Generating Warmth: Best Home-Heating Methods for Both Wallet and World E-mail
Sunday, 17 November 2013 00:00  |  Written by Erica Mukherjee | Article

Cold House photo by Peter LovstromAcross most of the US, it costs at least $1000 a year to heat a single-family home—and it can exceed $2,000 in the coldest climates. Besides putting a strain on family finances, high heating bills often indicate a negative environmental impact. That’s because many homes are heated with non-renewable, carbon-based fuels like natural gas and oil. The average annual CO2 emissions from a home heated with natural gas are around 6,400 pounds—more than three tons. And CO2 emissions from oil-heated homes are even higher.

Depending on where you live and what kind of home you have, you may be able to switch heating systems, thereby reducing both your budgetary and environmental impact. The following is a survey of your five main home-heating options—oil, gas, electric, wood and geothermal—with their respective environmental and other advantages and disadvantages.

Oil Heaters
Approximately 8.1 million Americans heat their homes with oil; the majority of those live in the Northeast. Homes in this area tend to be older and have had their central heating systems installed before the ubiquitous use of natural gas. Some people have individual fuel-storage tanks on their property that have to be filled up several times over the course of a winter. Other people may heat with oil and not even know it, as the oil is piped in from a central distribution center.

A typical family will use 700 to 1,000 gallons of fuel oil over the course of a winter. At a cost of $2.65 per gallon in 2010, this comes out to $1,855 to $2,650 for a winter’s worth of heat. Of course, due to the laws of supply and demand, prices have a tendency to go up if a winter is particularly long or harsh. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recommends insulating your home and working out a balanced payment plan with your oil provider as the best ways for reducing and managing your oil heating costs.

Oil heat can come with an additional hidden cost. Many tanks are made of steel, which is prone to rusting. If a tank is outside or buried, it tends to rust and leak after 10 to 15 years of use. Not only can it cost upwards of $2,000 to replace, but cleanup costs from oil leaks on your property can approach $20,000. That says nothing of the environmental damage to the soil and ground water in your area. And if you have both a well and an oil tank on your property, you could seriously impair your family’s health.

Electric Heating
Heating with electricity is a bit of a conundrum when looking for both financial and environmental savings. In terms of individual heating costs, it is possible to greatly reduce your winter bills by a strategic use of space heaters and zonal heating controls. Essentially, you heat the rooms you are in and leave the rest cold. For a household that is gone most of the day and is willing to sleep in a cold house at night, this can produce significant individual savings. Electricity can also be highly efficient (xls) in a household setting. When used to operate an air-source heat pump, the cost of electricity is comparable to that of natural gas. Baseboard heating, on the other hand, can be even higher than heating with oil. It all depends on how much you want to regulate your system.

The production of electricity, on the other hand, is not very efficient. Only 30% of the energy from oil, gas or coal actually becomes electrical energy. This means that even though your personal home-heating system is efficient, on a global scale you are actually increasing the amount of fossil fuels consumed. Also, you may not be able to control the source of your electrical energy, thereby inadvertently using coal to heat your home. If you know you are getting your electricity from a renewable source, such as wind power, you may, however, want to consider using more electric heat.

Natural Gas Heaters
If you’re looking for dollar-on-dollar savings for your home heating costs, natural gas is the way to go. More than half of all American homes are warmed by natural gas. It is more efficient than wood or electricity for heating your entire house and, in 2010 at least, it costs half as much as oil (xls) when used to fuel a furnace or boiler. Natural gas can also be used for cooking and to power other appliances. There are even natural gas fuel cells that create electrical energy and eliminate the need for a separate electrical line into your house. This is judged more efficient as much electricity is dissipated (i.e. wasted) as it travels miles over power lines.

The biggest black mark in natural gas’s book is that it is a non-renewable resource. It is estimated that there are about 100 years of natural gas reserves available at our current level of consumption. However, as we work to create more renewable energy sources, natural gas is by far the cleanest fossil fuel. For instance, it emits around 90% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal. Using natural gas in conjunction with renewable heating options and a well-insulated home may be the most practical way for most people to reduce their heating and environmental costs in the short run.

Wood and Pellet Stoves
When you’re ready to redefine how you heat your home, a wood or pellet stove is a surprisingly eco-friendly option. Cord wood, when sustainably harvested from a properly managed forest, is a renewable resource. Many varieties of fast-growing trees can reach 30 feet within three years. Pellets can be made with any combination of biomass fuel such as wood, paper or even corn husks. And the cost of heating with pellets and wood generally comes out to be less than heating with fossil fuels, depending on your appliance efficiency.

Today’s EPA standards for new wood- and pellet-burning stoves ensure that neither the environment nor your home will be polluted. These new stoves use a catalytic combustor. This means that the gases produced by burning wood will not be vented, but will combust at a lower temperature, thereby allowing more heat to be produced with less energy. This method of combustion is also burns cleaner so there is less soot buildup.

To get the most heat out of your wood stove, think of it as a sort of space heater. If possible, install the stove in the most used room of your house. Then use simple methods, such as a slow-blowing fan, to move the hot air through the rest of your home. In many cases, installing a stove in your finished basement not only heats up an all-purpose living space but also allows the hot air to rise through and heat the rest of the house.

Geothermal Heating
Humankind has been harnessing energy from the Earth for thousands of years. For instance, hot springs have been sought out by even Paleolithic men. Today, a complex system of pumps has been created to allow for geothermal heating.

Geothermal heating uses the Earth’s steady temperature of approximately 55° to 60° to heat or cool water. For instance, in the winter it is much colder on the surface than it is in the Earth. In a geothermal heating system, pipes pump cold water into the Earth and allow it to warm up. When the water is warm, it is pumped back into the house to heat it. In many ways, the Earth is treated like one big boiler in a geothermal heating system. The converse process happens during the hot summer months.

The cost of a geothermal installation can run around $15,000, but once installed, its costs can be recouped through low utility bills in three to five years. Since the renewable warmth of the Earth is doing the lion’s share of the heating, the only fossil fuels you’d be consuming would be the small amount necessary to produce electricity to run the pumps and to generate the few extra degrees of temperature you require. Most homeowners pay approximately $40 a month in additional heating costs when using geothermal.

No matter where you live or how you heat, there are always steps you can take to lower your heating bill and reduce your carbon footprint. Turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater indoors. Insulate your windows with plastic and drapes and use a draft snake to block cold air from entering under your doors. It’s certainly worth exploring your home-heating options to choose the one that makes the most economic and environmental sense for you, your family and future generations.

Additional resources:
Light My Fire: How to Choose the Best Wood Stove for Your Home and the Earth
All About Eco-Friendly Windows, Awnings, Blinds, and Shades
Green Home Buyers’ Guide: How to Buy an Eco-Friendly House

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