Sunday, September 18, 2011

Home Heat that's Inexpensive and Earth-Friendly

As most of you know, we purchased our house just about a year and a half ago and this was the first home where we had to purchase our own heating fuel.  In our old condo, the heating system was tied-into the building and so it was part of the common fee.  In the rural area where we live now, municipal gas lines are non-existent and propane is not cost effective, so most homes are heated with oil-fired boilers.

We weren't really sure what it was going to cost us for heat the first year.  We don't really know the age of the boiler (it's at least 10-15 years old) and we didn't know how well-insulated (or not) the house was.  It's difficult to compare notes with others as heating a home is very much a combination of factors including insulation, window placement and age, the layout, volume of the rooms, floor coverings, how low you can tolerate the thermostat, and so on.  So, we installed a couple of programmable thermostats, closed-off the upstairs, and went into the first heating season with our fingers crossed.

Needless to say, the first season's heating bill sucked--royally.  It cost about $4500 to heat our small home the first year, which I find quite unacceptable.  Aside from pure economics, I have a personal problem supporting the oil industry in this country and I already try to support them as little as possible with my car.  I knew there had to be another way.

Step one was to identify the areas our my home that we could make more efficient and we're doing that as an on-going process.  After spending a heating season here, we were able to identify the areas where we can add insulation and prevent our hard-earned cash from getting sucked out into the cold.  In addition to that, we decided to purchase a heating stove that burns wood pellets.  My parents have had one for years and they absolutely love it.

Pellet stoves, which can also often burn dent corn (the stuff they grow for livestock and milling), are extremely efficient devices and they're nearly as easy to use as your everyday heating system.  Some things you probably didn't know about them:
  • They don't produce that "campfire odor" that wood stoves are famous for.  That means your home and its furnishings won't smell.  They do this by being a completely closed system--the air in the burn chamber never exchanges with the air in your house.   The fire heats a metal plate and a fan circulates air over that plate to heat your home.
  • Most stoves can be hooked-up to a standard thermostat so that they will cycle on and off to maintain even heat just like your regular heating system.  They're safe to run while away from home as long as you properly maintain them and vacuum out the ash once per week.
  • Pellets are made from sawdust recovered from lumber mills.  That makes them a recycled and renewable material.  If you live in an area where dent corn is plentiful, that too can serve as a renewable fuel resource.
  • You do not need a chimney or smoke-stack for a pellet stove.  Because it contains an exhaust fan, it can usually be direct-vented through a wall with a device not much larger than a dryer vent.
  • You do not need a brick or stone hearth for a pellet stove.  It can sit on any non-combustible floor covering and only needs 2 to 3 inches of clearance from the wall.  Ours will be sitting on a simple pad that I built with plywood and ceramic tile.  The pad will be placed directly on our hardwood floors.
  • If you *do* have a fireplace or hearth, the stove can be adapted to fit inside the existing footprint and actually increases the heat efficiency of your home by blocking the air that used to go up the flue.
  • Pellet stoves are inexpensive.  Ours is an "economy" model that is costing us around $2100, installed.  If it reduces my heating bill by half (which we expect it to get close to), it'll pay for itself in a single year.  More decorative and/or expensive stoves will expect a 2-3 year ROI.
  • The government considers a pellet stove an alternative heating fuel device and there's currently a tax credit for them.
  • Pellets currently cost between $200-$300 per ton.  A ton fits on a single pallet and stands about 5 feet tall, so they'll fit quite compactly in the garage.  In speaking with others who heat with pellets, I expect to use between 2 to 3 tons per season and I'm expecting to be able to heat my entire first floor with the stove thanks to the design of my house.  We'll only need to burn oil on really cold days or to produce hot water.
  • They actually make large "Pellet Furnaces" that can be hooked-up to a hydronic heating system (regular forced water baseboard heat).  The hoppers hold enough pellets for an entire week, making it a viable alternative to gas or oil central heat.  Systems of this size start at about $6000-7000 plus installation.
We're pretty excited about our new stove, which is set to arrive on Friday.  I'll try and post about it periodically throughout the season to let you know if it's meeting our needs.

1 comment:

  1. We've used a pellet stove up here in Maine for the last couple seasons. We just bought about 6 tons and I have them stacked 2 pallets high in my garage. We have a mid-range Napoleon stove and it does well enough to heat our entire first floor and second floor of our house.

    Sadly, we still heat my garage and basement with oil, but we're looking for alternatives that may help in that.

    Good article, it is worth reading by anyone looking to change to an alternative heating option. Next on my list is to get rid of our boiler for hot water...


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