-electric homeowners have been forced to implement such conservation measures as cutting off all heat and air and affixing timers to electric water heaters. All-electric homes pose a particular hardship for those on fixed incomes or with medical conditions. And they are harder to sell, with buyers leery of the high costs.

Everything from power-hungry electric water heaters to electric clothes dryers are racking up huge bills. In Pasadena, for example, an all-electric homeowner pays about $2,572 annually for power, compared to $1,108 paid by a neighbor living in an energy-efficient home that uses mostly natural gas, according to Evan Mills, an energy analyst at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Berkeley.

Cypress car mechanic Brian Fields, who bought his all-electric townhome in 1990, said he is struggling to keep his electricity bills down after his so-called baseline allocation was reduced in 1994. A baseline allocation is the minimum level of electricity needed for household usage, and is used to help determine electricity rates. The measure, which varies by climate and region, is assigned to homeowners by the California Public Utilities Commission.

In May, the PUC opened proceedings to determine whether baseline allocations should be revised again to offer relief to electricity consumers. A decision could be made by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Fields, a single homeowner, neither heats his home nor lights more than one room at a time, but still exceeded his winter baseline allocation this year.

"If you don't have gas lines into your home, you're toast," Fields said. "I think a lot of us feel left in the lurch; we're trapped and can't change this."

All-electric homeowners who want access to natural gas first must find out if there is a gas main under their street, said Denise King, a Southern California Gas Co. spokeswoman. If one exists, customers then must request installation of a gas service line to their residence, which one Torrance homeowner had priced at $7,500.

A lack of access to natural gas isn't the only problem facing all-electric homeowners. Replacing broken radiant heating coils, a huge source of electricity consumption, is expensive too, Gertner said. When a wire in her heating system broke last year, it cost $1,200 to break the ceiling plaster, find the broken wire, replace it and replaster the ceiling.

Many Southland real estate agents report that prices of all-electric homes have not diminished, largely because demand for housing is still high. Nevertheless, they claim that a home's all-electric status is a major deterrent to potential buyers, who fear the high energy costs.

Owners of all-electric homes say that they have become obsessed with finding ways to slash electric bills. Judy Jordan, a Long Beach teacher, managed to keep last winter's monthly electric bills down to a reasonable $40 because she sets the kitchen timer in her triplex, limiting her radiant-heat usage to a couple of hours a day.

Legacy of Decisions Made Long Time Ago

Jeanne and William Chalmers spend the bulk of their time in only one part of their Torrance house--the den and kitchen--which they have tried to partition from the rest of the house with a large curtain. This conservation measure shaved the retired couple's last electric bill to $167, down 27% from their highest bill of $228.

Those with medical disabilities who rely on electricity to power equipment find it particularly difficult to cut back.

"I'm applying for a medical-necessity adjustment on our baseline because my wife uses an electric chair to get up and down our stairs," said Long Beach resident Eric David, a retired electrical contractor. "I've done all the power-cutting I can do; there's nowhere else to go."

All-electric homeowners get a slight break through an additional baseline power allotment. Desert residents who use only electricity, for example, are allotted more summer kilowatt-hours than residents who use both gas and electricity. The utilities also are pushing for a variety of conservation measures, from adjusting thermostats to replacing dark roofs with light-colored ones.

"People living in all-electric homes have to live with the legacy of decisions that were made a long time ago," Mills said. The utilities and developers "made a multiyear decision in the '60s when they created all-electric homes. Now homeowners are stuck with this for a long time."

In the 1950s, when the all-electric home-building campaign was launched, the process of making electricity was not as efficient as it is today. The utilities rushed to build electrical plants to streamline production, and as the cost of electricity decreased, homeowners were encouraged to consume more power. The more they used, the less they paid.

To keep demand high, the electrical industry launched the Live Better Electrically, or LBE, campaign in March 1956. It was supported nationwide by 300 electric utilities and 180 electrical manufacturers.

The campaign got then-actor Ronald Reagan, the popular host of "General Electric Theater," to take his television audience on a series of tours of his and wife Nancy's all-electric Pacific Palisades home.

An in-house GE sales pitch declared that "by Thanksgiving, there should not be a man, woman or child in America who doesn't know that you can 'Live Better Electrically' with General Electric appliances and television."

In October 1957, LBE launched the "Medallion Homes" campaign, which sought to sell 20,000 all-electric homes nationwide by 1958, 100,000 by 1960 and 970,000 by 1970.

To earn a gold medallion--a decal affixed to a home's entryway and considered the apex of modern, all-electric living--a home had to have an electric clothes washer and dryer, waste disposal, refrigerator and all-electric heating.

The Medallion Homes campaign was a huge success. By some estimates, the nationwide goal of about 1 million all-electric homes was achieved, according to the Edison Electric Institute, although data on the actual number built is unavailable.

Local builders such as Michael L. Tenzer, president of Larwin Homes from 1962-75, said that his company built several thousand Medallion homes in Simi Valley, San Diego, Chatsworth and other West Valley areas.

Getting By With the Barbecue

Paul Griffin Jr., chairman of Griffin Industries in Calabasas, said that Southern California Edison offered an allowance to builders who supplied their new homes with electric wiring and appliances. Griffin built about 300 all-electric homes.

"Edison did everything in the world to promote the use of electricity," said Eric David, the Long Beach electrical engineer who wired many all-electric homes in his town.

Steve Nelson, an Edison regional manager who helped pitch Medallion homes for the utility in the '60s, said the company created "electric living centers" in their local offices, where they taught homemakers how to use electric appliances.

But that was then. Today, all-electric homeowners are waiting anxiously to see if the PUC will give them another break.

Until that relief arrives, homeowners such as Brian Fields of Cypress are left wringing their hands. "I cook on a barbecue several times a week and wash my clothes only once a week," he said. "What more can I do?"

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), August 13, 2001


2 words: solar panels.

California offers a very generous rebate for installing solar on houses. Even natural gas will skyrocket in price as supplies dwindle.

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), August 13, 2001.

The absolute first rule of alternative or "renewable" energy is CONSERVATION. The electric demand of houses as described in the article is *way* beyond what any *reasonable* home system would supply, even in sunny CA. These folks would need to bring down their daily demand by a large fraction before they could begin to think of solar, wind, etc.

(Fascinating history, isn't it?)

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), August 13, 2001.

The real problem is the losses incurred in trammitting the power. A boiler is fired with natural gas. The boiler is say 80% efficient. The turbine that drives the generator is say 80% efficient. The generator that produces the power is say 80% efficient. The step up transformers, power lines, and step down transformers are all less than 100% efficient. And the heaters use elements which do not utilize the radient energy from burning fuel to heat the air and water. I'm not supprised it's not costing a fortune to run these homes. Sure, the power companies love generating more power. They have to generate more power to make up for the losses.

-- David Williams (DAVIDWILL@prodigy.net), August 13, 2001.

I agree with K and Andre. There is no relief in sight without significant conservation efforts, and that includes users of gas as well as electricity. What are we going to do when all the new power plants - gas driven - come on line in 2002 and 2003, and there are not enough gas pipelines to supply them AND homeowners? That is assuming there will be enough natural gas to meet demand, which I also doubt. And, from what I have read, this will not apply to just California. Infrastructure and supply is inadequate across the country.

This is just the beginning. Mr. Fields of Cypress, in the article, will soon have lots of company. There will be no breaks.

-- Margaret J (mjans01@yahoo.com), August 13, 2001.

I remember reading that before the 1940's if you wanted running hot water you pretty much had a solar water heater.
Solar water would break-even in less than 10 years, and now probably in 6 years.

-- (perry@ofuzzy1.com), August 13, 2001.

I had forgotten about the losses from power transmission. I wonder when/if it will be common practice that most power is generated on premises instead of supplied by centralized plants.

-- Margaret J (mjans01@yahoo.com), August 13, 2001.

Transmission inefficiencies aside, my original reply about "solar panels" remains true: a high-electric-demand house such as is described in the news article is going to be far beyond any reasonable solar-powered system.

The idea of (for example) directly heating your bathwater with the sun is right on...and skips the process of converting sunlight to volts, an expensive and inefficient process for the residential user.

Any solar installer worth talking to *always* begins the process by educating the potential customer as to the actual costs and inefficiencies, and helping the customer to reduce the electric load. Then and only then can a home solar system be planned, purchased and installed. (Electric radiant heating and massive air conditioners, as described in the article, are generally beyond the capacity of home solar.)

I am a strong advocate of solar -- indeed I have a small solar backup system at my house. It's wonderful, it's responsible, but it's hardly going to be preactical for individually wasteful houses like the one in the news article. The houses described are nightmares.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), August 13, 2001.

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