Energy efficient heating is a very big, very important, and can be a very expensive, energy saving decision
Big because we will live with this decision for as long as we own our homes. Important because it will affect our cost of living for as long as we own our home– indeed, home comfort (which includes cooling in addition to heating) may be one of the biggest costs associated with home ownership – after mortgage or rent.
Let’s look at some of the energy efficient heating alternatives, and what we may want to consider in making this important decision.
How Can We Heat Our Homes?
Heating and our personal comfort in our homes has two very distinct parts:
Heat creation or Heat Source – actually taking heat from the sun or earth, or burning a fuel, to create heat.
Heat delivery – taking the heat from the heat source and moving it throughout our home to keep us comfortable in every room.
There are several ways we can create the heat that will keep us warm:
Solar Heat, “heat from the sun.” Though ultimately, all of our heat comes from the sun, either directly as in solar heating, or indirectly through burning various fossil fuels, direct solar energy efficient heating is probably the most efficient type of home heating that you can use. The simple reason is that you don’t “burn” anything to get the heat for your home – you just “collect” it. The best version of solar heating is to design your home or renovation to maximize heat gathering and retention. This means good sun exposure (south facing windows in the Northern Hemisphere, north facing windows in the Southern Hemisphere), and good insulation and sealing for heat retention. You may also need an alternative heat producing system for those really chilly days or really chilly nights, but otherwise, your heat is pretty much free. Next best in efficiency is adding solar panels on the roof to collect the sun’s energy and bring it inside to a “storage tank” to cover for those not so sunny hours. This then requires a system to circulate the warm water to the entire house, but it is still very efficient. Either way, you are still taking advantage of the biggest heat creator in our solar system, and the energy it produces is absolutely free!
Geothermal, “heat from the earth.” This process uses a deep hole, similar to a well, to accumulate a small amount of heat from fairly far beneath the earth’s surface and bring it up into your home. Though installation may be quite involved, if you are in a position to incorporate this cost into your building or renovation plans, you can save quite a bit of money over the years in the cost of creating energy efficient heatiing, because, though there is a cost to get the heat from the earth, it is fairly small compared to any of the traditional methods. If you would like to investigate geothermal heat, the “Geothermal Heat Pumps, an Installation Guide” will bring you up to date on this energy saving technology.
Oil – burning liquid fossil fuel oil in a furnace. This is one of the earliest, “easy for the homeowner,” or automated home heating systems – this saved many sore backs as homeowners no longer had to rise early in the morning and shovel coal to get heat. In many places, this may be the only sensible option for home heating, for instance, in the mid 50’s, where we were living at the time, the only choices for heat were relatively inexpensive oil heat, or expensive electric heat. Obviously, we opted for oil. And other than a few VERY cold Midwestern winter days when the fuel line from our outside storage tank clogged with cold thickened oil (rags with warm water wrapped around the pipe temporarily solved the problem – but it was an aggravation), it worked pretty well. Later, when we added an enclosed attached garage, moving the oil tank in there, even though unheated, eliminated this problem for us, and our home stayed comfortable, even on the coldest nights (I remember walking to the school bus on mornings when it was 25° below zero – Fahrenheit! That’s almost -32° for you Celsius folks – definitely chilly!). And many people today still rely on this reliable, moderately energy efficient heating source, which, to stay competitive with natural gas, is getting more reliable all the time. So if heating oil is the best option for heating your home, by all means do it. Make sure your furnace is of the highest quality and the most energy efficient heating unit you can find – use Energy Star ratings to help you make your decision. (check out Energy Kinetics)
Gas (natural or propane/bottled) – burning fossil natural gas fuel in a furnace. For a large part of the population in the U.S., natural gas is the energy efficient heating source of choice, and it is an easy one to make. Though it is a fossil fuel, natural gas burns cleanly and efficiently, producing the heat that will be moved around the home either with hot water or forced air. The furnaces are compact and efficient. The generally accepted efficiency rating for furnaces is AFUE or Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. Though this rating is an excellent starting point, we would recommend reading a more in depth discussion by the folks at Energy Kinetics. As with adding a new oil furnace, you want to make sure you get the most energy efficient heating unit – start with Energy Star, but by all means research in more depth.
Electric (room by room or central) – using electricity, generally produced by burning fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro, or other, through a resistive element, to produce heat. This is the most expensive way to create heat for your home. Though it is technically the most energy efficient heating, and fairly cheap to install, the cost and the amount of the electricity needed combine to make a very expensive heat source. If this is the only option where you live, it may be very wise to consider solar energy efficient heating. Though the cost of installation will be higher, the long term savings may make solar a much better choice – or you may use solar for daytime heat, and electric at night. You have to look at your situation to see what works best for you. (electric heater ad)
Burning Wood – again, burning a fossil fuel in a specially designed wood stove. This is a fairly energy efficient heating energy creation system, but it comes with many ifs and buts. First, do you have a ready and long term supply of firewood? You will burn a lot each and every day during the cooler months. If not, there will be an ongoing cost to acquire that wood. And you must have a very energy efficient heating wood stove or fireplace insert, and be burning the best wood or wood pellets to get the best results. And, of course, burning the wood just creates the heat. You will then have to get it from the stove or fireplace to the rest of the house to maintain comfort beyond the immediate range of the stove, and most wood stoves are not equipped to handle this chore. (wood stove ad)
Heat Pump – using a machine to gather heat from outside and use it inside. This is an interesting technology. It really kind of like an air conditioner working in reverse. Instead of taking heat from inside the home and moving it outside, the heat pump takes heat from the outside and brings it inside to keep your home warm. And it has the same type of limitation – if you live in a very cold climate, this type of heat creation becomes much more expensive because on colder days, there is less heat for the pump to gather to bring into the home. Also, like an air conditioner, it uses electricity to move the heat from outside to inside. And if it is very cold outside, the unit will have to work much harder – consume more electricity – to bring enough heat into your home to keep you comfortable.
In many cases, deciding between these options will be out of our control, because only certain ones may be available – for instance, natural gas may not be available in our area, so that option, which is generally the least expensive, is not available, and we have to look at the other ones and decide among them. And, of course, during a renovation, it may not be practicable to change from one form of heat to another.
One of the most important choices we can make for energy efficient heating as we decide how best to heat our homes is to make absolutely sure we have our home properly insulated and sealed against weather intrusion. Forgetting this step will automatically make any other choice we make about home heating more expensive because of the energy lost to the outside through poorly insulated walls or non-energy efficient windows, or leaking out through unsealed cracks around windows and doors.
Another important addition for energy efficient heating is energy saving programmable thermostats. Without the programmable thermostat, you need to remember to turn the heat down every night before you go to bed, and every morning when you leave for work. And then, after coming back to a chilly home, turn up the heat and wait for the house to warm up again – and every time you forget, that is energy, and money, wasted. Programmable thermostats handle this all for you automatically. Once you have your schedule programmed, it really becomes, “set and forget.” Every morning, before you even wake up, the thermostat brings your home up to a comfortable temperature. When you leave for work, it “sets it back” to a cooler temperature for the day, and an hour or so before you get home, your home is brought up to a comfortable temperature. Last, when you are ready for bed, the house cools off to a good temperature for great sleeping. Next day, the whole process repeats – automatically! As you look for programmable thermostats, always get seven day programmable models so you can have a separate program for each day, and not be confined to only weekday and weekend programs. This is especially true for people who work irregular days, and sometimes work on weekends, nights, or evenings. And, of course, you can temporarily override the setting for vacations or an irregular schedule – like staying up late to watch a movie.
The nice thing about programmable thermostats is how easy they are to install. Once you have made your decision and have got the new thermostat, just take off the old one, transfer the wires from the old one to the new one (following the directions!) and mount it. Program it for your life, and it becomes truly, “Set and Forget.” When I moved into this house almost 30 year ago, changing the thermostat to a programmable model was one of the first home handyman things I did. And I’ve changed it a couple of times since to get improved features – it’s really easy.
Next we need to get the heat from the heat source to the rest of our home, and there are several common ways this is done – one will be right for your situation.
Forced air – an electric blower moves air, heated by the heat source, through ducts throughout the house. Many feel that forced air heating will heat the home faster than other methods. One of the great advantages of forced air heat distribution is that the same ducts can also distribute cooled air during the warmer months. This is definitely a great convenience.
Hot water or steam radiators – an electric pump circulates water heated by the furnace (or in very old systems, steam – which doesn’t need a pump) through pipes to radiators located around the house, and as the radiators heat, convection distributes the heat around the room. Many of us feel, contrary to forced air, that this method for energy efficient heating provides a more even heat in the room, and a longer lasting effect as the radiator continues to give off heat for quite a while. However, you don’t have the advantage of all those handy ducts to distribute cool air in the warmer months.
Single heat source with natural airflow – convection. Earlier, I mentioned our grandfathers or great grandfathers having to get up early on cold mornings to stoke the fire in the furnace and shovel coal onto the fire. These old furnaces used large ducts that connected to the top of the furnace and allowed the heated air to naturally rise through the house by convection. The cooler air would “return” to the furnace to be heated and rise again through the ducts. Today, this old principle is sometimes used to distribute heat from a central stove or heater which also sometimes has a small fan to augment the air flow. Usually now, the heater will be a central feature of one large room which allows the heat to fully warm the entire area. However, if you have several levels and several rooms, this method of heat distribution will most likely not work.
Radiant floor heating – a really nice variation on energy efficient heating hot water circulating through radiators. This generally needs to be installed as part of the original construction or during a renovation. A web of small pipes is embedded in the floor, under the finish floor. Hot water circulating through these pipes provides a very even heat throughout the room, and also saves cold feet. You’ll want to make sure this very elegant heating solution is properly installed with good flooring to keep the heat in the desired room, and not let the heat energy escape to the room below.
Individual room heating – this is generally done with individual permanently installed electric heaters, one per room, or portable units that can be moved from room to room. Though some feel that by heating just the room where people are, and turning off the heat in the rest of the house, you can save money. We suspect that this would only be the case if your central heating system was electric. At that point, the smaller amount of expensive electricity used to just heat one or two rooms at a time may indeed save money, but it may not be the way you would like to live. And, of course, if you turn off the heat in the rest of the house, you have to be careful of frozen pipes.
The important thing is to look at all of the energy efficient heating options available to you and decide on the one that best fits your life style and your budget.