Home Heating Options for the Homestead
A Comparison of the Most Efficient Heating Systems
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With the weather cooling down, it is time to review our home heating options. You probably already have a heating system in place for your home, but is it actually heating your home to the extent that you need? Many traditional heating systems actually lose a lot of heat to the environment. Is yours one of them? Does your heating system give heat to all the rooms in your house that you need it to?
While the best time to decide what type of heating system you want is when you are building a home, there are many ways to modify a home or use what you have in place while changing the base method of heat. There is no single best method of home heat. A lot of variables come into play such as where you live (urban vs. rural), climate, home layout, what you are willing to do (feed the fire in the middle of the night), and current fuel prices.
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Wood heat is the most traditional home heating option. However, less than 2% of Americans primarily heat their homes with wood (Average Consumer Prices and Expenditures for Heating Fuels During the Winter, 2018), and that percentage continues to drop. There are many factors contributing to this decline, some of which being the labor behind heating with wood (chopping, stacking, building the fire), increased air pollution regulations in some areas, and the fact that wood heat got a bad name for a while as being very inefficient. It is true that most traditional fireplaces and even many older wood stoves are incredibly inefficient, even as little as 5%! That means that only 5% of the heat generated by the burning wood actually helps heat your home. The rest is lost up the chimney.
However, modern stoves and fireplace inserts can have as high as 80% heat efficiency. The single greatest benefit of wood heat is that it still works if there are power outages. Few other heating methods use zero electricity. The downsides to wood include the labor involved, the mess of the wood pile, constantly building or feeding the fire, and the air pollution involved. Also, availability of wood depends a lot on where you live. Whether or not a wood stove heats your home well depends on the layout of your home. If your home is open with the stove near the center, then it will work well. However, closing a door means that no heat gets to the closed off room. Installation costs for a wood stove vary considerably, but they are usually lower than many other heating options. A typical home in the U.S. would use around four cords of wood in a winter.
The pellet stove gave a solution to multiple problems. The first problem: people don’t like waking up in the middle of the night to feed the fire. With a pellet stove, they fill the reservoir and enjoy steady heat for a whole day or more. Pellet stoves also gave an alternative to the heavy pollution being given off by sawmills burning the leftover sawdust. That dust can now be compressed into pellets and sold as fuel that heats a home. It still creates air pollution, but it is not being wasted.
Pellet stoves can be temperature controlled via thermostat, unlike wood stoves. They also have the downside of needing to be near the center of a home to provide heat throughout. However, they are cleaner and easier to care for. They cost a little more than wood stoves to install, and they do require electricity to run. Pellets can be easily bought, but the end of winter may face a shortage of pellets in some areas of the country. A typical house in New England can burn 5-6 tons of pellets during a winter.
By far, natural gas is the home heating system of choice in the U.S. Nearly half of Americans use natural gas as their primary heating system. This usually is part of a forced air system of ducts and vents. While natural gas is often the cheapest option for home heat in most areas, a duct system is often leaky, allowing much of that heat to escape into the attic or under the crawlspace. You can fix this with insulation and patches. Natural gas does create air pollution, though not as much as wood heat. If your home does not already have ductwork, the installation can be costly. Availability of natural gas depends on where you live. Some areas have it while others don’t, and if you live in a rural area, it might not be an option at all.
Propane is pretty common in some areas of the U.S., especially rural areas. As a byproduct of refining petroleum, it is currently in good supply. However, should we face a petroleum shortage, propane will also be in short supply. Propane is cost-efficient and creates little air pollution. Propane is usually used in a furnace which may or may not be connected to a duct system for heat distribution. Since propane can be delivered and held in a tank, you don’t need to be connected to a line like you would with most natural gas sources.
As far as home heating options go, electricity is not very economical. It tends to be the most expensive option. While you may think that you are saving the environment by not burning fuel, your electric plant down the road is probably burning fuel, and it may even be a higher polluting fuel than what you would use, like coal. Within electricity, there are quite a few options of heat. Baseboard heat is the more economical of the electric heat sources and has low installation costs. Space heaters can be economical depending on how they are used. One caution with space heaters is to make sure that your water pipes are not relying on the normal heating system to keep from freezing. You may be comfortable in your room with the space heater, but your pipes could be at risk of bursting if the rest of the house is cold.
I have to put in a plug for alternative heating ideas such as geothermal heat. Geothermal uses refrigeration technology to heat your home using the stable earth temperature. It has high upfront costs, but it has incredibly little air pollution and is very economical once you get past the installation. On average, geothermal heat can reduce your utility bills by 40-60%. This technology also requires electricity to circulate the fluid through pipes in the ground, drawing out the heat.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each type of heating fuel. What may be more helpful is to compare the cost of heat itself. Below is a table of sample heating costs in the New England area. BTUs are British Thermal Units. A single BTU is the equivalent heat of lighting a single match. We will measure our BTUs in the millions for ease.
What you choose for your home heating options has many variables behind what may be best for your home. You must also consider your home. There are many new technologies to research if you want to learn how to build an energy efficient home; many of them can still be implemented long past the original construction. Having an energy efficient home will save money and air quality above all other fuel options.
What are your most used home heating options?
Average Consumer Prices and Expenditures for Heating Fuels During the Winter. (2018, October 3). Retrieved June 14, 2019, from U.S. Energy Information Administration: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/tables/pdf/wf-table.pdf
Daniel D. Chiras, P. (2008). Green Home Improvement. Kingston, MA: Reed Construction Data.
Fuel Prices. (2019, June 6). Retrieved June 17, 2019, from New Hempshire Office of Strategic Initiatives: https://www.nh.gov/osi/energy/energy-nh/fuel-prices/index.htm
Trethewey, R. (1994). This Old House Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. Little, Brown and Company.