How to Go Green: Home Heating

Consider that roughly two-thirds of a home's annual energy use goes toward space and water heating, that in most American homes, winter heating is responsible for sending nearly four tons of greenhouse gases into the air each month, and that as much as half of all the energy used in the home is wasted.

Efficient home heating is starting to sound pretty good about now, no? Heck, we haven't even mentioned the political implications of heating oil. Below, we've compiled some tips to cheaper, greener home heating, all of which are driven by the two fundamentals of a treehugging life -- being more efficient, using less, and doing it in style.


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Top Home Heating Tips



  1. Seal the leaks!
    Sounds dull we know, but heat loss is one of the biggest obstacles on the road to a comfortable home in the winter. Good thing that sealing those darn leaks--or draftproofing, to get technical--is a breeze. Plus, come summer time, good insulation will make it harder for heat to beat a path way into your home. All you need is a tube of exterior silicone caulk or insulation strips, which you can take to your windows, plumbing and wiring holes, doors and fireplace dampers. To find the leaks, light a stick of incense or a candle on a breezy day, close all the windows and doors, and wander around your rooms searching for places toward which the incense smoke drifts. Those are your target zones. For the space between your doors and the floor, consider installing a nifty, cheap door sweep on the bottom of the door (see "Where to get this stuff"). For information on more serious insulation projects, see the Dept. of Energy's in-depth site.

  2. Cover your glass
    Installing clear plastic barriers or storm windows on your existing windows can cut heat loss by 25% to 50% by creating an insulating dead-air space inside the window. Storm windows cost about $7.50 to $12.50 per square foot. Exterior storm windows will increase the temperature of the inside window by as much as 30°F on a cold day, keeping you more comfortable.

  3. Stay ventilated
    The better you draft-proof and insulate your home, the more you'll need good ventilation. Pollutants (especially from unflued heaters) can accumulate and excess condensation can cause mould and mildew to grow. Open some windows for a few minutes several times a day (cross-ventilate, if possible), rather than leaving a window partly open all the time.

  4. Spread the heat
    Who knew a fan could be useful for heating your home? Turns out that a well-positioned and slow-rotating fan can help ensure that heat from your radiator or heater doesn't just drift up to your ceiling but spreads throughout your room, warming you toe to head. One great option is a heater fan, which sits atop woodstoves or gas room heaters and relies on a thermodynamic module to keep them running on heat alone (look ma, no batteries!).

  5. Heating wisely
    Heating the rooms to tropical temperatures isn't just unnecessary, but uncomfortable. Throw on your most comfortable sweater and turn your thermostat down a few degrees. Each degree Celsius less will save about 10% on your energy use. And don't forget to close doors to keep the heat contained in the rooms you're actually using. Also, reduce temperatures at night, when you're under the blankets. A programable thermostat might be your most effective weapon.

  6. Peel a drape
    Since most heat loss in your home occurs through and around the windows, draw your drapes, especially at night. During the day, leave north-facing windows uncovered in order to take advantage of the winter sun. If you can line your drapes with old bed sheets or other material, they'll prove even more effective in cutting down on your heating costs. You can also buy insulating drapes, which incorporate layers of insulating material, a radiant barrier, and a moisture-resistant layer to prevent condensation.

  7. Start a fire (but not like a caveman)
    What are fireplaces good for? Gathering the family around, hanging stockings on, putting photographs on top of. And what are they not good for? Entering the house (unless of course you're Santa), throwing trash into, and heating. Yes, heating. On average, fireplaces are only about 10% efficient. That is, about 90% of their energy is lost through the chimney, along with loads of your home's warm air and energy dollars. As the Dept. of Energy says, they "should not be considered heating devices." But if you can't resist the crackle and the glow, lower your thermostat to about between 50° and 55°F so your system doesn't keep trying to replace the warm air being lost through the chimney. Also, open the window nearest the fireplace slightly and close nearby doors so the fireplace won't easily draw heated air out of the house. Installing glass doors on the fireplace, which can be closed when the fire's dying or out, will prevent indoor heated air from escaping through the chimney, as will closing the chimney damper when the fireplace is not in use. Consider using EcoBrics http://www.naturbrennstoffe.de/, which, made of compressed sawdust, have the same energy value as brown coal equivalents, with one-third the water content and a fraction of the ash and sulfur emissions. Some upgrades to consider are the EcoFire Super-Grate, which increases burning efficiency, an outdoor air intake, which cuts down on heat loss from your home, or a high-efficiency fireplace insert, offering stricter air control. (See "Where to get this stuff" below). If you don't use your fireplace at all, plug and seal the chimney flue. You can keep your family photos where they are.

  8. Getting into (cheaper) hot water
    Water heating is the third largest energy expense in an American home, typically accounting for about 13% of your utility bill. There are four ways to cut your water heating bills: use less hot water, turn down the thermostat on your water heater, insulate your water heater, or buy a new, more efficient water heater. To use less, consider aerating faucets, which enhance spray while minimizing water usage, repair leaky faucets, and opt for showers over baths. To insulate your heater, you'll need blankets that shouldn't cost more than $20 and will save you around 4-9% in heating costs. Remember not to cover the thermostat; if insulating your hot-water storage tank, don't cover the thermostat, top, bottom, or burner compartment. See the DOE's great page on the topic before insulating your heater, storage tank, or piping.

  9. Be passive
    So-called "passive" techniques earn their name from being unobtrusive, requiring little tending or cost. But they're anything but passive when it comes to heating your home. Installing larger, insulated windows on south-facing walls and locating thermal mass, such as a concrete slab floor or a heat-absorbing wall, close to the windows, will help your home absorb solar heat with a minimum loss of inside heat. Keep in mind that for passive solar heating, the optimal window-to-wall area ratio is 25-35 percent. Ensure also that your south-facing windows are clean, and that objects do not block the sunlight from hitting concrete floors or other heat-absorbing materials. If you're constructing a new home, make sure the longest walls run from east to west, allowing the sun's rays to enter the home in winter, while allowing in as little sun as possible during summer.

  10. Cuddle up
    Or throw a get-together, and tell everyone to wear their coolest (no pun intended) sweaters. The more people in your home (or bed!) the hotter it is. Gather around the fireplace--but if you're cold, think twice before actually lighting it up. No matter what, sweeten the deal with some hot cider or cocoa!


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Home Heating: By the Numbers



  • 10 percent: Percentage of your heating bill you can save in the winter by using a ceiling fan which circulates warm air from the ceiling to the floor.

  • 8 percent: Amount of heat that escapes through your chimney when the fireplace damper is not closed.

  • 5 percent: Amount of heating costs you save by cleaning your furnace filters monthly. Dirty filters restrict airflow and increase the amount of energy used.

  • $115: Amount of money saved per year by installing an Energy Star thermostat.

  • 15 percent: Percent efficiency that an Energy Star qualified furnace is over an older furnace.

  • 20 percent: Percentage of energy saved by using an Energy Star heat pump when compared to a standard new model.


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Home Heating: Getting Techie


The value of R
vary by climate and may be affected by how a house is built and the type of heating used, here are a few rules of thumb: For mild climates, R-11 in the walls and floors and R-19 in ceilings below ventilated attics. For moderate climates, R-19 in the walls and floors and R-30 in ceilings below ventilated attics. For cold climates, R-19 in walls and under floors and R-38 to R-49 in ceilings below ventilated attics. For more specific recommendations by region, see the Dept. of Energy's insulation site.

Geothermal (or geo-exchange)
Using 30-60 percent less energy, running quieter, and requiring less maintenance than typical HVAC systems, geothermal or geo-exchange systems use a loop of underground water piping to transfer heat from the earth below where its cooler to your home (in the summer, it's cooler underground, so that this same process in reverse can serve to cool your home). It's like an AC in principle, but much more efficient. While a 3-ton geo system at $7,500 compares with $4,000 for a traditional HVAC system (according to the Dept. of Energy), a geo system could save around $700/yr., paying for itself in less than six years, not even counting the lower maintenance costs as well as the government rebates and incentives available (thanks Mr. Electricity). Over 1 million homes in the U.S. (including George W's Texas ranch) use geo-exchange systems, saving 9 billion pounds of CO2 per year. TreeHugger has more info about it.

Pellet stoves
Mixing the old-fashioned wood stove with cutting-edge biomass-burning pellet stoves are an extremely efficient heating option, producing very little waste and using inexpensive fuel. The pellets are generally made of a combination of wood chips and organic materials, and, depending on your equipment, you can make like Doc Brown (in Back to the Future, remember Mr. Fusion?) and burn waste materials, like grape waste, olive pits, almond shells, cotton-gin trash and hog waste, cutting down on shipping and distribution costs, and the requisite pollution that comes with it. With combustion efficiencies of 78%-85% (and heating capacities that range between 8,000 and 90,000 Btu per hour), pellet stoves are also exempt from United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) smoke-emission testing requirements. Though the cost ($1,700 and $3,000) can be steep, they're often much easier to install than any other type of heater, since can be direct-vented and do not need an expensive chimney or flue. See our pellet stove buying guide, and consult the DoE's site. And see TreeHugger's posts introducing pellet stoves and following up on them.

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Home Heating: From the Archives


Dig deeper into these articles on home heating from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Pellet Stoves Are Back (and Easier than Ever) shows that the pellet stoves never left, and are a real alternative for some people.

Home Power's Solar Water Heating Overview peeks into the fast-growing world of solar water heating.

Using Biodiesel To Heat Your Home was a cool enough idea that we covered it again.

Radiant floor heating is a really efficient, increasingly popular method to keep your toes (and the rest of you) nice and toasty.

Sink your teeth into these home heating tips designed with efficiency in mind.

After you've got you're heating method(s) picked out, learn why programmable thermostats are such a good idea.

Learn how to insulate your attic and prevent heat from floating out the top of your home.

Home heating isn't limited to just your living space; you can use passive solar to heat your garage, too.

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Further Reading on Home Heating

The Dept. of Energy's websites, Energy Savers provides a nice and easy trove of information on home energy efficiency, with special sections on efficient heating and cooling and passive techniques.

DOE's Home Energy Saver calculator is a good way to start greening your home heating.

The DOE also provides state-by-state information on the U.S.'s Weatherization Assistance Programs and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs, which help low-income families upgrade to energy-efficient home materials.
HowStuffWorks enlightens us on the details of how radiant floor heating works and the nitty-gritty of how heat pumps work.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (that's ACEEE to you and me) has a terrific consumer guide to energy-efficient heating that'll walk you through the ins and outs of efficient home heating.

High heating prices got you down? The Federal Trade Commission has tips to weather the high cost of heating your home.
Real Goods offers some useful tips for green home heating, too.

Tags: Heating

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