Need help with the order of operations for some home improvements.
May 16, 2024 1:06 PM   Subscribe

We're trying to plan out the next few years of home improvements to future proof the house (re: climate change) as durably and thoroughly as possible. Decarbonization and longevity are the two broad goals. I'm having trouble organizing this plan.

I'm an avid, aggressive, enthusiastic home improvement DIY homeowner, but all of these feel on the edge of my scope, so I'm having a hard time organizing what order they should go in, what other projects may dovetail into them, and best methods to pay for them (my previous routine with almost every home improvement project is: get a quote, get sticker shock, learn to do it myself up to code). It's becoming difficult to plan and manage this all as a wholistic process, since all these systems will eventually interact with each other, but goddamnit I can't do it all at once.

House is just shy of 900 square feet, built in the 50's, single level cottage in Portland Oregon. Electrical was entirely replaced in 2012 with a newer meter and breaker box. Our insulation is good. Windows are good. Baseline efficiency measures have been taken. We are debt free except for the mortgage. Assume for all loans, timelines, recoup costs, etc that I will never likely leave this home unless forced. Bury me in the backyard please.

We currently have a regular asphalt shingle roof that is just shy of 10 years old (it's warranty is for that long, but it is in good shape; it could last longer from what we've been told). We would like to replace it with a metal roof (that will hopefully outlive me). We could pay cash for this.

We currently have a gas furnace, and gas hot water heater (no other gas appliances) and would like to electrify those (central heat pump that supplies existing ducts for the furnace, agnostic on actual format of the HWH; whatever works and is not gas). This may need to be partially financed based on some quotes I've had done, but this appears to be in flux due to IRA breaks? We would decommission the entire gas line if possible.

We would also like to move towards solar, as while electricity in our zone is on the cheaper side, things are getting warmer and we are tending to use more electricty in the summer to keep cool (PNW summers are getting just plain hot). Rates are increasing in my zone at about 17-20+% a year, and from what I can gather, solar prices are coming down. This might need to be financed (by what method, I do not care; suggestions and options are welcome; this feels like the most wild-west-ish part of the whole idea), and we would like to attempt to maximize the amount of power generated. Our current vehicles are both gas, and drive cars into the ground; next cars would be a plug in hybrid first, then full electric, so we'd like to take that into account. We're not necessarily looking to do batteries (no space, no good location), unless a very good case can be made for them. .

-Am I missing anything glaring, or not taking anything into account? As in, are there key pieces of retrofitting a home this way that I may be overlooking? Do you know about some dope technology that no one else is mentioning that might warrant a look?

-Order of operations? Are there any advantages to doing any of this later or earlier? We're sort of assuming roof first because current one is closer to end of life than the other bits, but may not be taking everything into account.

-How on earth do I organize these projects in terms of Inflation Reduction Act information/tax breaks, rebates, etc. One of the hesitations I've had with the latter two projects aren't necessarily cost, but organization of those things. Researching and collating information about what the options are is wildly difficult for me.

-Is installing solar panels ever a DIY task? I've done plenty of to-code electrical work, and am not intimidated by an inspection. Are there any significant disadvantages to this that I'm not seeing? Is this even really an option?

-Do you have any Portland metro area specific contractors that you've directly worked with to do retrofits or installations of any of the above?
posted by furnace.heart to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would probably couple the roof and solar, assuming you're doing rooftop solar. I would defer the roof until you're ready to pay for the solar, especially since the roof is in good shape. I would not DIY solar (and I DIY most things), mostly because I'm nervous about high voltage DC.

Heat pump furnace / AC can be done now, and will probably give you the biggest bang for your buck as far as comfort and immediate cost. You'll probably want a heat pump water heater, but those two don't need to be coupled together. This grouping will likely have the biggest set of local utility rebates. I would absolutely DIY the heat pump water heater, but not the central heat / AC.

As to what you're missing, if you have an attic of any kind (even a crawlspace one) with enough ventilation, a whole-house fan like this one is an excellent addition. It's an easy DIY project and really cuts down on the amount of time you'll use AC, although I think your benefits may be smaller in a single-floor cottage.
posted by true at 2:02 PM on May 16

I'd prioritize the heat pump, since that will get you both efficient heat and summer cooling. For the hot water heater, how new is it? The smart approach there might be to keep using the existing one for a few more years, then replace it with electric when it is starting to age. There's a chance you might need electrical work to supply the necessary power to both the heat pump and water heater, but hopefully the 2012 electrical work took that into consideration.

For roof and solar, the comment above is right, you need to do the roof before you can do the solar. Sort of like with the hot water heater, you might want to consider waiting a while since your roof is still in good shape, using the time to save more money and be able to pay cash when it is getting towards time for a new roof. At some point after the warranty ends, your roof will start showing age and that's when I'd start planning the new roof. Solar prices will continue to drop, though whether or not the subsidies continue is a political question.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:17 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

A normal roof should last more than 20 years, unless destroyed by weather like hail, heavy ice dams, blasting wind, etc, so I'd save my money on that. I agree that if your goal is to get rid of gas, that one makes sense to do first.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:20 PM on May 16

Absolutely puzzled about talking about replacing an almost new roof. Unless things are different in Portland. The IRA is a moot point for HVAC depending on your income. You could wait a year and get the rebate but it could be as low as 1k. Figure out what you would be eligible for. If your water heater is 10+ years old I would replace that now with a heat pump water heater. There’s really no reason to wait for solar, you’re almost always better off doing a home equity loan to pay for it unless there’s a special no interest financing deal from your utility company.

One consideration is that knowing how much electricity your solar actually produces would be useful for other decisions, but if you’re dead set on abandoning gas then that’s not that relevant.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:01 PM on May 16

Response by poster: Quick note: yeah my brain saw the 10 year warranty fall off the roof, and didn’t realize that it’s still rated for another 15 years. Changes how imminent that needs attention. It is fine. lol.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:18 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Quick note on shifting to all-electric, what are power outages like in your area? We switched to all-electric and sorted out backup power needs with a generator. We’re not a great candidate for solar, so perhaps there is some variation available with the additional power source. We get freezing temperatures in the winter and hurricane season and shearing winds topple trees that knock out our power. Mid-Atlantia is not PNW, just plan for the whole year.
posted by childofTethys at 10:23 PM on May 16

FYI there is a DYI Heat Pumps forum on reddit - though my impression from following it for a while is that a DYI heat pump project is pretty far on the extreme side of DYI projects. One issue is that pretty much no heating/AC company is going to want to work on a DYI system at all. This affects not only your ability to keep the system going in the long run but also the resaleability of your home etc. Generally it takes some specialized equipment and specialized know-how.

Flip side, they do generally save an extreme amount of $$$ doing these projects DYI. There are some systems now that are more aimed towards and more easily installable for a do-it-yourselfer.
posted by flug at 1:03 AM on May 17

I'm also working towards electrifying my house. I priced a heat pump water heater this spring - the gas water heater's roof vent will need to be capped, and a drain line to the outside added. Plus some electrical work. Plus clearing out half the garage to provide space to work. Ideally I would have done that before the roof.

Solar should ideally be put on a new roof, to minimize how often you have to take the panels off and reinstall them. Also, because I replaced the roof and installed solar in the same calendar year, part of the cost of the roof was eligible for the tax credit (based on the percentage of roof covered by panels).

My city offers rebates for solar and HVAC; for HVAC at least you have to pick a contractor off their list to use.

I was lucky (I guess) in that everything is/was falling apart or well past life expectancy at once, and even then I've been reluctant to replace what isn't actually broken.
posted by mersen at 9:08 AM on May 17

Agree that unless you know something is wrong with the roof, don't touch it yet.

Depending on your solar setup and incentives, you may be restricted in how much of an array you can have grid connected based on your energy use, so in a lot of cases, you want to do as much electrification as you can first, both to get a good sense of what your future load looks like, but also to prove to your utility that you are going to use most of what you are going to supply. So get that heat pump and maybe the water heater. I'd also consider that EV soon too. Incentives are really good now and might not last. Have someone else drive your current cars into the ground. If you live somewhere where power does go out routinely, consider EVs that can do vehicle to load, in other words, that can power your house.

When you are ready for the solar, buy a new steel roof in the same project. With standing seam steel, they make clips to make the solar install much easier. Still not easy enough that I would bother climbing on a steel roof, but it greatly reduced our install cost.
posted by advicepig at 9:12 AM on May 17

Best answer: We’re in Portland too and are in the planning stages of a Reno - so while we have not yet worked with them, we have had a consult and a quote from Greensavers. (My dad has used them and was happy with them in Central Oregon) They can absolutely help you with order of operations on all of these projects and they specialize in helping you figure out the tax breaks and rebates/incentives for each project. Good luck with it all!
posted by girlalex at 9:01 AM on May 20

Response by poster: We found out that a friend used Greensavers too; we made a few calls, but they seemed the most capable in our area of navigating all of the refund/rebate/taxbreaks for everything. They don't do solar in-house, but they work closely with a couple of installers apparently.

HVAC seems to be the first target, along with the hot water heater. HWH needs replacing soonest; Furnace could last a few years, but getting off gas is more of a moral imperative than anything for us. Our region has a high ratio of hydro power, and increasing wind power, so our carbon profile for grid electricity is pretty okay (not perfect, but improving).

We'll remove the gas system, wait a year to gauge our electricity usage so that we can examine what type of solar setup we would need to cover us, and then revisit solar; those prices have dramatically dropped since I last checked.

Oh! and regarding power outages; we're pretty lucky; we live really close to a substation, so unless something goes wrong from our house to the street, we're okay. We'll eventually be installing a wood burning insert/stove for that contingency (winter storms are getting more frequent and brutal for us, so it is something on our minds), but that's very low on the priority list.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:04 AM on May 22

Also if you're going full electirc, with an EV, unless you have a south facing roof thats perfectly angled toward the sun and very huge, you're going to need as much solar as possible. You can get an estimate of how much solar you'll produce in a year, and if thats less than what you use now, then there's no reason to delay the solar.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:18 AM on May 23

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