We’ve been in our zero emissions townhouse for about 5 years. And due to many changes — COVID-19, a heart attack, closing of a family business which was the main reason for selecting this house, a death in the family, and simply feeling our age — we’re preparing to move on from this house that we so lovingly rehabbed to become a fossil free house.

This townhouse was a great space to experience what it would take to transition a typical Philadelphia row home away from fossil fuels. Our city has thousands of similar row homes, each of which could be transitioned, should the need arise.

Most row homes have walls shared with neighbors, are 1300 square feet, and have 2 floors, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, with laundry in basement, and a back alley garage entrance to the house. The only difference is that our house has 2 bedrooms, and 2 kitchens, 2 dining spaces and 2 living rooms.

So what exactly did we do?

Since we already drove a battery powered electric car, one of the first things we installed was an electric vehicle charger in the garage. When the internet service started, the charger could communicate (through an app) to our phones, so we could see if the car was fully charged before we headed out. We haven’t used gasoline in years for our primary car, and no longer need to stop at gas stations, or gasp at the gasoline prices.

The gas stove in the kitchen was replaced with a glass topped electric stove. The technology for this has been around for decades.

The hot water was heated with fracked gas and stored in a large tank in the basement. After removing this tank and creating storage space in the basement, we installed a tankless electric hot water heating system mounted on the basement wall, the size of the laptop I’m writing on! A similar system was installed for use by the second floor, mounted under the kitchen sink.

For washing our rags, and eventually our clothes, we found an electric washer and dryer system. Many people in our city have gas clothes dryers. When we selected the electric dryer, we opted for a ventless heat pump dryer. This means the hole through the basement window could get sealed up, and the condensate (water from the wet clothes) would drain into the adjacent laundry sink. Of course, both the washer and dryer were efficient, meaning they hardly used any electricity. Despite this, we also installed outdoor clotheslines behind our house, in a space shared with the car. I use this clothesline most of the year, requiring less use of the dryer, making it even more efficient when I do use it!

Speaking of holes to the exterior, we mounted a mailbox on the front wall and sealed off the mail slot on our front door. This significantly reduced drafts on the front landing.

The interior of the house needed a good cleaning. Before we painted the walls, we observed the drafty windows and ordered new replacement windows. The window features I like are that they be double hung (get breeze from the bottom or top) and tilt-in (easy to clean each spring and fall), with full screens (keep out flies and mosquitos).

While we waited for the window installation, we realized that the house stayed quite warm thanks to having neighbors on both sides, a feature of row houses. It was the front and rear exterior walls that felt cold. So we took a few inches from the interior space and added insulation to exterior walls. This was an opportune time to replace all electric wiring in the house, adding outlets and switches, and thinking of hot summer afternoons, also ceiling fans in each room. The final touch is always fresh paint to brighten each space.

The house had gas boilers heating up the rooms. Knowing we didn’t want to consume ANY fracked gas, we removed the gas boiler from the basement, freeing up more space. Going thru each room, we removed the radiators and related copper pipes, saving these up for the local scrapper to sell for some extra cash.

For the first year, we experimented with space heaters in each room, turning them on only when we were in that room, knowing that with neighbors on both sides, our water pipes would never freeze up. We even tried adding thermostats to the portable space heaters. We’ve since had electric mini split systems installed which offer heating as well as cooling, removing the need for noisy window air conditioners.

We ended up with new flooring on both floors, selecting floating bamboo flooring for the first floor and nailed down hickory flooring and ceramic tiles for the second floor. Both flooring materials were pre-finished and feel so nice to the bare feet.

Aware of not just our energy usage but also our water usage, we replaced both toilets with dual flush toilets, and both shower heads with low flow shower heads. The water bill shows quite how little water we consume.

Also wanting to be zero waste, we setup a compost bin on our concrete back yard. This took all the food scraps from our kitchen, leaving very little for the trash man to pickup. We’ve spread the finished compost on our tiny front yard, which includes a herb garden, a perennial flower bed, hardy almond tree and even outdoor seating. Recently, we’ve opted for a private recycling company that picks up and, I’m confident, recycles more types of materials than what most government run collections will accept.

All along, we knew our home would be powered by solar panels on our flat roof. This year, I’ve noticed that our electric bills are nominal, thanks to the rooftop panels and some lifestyle changes (opting for clothes line instead of clothes dryer, opting for ceiling fans instead of air conditioning, etc).

We love the interior space we’ve created and will miss it as we move to a one-level house with a little more land. I’m ever thankful to my partner in this zero emissions, zero waste experiment.

See photos of our journey at this townhouse.