Alternative Ways To Heat Your Home

by heather

With energy prices going up all around, I thought it was the perfect time to write about alternative ways to heat your home.

Alternative heat is a topic I find particularly fascinating. Michigan winters are long and expensive, and after some crippling heating bills last year I thought it was time to get off my duff and find out if there were other ways I could heat my home this year.

I also wanted to weigh the environmental costs of different options out there. Was a pellet stove better for the environment than a wood stove? What about burning corn, or using a radiator to heat a few small rooms instead the whole house?

Before we jump into these tough questions, let’s consider the upcoming price hike we’ll all be facing this winter.

CNN Money reports that, across the board, energy prices are going up this season Here’s their rundown:

Electricity: up by 10%

Propane: up by 11%

Natural Gas: up by 18%

Heating Oil: up by 23%

So, no matter what you’re using to heat your home, you’re going to be paying more this year.

The good news is that there are alternative ways to heat your home, and I’ll list the most common options I found.

Geothermal

Energy Star reports that a geothermal heating system is the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way to heat your home.

Geothermal literally means “earth heat”. And, to put it bluntly, they’re awesome systems.

Traditional forced-air systems (like most of us have) use the outside air as a base to heat the house. So, if it’s 10 degrees out the furnace has to heat that 10 degree air up to 70 degrees to make it comfortable inside. This, as you can imagine, takes a lot of energy to do.

A geothermal system, on the other hand, uses the constant, stable temperature of the earth as a base to heat your home. The earth’s temperature stays at a constant temperature, usually 45 degrees to 75 degrees, depending on your latitude. Because the temperature of the earth is much higher than the outside air, it takes a lot less energy to get it to 70 degrees.

The unit works with large coils that are buried in the earth. A liquid, usually a mixture of water and anti-freeze, runs through the tubes. That water (which is the same temperature of the earth) is then run through your home. A compressor extracts the heat from the water, and then raises the temperature to what your thermostat is set at.

The system also works in reverse: in the summer, your geothermal unit can easily cool your home using the earth’s temperature at a fraction of the cost of your air conditioner.

Now, the costs for installing a geothermal heating system are pretty steep. You can bank on spending $7,000 to $15,000 for a complete system.

But, here’s the good news. Depending on your part of the country, the system will pay for itself in 5-8 years and add significant resale value to your home.

Plus, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that geothermal heating systems run at 300%- 600% efficiency on the coldest nights, versus 175%- 250% of air-source heat pumps on cool days.

Many experts claim that a geothermal system in a 1,500 square foot home will heat and cool your home for $1 per day. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty awesome.

And the best part is that you’re not using any fossil fuels to heat and cool your home.

Pellet Stoves

Pellet stoves are similar to wood stoves in terms of size and look. But pellet stoves burn small pellets that are made from sawdust or switchgrass.

The cool thing about pellet stoves is that you’re using easily renewable resources (like switchgrass, which is grown on farmland whose soil is too poor for other crops) or waste products (like sawdust from mills).

Pellet stoves are more energy efficient than wood stoves, meaning they heat your home using less fuel. Smaller homes can be heated using just one stove, while larger homes might need two. (When I say small here, I’m talking 1,300 to 1,500 square feet).

Now, the costs of pellet stoves range from $1,300 to $2,500 or more. Pellets cost, at the time of this writing, $130 to $200 per ton. If you live in a cold climate, you can expect to go through 2-3 tons of pellets per winter season. So, for 3 tons, at the highest price, you’re looking at $600 in pellets.

So, let’s compare this to the traditional wood stove.

Wood stoves usually go through 3-4 cords of wood. Each cord costs roughly $100 to $175. So with a wood stove you’re looking at a top annual heating cost of $700. Plus you need to figure in the time to chop, stack, store, and carry in the wood (and the guilt factor of air pollution).

Pellets take up 1/3 less space than cord wood, can be stored in your basement, and emits very little pollution..

It’s also important to realize that freight makes up a large portion of the costs of pellets. Finding a source nearby will be crucial in lowering the price per ton. It’s important before purchasing a pellet stove that you research local suppliers to make sure you’ll be able to purchase fuel each year.

Another important thing to consider is that the costs of pellets (like everything else) has been going up in recent years. One ton of pellets used to run around $70. But as pellet stoves have grown in popularity, the price has gone up. So take this into consideration before making the investment.

Some systems burn more than just pellets however. Models that also burn corn, wood chips, and nutshells, among other things, are quite popular because it gives homeowners more options than just pellets.

As far as environmental costs go, pellet stoves do emit far less Co2 than traditional wood stoves. They burn fuel that would otherwise get tossed away as waste, and the U.S. Department of Energy says that pellet stoves are the cleanest solid-fuel burning appliance.

Solar

Solar has long been touted as the most energy efficient way to heat your home. After all, once you make the initial investment, you’ve got free heat for life. Who doesn’t like that?

There are two types of active solar heating systems.

The first is a system that heats liquid in a hydronic collector. The second is an air-based system (the air is heated by the sun). Both systems use the solar radiation to heat your home.

Now, if you have a forced-air system right now, you will want to research a solar air heating system. You can find out more on this type of system at the U.S. Department of Energy site here.

If you currently have a boiler or radiant heating system, then you’ll want to research a solar liquid heating system. You can find out more information about this here.

It’s important to realize that the people who will get the most out of an investment in a solar heat system are those who live in a cold climate and who currently depend on an expensive heat source (like fuel oil). Most systems will also provide some kind of storage system so that you can have heat even when the sun is not shining.

Active solar heating systems are designed to provide 40% to 80% of a home’s heating needs. Costs vary from $30 to $80 per square foot, installed. Deciding how many square feet you’d need for your home is a bit tricky. Most solar installation companies use computer software to determine each home’s unique needs. But, CNN Money estimates that a 2,000 square foot home would need 4 to 6 solar collectors, which would cost $15,000 to $20,000.

The good news, however, is that solar heat is completely eco-friendly.

Masonry Heaters

Think of masonry heaters as the super-compact, ultra-efficient pellet stove. They produce more heat and less pollution than pellet or wood stoves, and look more like a traditional fireplace.

The biggest difference is that masonry heaters trap heat more efficiently that wood-burning fireplace. They include a small firebox that is lined with firebrick or masonry concrete, and a long twisty smoke channels that run through the masonry structure.

I know that sounds a bit confusing, but just picture what a freestanding fireplace would like like. Instead of having one chimney that goes into the outside air, the masonry heater has a “chimney” the runs through the bricks themselves. The bricks heat up, and then slowly release heat over the course of 12-24 hours.

picture courtesy of masonryheaters.org

picture courtesy of masonryheaters.org

Masonry heaters usually burn wood, but they release far less air pollution than a traditional wood-burning stove or fireplace. They also go through less wood, because they burn slower.

Masonry heaters vary in price, which largely depends on the size you would need to heat your home. But, expect to pay anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 or more for a custom unit.

Final Word

So, what’s the verdict? For my own home, I don’t know yet. The idea of a geothermal heating system sparks my imagination, but the upfront costs are a bit staggering. Plus, I’m not sure my yard is big enough. But, I’m definitely planning on doing something different this year. I just have to find out which option is best for my situation.

Good luck in your own research!

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

soapstone masonry heaters April 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm

That was a great post. I will have to bookmark this site so I can read more later.

Zach Hudson May 24, 2009 at 6:31 pm

This is a nicely written article which I plan on using as a reference for my blog. What have you decided to use for your future heating system?

Stan September 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm

I’m glad you included geothermal. It is a great technology and often ignored.

Scott Koether October 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Heads Up,
You could never heat the same size house with that little pellet stove as you could with any stove that could burn 3-4 cords per year. Also, it is the same type and quantity of air pollution (organic material that emits carbon when burned) except wood does not have the glue in it to keep the pellet together. The only added pollution with wood is the chain saw used to cut the wood and there will obviously be some fuel burned in harvesting switch grass or any other organic material as well. Otherwise good article. Scott

J Fair October 17, 2009 at 9:51 pm

I recently saw installed a geothermal unit in a downtown lot in Charleston, SC. the footprint it reserved was about 16′ x 22′. This was covered by an outdoor patio for seating, which tied to a local restaurant. There are 16 geo-wells, each to 250′ into clay. In the winter, they keep the restaurant and above offices at a constant 71 degrees. The space they heat is a total of about 3200sq.ft., roughly 1050sq.ft. on each floor. The ground above the geo-wells is not able to hold a foundation, but will be a great outdoor green space for the future of the urban context.

Just wanted you to know the potential of geothermal heating. It’s the future of sustainable air control. I HIGHLY recommend this application in any ground-break construction, or back yard.

Thanks Heather, great research here.

Scott- the reason burning pellets are more practical than cords is because you are reusing an already used material, i.e. the tree, then taking it’s byproduct, i.e. the sawdust, and RE-using it to heat a space. One tree, Two uses. Get it? A basic principal of sustainability.

Jill January 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm

I am interested in a wood burning or pellet burning system. What I want to know is: how is it installed in a home, does it use ducts and vents to heat rooms, how much space does it take up in a home, and is it safe for a home with children?

Thanks.

Zach Hudson January 6, 2010 at 4:01 pm

There are a two different types of wood burning systems. One system is a wood stove and another is a wood burner. A wood stove is the simplest of the two. A basic wood stove installation would require a wood stove and chimney. These systems heat by radiating the heat generated from burning wood into the room which the wood stove is located. To move around the heat you can use fans but for the most part a wood stove heats the room(s) it is most closely located to.

The wood burner system typically consists of a “box” like stove outside of the house. The wood burner has a liquid that is heated up and then cycled through pipes to heat your home and/or water heater, etc.. The home can be heated using a radiator located in the homes furnace. The furnace’s fan will run to circulate the heat that is given off by the radiator attached to the wood burner system.

This should hopefully give you a general idea of how these systems work but this is in no way a complete description of all possible installations. As far as children in your home, the wood stove would be a large metal object in a room that would be very hot so, a child would need to treat this with respect and caution. The wood burner would be external of the home and is a sealed system so this should be safer but, I think the wood burner system is also more expensive.

Zach Hudson January 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Also Jill, i forgot to mention, i believe a pellet system would be similar only it would be using pellets instead of wood.

Heating Companies Albany June 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Great Article! But I want to know is does pellet system increase air pollution or can add to global warming?

Jay August 4, 2010 at 7:12 am

Excellant article
If you ciuld increase the r-value of windows to 8 60 % would be saved in a well insulated home.

Jay August 4, 2010 at 7:30 am

Superb article
Stop the loss stop airflow,insulate,upgrade windows
Other ways might be found at beat water and energy
thank you
jay

Moria Bennet June 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Actually, Scott Koether, you are incorrect, the pellets are not held together by glue, only by compression. If you drop one in water, it quickly comes apart.

Surprisingly, it does do a good job of heating, vs. our old, enormous wood stove, because there is a fan built in giving it a ‘forced air’ factor. Before our kitchen would be a 45C, while the other rooms were almost at freezing levels. The fan made it easy to get the air flowing to the other rooms and prevent the main room from being too hot. It was still very inefficient, and you could never turn them up to their ‘max’ setting without them over heating. So it would get to a point where if the house was still cold, and the stove was on as high as it could handle. Tough luck, the house was stuck at 10C at times.

I do agree, there wouldn’t be much difference in pollution using pellet or wood, they are both releasing carbon as they are the same material. But the chimney didn’t make visible smoke or odour after we switched over, it did seem to burn ‘lighter’. Also the ‘back-of-your-mind-worry’ of chimney fires was less pronounced.

My other cons on a wood pellet is the maintenance. It required more cleaning, more frequently than the wood stove, it was ‘fussy’ to clean (a lot of nooks and crannies), and was just as bad for the ‘soot indoors’ factor. Also, we need a totally dry place to store the bags, or they become expensive soggy pile of sawdust. The wood pile could stay outdoor in all weather. I also found the pellet stoves noisy (we had two different models 10 years apart, the newer one was better, but still made a racket). And having to lift a 40lb sack every day was hard on my tiny 4foot 10 frame. Also, if the power went out, so did the heater, which is never a good thing to rely on in an area with frequent winter storms. We’ve had to ‘abandon house’ a few times, where as with the wood stove there was no reasons to.

Personally, I would never install a pellet stove ever again. I’d rather go back to wood, and having to relight the fire at 2 am.

In either case they both made my home or yard cluttered, and made the inside of my home dirty. When I build my home in the next few years, I am seriously considering geothermal.

Lynn September 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

http://www.thegreenestdollar.com

Thanks-Good advice on heating,have not even thought about some of these.

Wm Scott Anderson October 22, 2012 at 7:58 am

There are a lot of things you can do to save on home heating costs. I have a web page about it at http://www.squidoo.com/how-to-heat-your-home-for-less

Wesley Colberth March 9, 2016 at 8:34 pm

I assume that there are many ways to heat a home in a efficient manner. The tips in this article are great for ways to save money on heating and I’m positive that they have been proven useful. I think that there are many products one can invest in to heat a home quickly and cost-efficiently.

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