5 Energy Efficient Home Heating Options
Mix and Match Heating Options for Your Unique Home
The good and bad news about heating your home in Vermont is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Every home is different, after all—with existing heating system, floor plan, and heat-loss issues. The reason this is good news is that you can create a system that works for your unique home and budget. It may take some research, but you’ve come to the right place.
In order to simplify your search for the perfect system for your home, we have compiled this list of the five efficient home heating options and the types of homes they are best suited to.
Passive Solar Heat: passive solar heat is free. On a sunny day, it flows from the sky free of charge, warming everything in its path. You don’t necessarily need special equipment to take advantage of passive solar heat but you will achieve best results if your home faces south to draw in the sun’s strongest rays.
Whether you are constructing a new home from scratch or retrofitting your existing home, you can build some passive solar elements into the structure of your home. A great way to begin is to install energy-efficient windows, which allow sunlight in without enabling too much heat to escape. You can then insulate and add thermal mass to your walls and floors.
Note: Thermal mass is any material that absorbs heat and releases it slowly to its surroundings. Examples of thermal mass are concrete, brick, stone, and tile.
Find three additional ways to improve the energy efficiency of your house in our eBook about Top Improvements for Home Energy Savings
High Efficiency Furnace or Boiler: Sometimes the best upgrades are the simplest. If your home is already equipped with all of the ducts, registers, etc. for a furnace or boiler system, you can save money by upgrading the furnace or boiler to a highly efficient model, like an ENERGY STAR ®. High efficiency replacements for furnaces and boilers can run between $6,000 and $10,000, but rebates offered through Efficiency Vermont can make them more affordable. If you are running an old furnace or boiler system, particularly one that is 15 years old or older, insulate the ductwork and seal any cracks to increase the efficiency of the system.
One way to really control your home heating costs is with a “smart” thermostat. This allows you to program temperature setbacks that are custom to your living habits, weather conditions, and needs. They can be used with a variety of central heating systems, and rebates are available.
Wood or Pellet Stove: Wood is the oldest and likely the most popular heating source. Local, renewable and affordable, there’s good reason for its appeal in our northern climate. There now are lots of wood heating options, from the wood stoves we all know, to pellet stoves, outdoor wood furnaces, and now modern wood pellet systems. As opposed to fossil fuel options, where about 78 cents of every dollar we spend leaves our region, every dollar spent on wood heat (chips and pellets) stays in our region, supporting our forestry and logging industries (source: Northern Forest Center).
Modern wood pellet heating systems are increasing in popularity as the technology has advanced, making huge improvements in efficiency and reducing the carbon emissions of traditional wood heat. Another advantage is that the fuel prices tend to be more stable than those of fossil fuels. These systems can be installed in a home that has a traditional oil-based system with a few retrofits.
There are a few considerations when evaluating if a modern wood heat furnace or boiler is right for you.
- Pellet storage–These systems have an automatic feeder (hopper) so pellet storage is required. Your pellets are delivered by a distributor to your storage location, which may be a bin in your basement, garage, or an outdoor silo, so you’ll need to be sure you have a workable option for storage.
- Up Front Cost – These systems tend to be more expensive than a traditional primary heating system, but there are incentives available, and there are financing options. If you are ready to make the switch from a fossil fuel system, this may be a great option—You will realize fuel savings over the long run, support your local economy, and reduce your carbon emissions. Find out more about modern wood pellet boilers here.
Heat Pump: heat pumps are referred to variously as ductless heat pumps, mini-splits, and cold-climate heat pumps. A heat pump consists of a head that is placed on the wall inside your home and a compressor that sits outside your home. The compressor draws heat from the outdoor air and delivers it into your home through the head. Heat pumps are extremely efficient because they do not actually create heat—they just move it from one place to another. However, they are less efficient in homes that have not been weatherized. They also become less efficient as temperatures drop below zero.
Installation of a heat pump can be expensive but you can often receive rebates of up to $400. Once installed, the heat pump is a heating star. Heat pumps are ideal for open concept homes or offices, where they can provide heat to large spaces using minimal amounts of electricity. In homes that are broken up into many small rooms, they are not an ideal heating source. Heat pumps are considered a supplemental heat source, so it is best to pair them with other heating sources.
Note: You may have heard of geothermal heat pumps, a ground source for heating that works much like the mini-split (or air-source) heat pumps in that they transfer the heat efficiently from one place to another rather than generating it. Geothermal is extremely efficient but can be expensive, especially when retrofitting for an existing building. The technology is most cost-effective when installation takes place at the time of construction. You can find out more about geothermal heating at Efficiency Vermont.
Insulation and Conservation: Before you begin your heating system upgrade, it is best to weatherize your home to ensure that it is as efficient as possible. As you design and implement your new system, you can optimize efficiency by annually checking for and fixing leaks in the lines or pipes that carry heat throughout your home, whether they are the water pipes of your radiant system or the air ducts of your forced hot air system. Check floor registers throughout your home and move any obstructions that will prevent the free flow of air. You can conserve heat by closing off rooms you do not use during the winter months (though you should first make certain that closing off rooms will not cause your plumbing pipes to freeze).
Give Yourself a Choice of Heating Options: Creating a more efficient home heating system doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, instead of ripping out your entire propane boiler, you may choose to purchase a mini-split to reduce your use of the boiler. Not only will you save money, but if anything ever happens to your mini-split, you will always have a backup. Sometimes the most ideal situation is one with multiple options. You may only need the heat pump during August but in January you need a wood stove backup. By having more than one option for heating your home, you have greater control and flexibility in choosing the alternative that will produce the greatest savings as well as the greatest comfort.
Low-interest financing can help make your energy efficiency home improvements affordable. Learn more about VSECU Energy Improvement Loans.
Learn some additional tips to improve the energy efficiency of our home.
About Laurie Fielder
Laurie directs VSECU’s statewide VGreen energy savings loan program. Previously, she worked for the weatherization program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council (now Capstone), and for a successful residential solar installer. She enjoys helping Vermonters learn about efficiency and renewable financing options that maximize the savings of these smart investments. She lives in Woodbury with her family and enjoys the outdoors, walking the dog, and tackling home improvement projects.