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Can Our Homes Keep Up With Increasing Electrical Demands?

New electric loads — like those brought about by electric vehicles and heat pumps — will likely force upgrades to home electric systems and building codes, experts say. The real challenge will be making changes consistently.

Tesla Powerwall unit connected to home power supply.
Tesla Powerwall Unit connected to home power supply
The increased adoption of electric vehicles is opening up new conversations and concerns not only around grid reliability but also about electric capacity needed in each home to support another power load.

Even homes built as recently as the 2000s were built with small-ish electric panels, said Cavan Merski, data analyst at Pecan Street, a Texas-based smart cities and green energy research firm.

The rise in EV adoption — in line with the trend of moving homes toward an all-electric energy supply — has opened new issues around the need to upgrade electric panels, as well as the building codes that guide these.

“It’s a relatively new topic and it’s transitioning quickly,” said Merski.

Space and water heating and electric vehicles are the two biggest loads to be added on a home’s electric system. In the case of home heat and hot water, many older homes use fossil fuels to power these systems. As these phase out and get replaced with electric heat pumps — as well as gas-powered cars getting phased out for electric versions — home electric panels will likely need upgrades, according to Pecan Street analysts.

“Over the last 100 years or so we’ve had many panels that are too small to be powered by electricity alone. And so, as part of this transition, we need to upgrade those panels or find some alternative solutions to allow these homes to electrify,” said Merski during a recent webinar hosted by the firm.

Homeowners, as well as public-sector officials, looking for guidance around panel upgrades or local building codes — which also likely need an upgrade — should first turn to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), said Kim Cheslak, director of codes at the New Buildings Institute. In the 2024 IECC there will be electrification readiness standards for water heating, cooking, clothes drying, as well as electric vehicles and solar.

Also, organizations like the New Buildings Institute have been developing permitting and inspection guides for upgrades like heat pumps, solar installations and electric vehicle charging “to be able to get these things done more rapidly, and more consistently,” said Cheslak, during the webinar.

“A homeowner needs to be able to pick this [New Buildings Institute permitting guidance] up, and know that when they’re talking to a contractor that they’re getting the things that the city needs,” said Cheslak.

The time is now for homeowners and policymakers to begin planning for electrification upgrades, said Colin Rowan, director of strategy and communication for Pecan Street.

“The wave of electrification is happening. More and more vehicles are going to be electrified … . The advocacy about whether this should happen or not has passed us,” said Rowan.

“And we’re trying to figure out, for different reasons, how to accelerate it wisely, equitably and affordably,” Rowan said of the electrification trend.

The growth of EV adoption and electric heat pump use will “necessitate moderate distribution upgrades,” wrote Steven Nadel, executive director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), in a recent blog post.

But also, because EVs can be charged during nonpeak times, and the similarities between heat pumps and air conditioning, these new loads should be manageable, he added.

Innovation around electric management and capacity generation has proven to be successful in the past, said Cheslak, adding, today’s new electric demands can also be planned for and accommodated.

“We didn’t break the grid when we all got air conditioning,” remarked Cheslak. “We didn’t break the grid when we all got electric lighting.”

Adding loads, increasing panel sizes and other improvements “is a completely normal thing we’ve done for decades since the inception of the grid itself,” agreed Merski.

“Although we’re in this very transitional moment, the arc is very consistent with prior changes,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.