Best Heating Practises

russh_nepaSeptember 22, 2006

There is a first nip in the air here in Northeast PA. Today is the last day of summer. I'm curious what everyone is doing about the outrageous cost of heating fuel. I'm always looking for ideas, so this is not a bash session. I'm sure there are no "right" answers. I'll get the discussion started.

I moved into a rural home 4 years ago with oil HW baseboard heat, and a flue to a family room in the basement where the previous owner had a LP gas heater.

I sold the gas heater, installed a Harman Manual Coal stove. Now, I know that coal is not renewable, but before you jump all over me please understand, here in Noreast PA I got coal delivered last year at $125/ton. This year will likely be $160/ton. I use 2 1/2 ton per season, so it will cost me about $400 for coal for the season.

My coal stove is manual, not stoker, so I can supplement with wood. I burn storm damaged trees mostly spring and fall. The other advantage I see in a manual stove is for use during power failures. We have no fear of losing heat or cooking ability in our too frequent blackouts.

I keep the thermostat on the oil furnace down around 63 degrees, and use it only as back-up.

As I said, I'm always looking for ways to save money. What does everyone else do?

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I gotta say I'm a little jealous.
I'm in Northern Georgia and have electric heat pumps... Horrrrribly inefficient in this climate. The power bills in the winter are nutz. The AC repairman once told me the large homebuilders get incentives from the power companies to use the heatpumps. I don't know if I believe that or not.
The natural gas here is more expensive per kilowatt hour than electricity... about 2 cents more I think. The only thing I use the gas for is the oven/stove and fireplace and it runs around $22/mo. Crazy. Especially since I don't even use the fireplace.
I suppose I could put in gas if I wanted to pay the $$ for that.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2006 at 1:10AM
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garden_knome(z5 ont)

we heat with wood, it's the only thing we have. We have an outdoor woodstove,But the thing is such a pig on wood we are switching to an airtight cookstove. The stove has a hot water coil the runs through it and we'll heat the hot water and pump it to the cast rads upstairs. We spoke to an Amish friend of ours who has one and he say's he uses about 20 face cord/year. Which would be a nice change frome the 50+ cord with the other pig! Jaime

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 2:19PM
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We heat with a wood boiler. We got a new efficient one a few years ago to replace an old one. With the old one, we were using about 8-10 cord per year with a lot of heat and smoke going up the chimney. With the new one, we use about 4 cord per year and what comes out the chimney is barely noticeable. We have a decent amount of wooded land, so we use mostly dead and damaged trees and supplement it with hybrid poplar, which can be cut every 5 years since it grows back. The electricity to run the circulating pumps costs less than $100 and fuel for the chainsaw and splitter costs less than $50. The new boiler cost around $3500, so it will still be a while before we break even.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 3:37PM
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Thanks for the replies.

I've been watching for wooded land for sale in my area. If only I owned a woodlot I'd give up the coal.

Quirky, I'm curious. I'd always heard that heat pumps were VERY efficient as long as you didn't get sub-freezing temps. Just how cold does it get there in Northern GA?

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 5:21PM
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It gets below freezing at night pretty often. On rare occasions the daytime highs doesn't exceed 32
To give you an idea, I check the weather frequently for other cities on the satellite dish interactive weather thing and we're usually within 10 degrees of Washington DC and about a week or two behind in terms of when the cold weather sets in. My elevation is around 1200' so that may have some extra nighttime-nip.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 9:55PM
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Insulation gives the best bang for the buck even if you use a highly efficient system. If you're staying warm for $400 a season up there you have a good thing going. A couple tubes of caulk, more insulation and sealing most attic vents could still save you a bit of stokin.
I use a small woodstove with a homemade 5' heat exchanger on the stovepipe that blows back down over the stove which is near the central air / natural gas furnace intake to circulate heat through the house.

Maybe next year I'll have my biogas digester running FREE manure gas to the furnace!

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 2:25AM
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Free sounds good. How much investment in the digester?

I am personnaly nowhere near where I want my home to be. The coal was a good short term choice, but 1) not sustainable, 2) not from my own property.

I view a perfect homestead as having as few inputs and outputs as possible. I'm good in some areas, and poor in others.

My garden and orchard are mostly fed by manure and waste bedding from my animals. I don't use pesticides, except in extreme situations (I admit needing help controlling potato beetles).

Unfortunately, I don't have room to grow my animal feed. They get grain from a local mill, and hay from our neighbor. They don't pay for themselves.

Electric needs to be addressed. $40 to $120 per month. Too much. Trying to justify solar and wind power.

Composting toilets would also be interesting.

It just never ends. But keep trying.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2006 at 9:34AM
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Eric_in_Japan(z7 Japan)

The best thing to do in my opinion is to make your living area smaller. Shutting off rooms (especially north ones) as much as possible during the really cold months. Here in Japan lots of older houses use futons that we just spread out at night, and put away in the closet in the morning (takes maybe 10 min. in the evening and 5 in the morning). The living room can be the same as the bed room. And the whole family sleeps together. It is kind of like having a small house with lots of (cold) storage in the winter (the summer bedrooms).

Passive solar is definitely the way to go for me. We have huge windows facing SE, and in the winter our interior temps go from 10C to 25C in about an hour.

In the afternoon, as the temp falls, we stoke up the woodstove. We went through about 2 full cords last year. We get lots of wood from neighbors and tree cutting companies. I don't know how long the free ride will last though, with kerosene prices doubling every year...

    Bookmark   September 28, 2006 at 11:08AM
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Sounds like we think alike. I have big plans to permaculture my place. As far as heating I turned off my Nat gas last year and went to wood I have plenty but it still needs to be cut n split. I'm also blessed with a good bit of manure. My critters need to eat but I don't have much clear land to grow grain or hay so feed costs are REAL HIGH. Electric bill is killing me. Wife and 4 kids are very active for people livin out in the sticks so gasoline $ is more than we have left .
What to do? --- PERMACULTURE!

I'm developing a website on the subject here are a couple of snippets relating to this subject:

Energy costs can be drastically reduced by sucking the ethanol out of the grain before feeding the animals and
capturing the methane and CO2, "BAD" greenhouse gasses, out of the composting manure. Burn the methane and turn the CO2 into a "GOOD" greenhouse gas by feeding it to the plants in a real greenhouse.

A biogas digester is a major component of my planned permaculture system. In addition to the gas you also get better useable fertilizer (compost tea) sooner than you would if dry composting.

Digesters don't cost too much to build. It's basically just a big tank or even a large pipe. There is alot of info online but most of it is geared towards waste treatment in developing countries. For Optimum gas production it must be maintained at around 100 degrees f, thus using some of the biogas. A gas holder is needed to store it for use.

My plan is a 20' long 36" plastic culvert pipe enclosed by it's own little greenhouse that is inside the larger greenhouse. This will also act as a solar collector and thermal mass.

Note: The above size is way bigger than most homesteads need. I plan on supplying ALL of my electric and heating which would require more manure from an outside source. A little hi-temp digester (a couple 55gal drums and a gas water heater) will also generate gas from our human sewage and drain into the septic tank. This cheap little digester can work real good with chicken manure.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2006 at 2:50PM
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led_zep_rules(5 WI)

We have a woodstove, a Hearthstone Heritage. It has soapstone sides and top to retain the heat for a long time, and to moderate the heat output. We are quite fond of it, love to watch the fire burn, too. So far we have gotten all our wood 'free.' Of course free means driving someplace, carrying lots of wood to our pickup, cutting it up depending on length, splitting in many cases, carrying it around some more, etc. They say wood heats you twice, but I find it to heat me about 4 times!

We do have wood of our own to work on, 5 acres, partly wooded. However, we don't have a gas chainsaw yet, just an electric one, so our chainsawing is done near the house or in other people's yards. We live near large and small cities so thus far we have been lucky to find wood via freecycle and craigslist. We do have a nice gas furnace for backup when it is really cold or when we are travelling.


    Bookmark   March 2, 2007 at 1:18AM
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Out of the 11 posts above, there was only one post mentioning insulation. That really surprises me, as heating, cooling, insulation and weather sealing all go together. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. The house we recently purchased here in frigid zone 4 only had about 4 inches of insulation in the attic. Since we have lived here, we have cut our heating costs by at least $300 per season, almost paying for the cost of increasing the attic insulation in 1 year. Also did some minor weather sealing. To anyone who hasn't done so, really check out your house well for heat loss, you may have a hidden "chimney" losing all your precious heat. The Department of Energy puts out some good information on what to look for (check the web). Also, some electrical, gas, or community agencies will do "energy audits" and make recommendations for improvements. Many electrical/gas companies have web sites offering rebates, ect. I am hoping to have a tax deduction on the insulation we installed. Stay warm! (or cool, whatever!)

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 9:06AM
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I have to agree with quirkyquercus: heat pumps are an awful way to heat a house. We live in western Alabama and have two heat pump units. Our 100 year-old house is insulated well - I even insulated under the floors this fall and it helped quite a bit in winter and summer - but the heat pumps just don't do the job.
I bought a Vermont Castings Saville woodstove(a discontinued model) online at a great discount and it has made all the difference. We get our wood free from fallen trees around the area. First time in 4 years we've been warm here during the winter. We're looking into geothermal to replace the heat pumps and AC system(mainly for the air-conditioning). Anyone had any experience with geothermal?

    Bookmark   June 16, 2007 at 8:30PM
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Air exchange heat pumps are only good, ( operational) to -10c. They start to bite at +5c, but are as efficient, ( the newer models) as geothermal for cooling, and for heat, within their designed operating range. Unfortunately, they use an electric heater as back up for when the temps fall below their operating range, and due to its small size and the inherent design, it is much less efficent than even proper electric baseboard heat at those temps.

Geothermal are better in colder weather than heat pumps, because rather than trying to draw heat out of cold air, are drawing heat out of cool, (56 degree) soil. Other than the medium, (air vs. earth), there is little difference between geothermal and air exchange in the operating equiptment, ( compressors, exchange units, etc). The motors as yet, are major power consuming AC units, not the ultra efficient DC motors, but due to the source of the heat, geothermal is the most efficient source of electrically powered heating.

With geothermal, you either need a lot of space to run a surface grid, or pay the costs of deep drilling to sink the coils in wells.

Personally, the best method of heating, IMHO, is evacuated tube solar hot water radiant heat, backed up in colder climes with a demand hot water heater like a Bosch, with the thermostat set on cool, with passive solar for the day heat- evening gains.

We face west, and being off grid, use evacuated tube solar hot water radiant heat, cycled through a electric hot water heater, converted to 24dc, that burns the excess solar and wind production, circulated by a efficient solar powered DC pump on its own panel. Once I added in an automatic switch to control the pump, ( the solar panel in the winter, still produces power when the solar hot water tubes are no longer producing heat), we find that this system produces all our heat and domestic hot water from April to November.

We get some passive solar assist in the afternoon.

The system stops providing enough heat when the outside temps reach -15c or 5F so it is backed up with a demand propane hot water heater (a Bosch). The system still provides some heat, so from December to April, the solar tubes basically pre-heat the water for the Bosch.

All told, I spent $3800 for the Sunda tubes, the solar panel and DC pump, and the pump control.

The DC element for the electric hot water heater was another $400, but I had to "burn off" that excess solar power somehow, and using seemed better than dumping it to a light bar.

The Bosch cost another $1500, and all told, the plumbing cost about $800.

I also built a Russian mass heater, ( a huge airtight fireplace that uses a quick fire, like a rocket heater, to heat a large mass of brick and stone), which we use in the winter, to boost the temps above the thermostat setting of 65F.

First however, before I built any of this, we installed new windows and doors, rock wool insulation, (R32 in the walls, R50 in the ceiling), radiant heat barrier, and resheathed the exterior over R10 foam board to provide a thermal break between the studs and the sheathing. I might actually have R42 or higher in the walls!

BTW, earlier a poster suggested closing off some attic vents. Dont! The attic vents keep the air moving above the insulation and prevent moisture buildup in the attic. Close off your vents and you will trap heat in the summer, baking you out of house and home, and will trap moisture in the winter, reducing the effectiveness of your insulation, and of course, growing mold. Older homes, if anything, dont have enough ventilation in the attic.

If you reinsulate an older home, first make sure that you have soffit vents and good ventilation. When you reinsulate or add insulation, make sure you keep your soffit vents free and clear. For a final trick, when all your insulation is in place, top it off with a radiant heat barrier like a mylar film over the insulation. This wont do much to keep you warm in winter, but will make a huge difference in keeping you cool in summer.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2007 at 2:18PM
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russh nepa Are you aware of the coal users forum; found at
Wood pellets are popular now, but if you read this; it states that sawdust (ingredient of wood pellets) could be used to make Ethanol! Fortunately grass pellets are becoming more popular. Read about this plan for grass pellets use in VT.
There is a forum for wood/grass pellet users;

    Bookmark   March 1, 2008 at 10:11AM
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Please note: with antifreeze (38%)
ECL Ground-Loop Earth Coupled Loops
can circulate to a wide variety of
Pre-Heating of air or water

    Bookmark   July 2, 2008 at 1:10PM
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beaglady(6 PA)

We live at the southern end of the PA coal region and also use a combination of coal/wood. We use less than 2 tons a year. The house has an oil furnace that we keep set at 50 degrees as backup, and for a few spring/fall days when the atmospheric pressure isn't good for a coal fire, which is hard to idle at a low level. In 7 years, we used a total of about 450 gallons of oil. Not too bad.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2008 at 10:50AM
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A solar heating system can save money on heating bills as well as helping to maintain the environment by using a natural source of power to assist traditional heating methods. The systems are considered very reliable by the majority of users says a survey conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2008 at 5:00AM
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My wife and I bought a 2600 sq ft. farmhouse in midwest maine at the start of the summer. Over a hundred years old with single pane glass in all the enormous windows.No insulation at time of purchase, anywhere. The oil furnace is older than I am and the pipes are a flood waiting to happen. After buying the home i insulated the attic floor with blown in insulation, and put a storm door over the large front entry wood slab with a doorknob. We've put up plastic over all the windows in the areas we use (kitchen, livingroom, two bedrooms, and one bathroom), and blocked off the unused areas by hanging thrift store blankets over doorways. Considering what a nightmare this house would seem to be to heat, I have so far this winter spent about $150 on heat. I estimate about $100 so far in kerosene for a salamander style space heater i have to bring up the temp on really cold nights (-30 below 0F a few nights last week), and about $50 on Gasoline for my chainsaw and the neighbors log splitter, bar and chain oil, and a fuel up for my pickup truck to carry some wood from down the road a bit. I cut down all my own wood (about 6 cords) carried it out on my back, hauled split and stacked it. I think us americans have gotten a little too used to having our houses a nice even 72 degrees through the winter, i think the first step in saving money is realize if you want to walk around in shorts all winter, move to florida. Otherwise, turn down the thermostat, throw on some long underwear, and hope for a february thaw....

ps. - I lived in southern mexico for 3+ years before moving to maine, so its not like im acclimated to this crap weather. I just figure if Indians and settlers lived in this area without home heating oil deliveries, I can too. Id much rather spend that money on seeds and a new water pump for garden irrigation this spring. oh, and maybe a 4wheeler to help drag trees out of the wood, im not gonna lie, my back was killing me for the month of august.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 11:32AM
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Fireplace inserts are low cost, carbon neutral (as long as you replant) and can output tons of BTU's with a few simple modifications. See this link for the modifications I made to my Hearthstone Clydesdale.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2010 at 8:36AM
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