Saving Money through Sustainable Heating Methods

by Jude McLean

The costs associated with home heating are becoming more expensive every year, with heating and cooling being responsible for 48% of energy use in the average US home. As these costs increase and the signs of climate change become ever more apparent, it comes as no surprise that more and more people are searching for ways to source cleaner and greener ways to provide energy for their homes. Thankfully, there are many such options. However, it’s crucial you make informed decisions, since not all methods are the same, varying dependant on your circumstances and needs.

Focus on the Efficiency of your Home First 

Before even considering the many renewable energy options available, it’s certainly worth the time and the little effort it takes to assess and improve the energy efficiency of your home. This is far easier than you may like to assume and the savings and comfort that will result make improving efficiency well worth the time. It’s also very inexpensive. It includes simple tasks such as checking for drafts, improving the insulation of your property and utilising a thermostat where possible.

To begin, it’s a good idea to check places where you could carry out draught-proofing as it’s perhaps one of the most inexpensive and effective ways to conserve energy. Draughts are simply currents of cold air and you will often find them around windows, doors, floorboards and pipe work leading into your home. You can always hire a professional to carry out draught-proofing for you, but it’s much cheaper to take the DIY route. Draught-proofing strips and excluders can be used for doors and windows and are easily sourced from most hardware stores. While the likes of small gaps around pipes and electrical sockets can be dealt with by silicone fillers. Larger gaps can be filled in with expanding polyurethane foam, which will expand and dry hard.

Once you have done your upmost to cover, seal and fill and gaps in your home, it’s a wise move to spend some time insulating your home. Astonishingly, a quarter of heat is lost through the roof in an uninsulated home; therefore, the loft or attic may be a good place to start. Rolls of fibreglass insulation can be bought for a reasonable price locally and is easy to install yourself. Insulation around water pipes is another effective way to reduce heat loss and save money. Typically water pipes are uninsulated, which leads to your water heater having to be used more, thus, increasing your energy costs. A simple solution to this issue is to utilise pre-slit, foam pipe insulation that simply snap in place.

Although improving the efficiency of your property may not seem as exciting as having a new wind turbine installed, they remain one of the simplest and most inexpensive methods to save energy and improve the heating efficiency of your home. Furthermore, by improving efficiency, the heating system you select won’t have to be as big, further reducing costs.

Passive Solar Design

Once you have improved the efficiency of your home and done your very best to plug any areas that might be leaking heat, it’s time to consider the different types of sustainable heating systems available to you.

Passive Solar home design remains an effective method of reducing energy use and saving money. The design itself focuses on making the most of the already existing energy present in the environment, namely solar energy. It takes into account the building’s location, local climate and materials to reduce energy use. This means that as long as the sun keeps rising, its energy can be used and stored.  In the simplest terms, it is a method of home design that takes the predictable movements of the sun into careful consideration.

The strategies incorporated into the architecture contribute to the heating and cooling of the building. Often, passive solar design includes the following strategies:

  1. The collection of solar energy by south-facing windows.
  2. The storage of this energy in what is referred to as “thermal mass” composed of materials with a high heat capacity such as brick and concrete.
  3. The redistribution of this stored energy into the home whenever needed via the natural mechanism of convection and radiation.

Of course, it is ideal to have a blank canvas and incorporate as many strategies into your property as possible. However, the reality is that existing homes face some limitations; still many of the concepts of passive solar heating can be easily added to any home, either during the design process or to pre-existing buildings. 

Passive Solar in Pre-existing Homes

The key requirement to think about is south facing windows, and so if there are already south facing windows in the property, the opportunity can be used to incorporate thermal mass into the structure. A good place to start is to ensure that any light blocking trees are trimmed especially in the winter, and then you can begin retrofitting thermal mass material into the wall or floor.

Thermal mass materials function to efficiently absorb the solar energy that passes through the window to be slowly released through the day and evening, maintaining a comfortable temperate for long periods of time; a truly sustainable way to heat a home.
The floors or walls could be any dense and heat absorptive materials like brick, concrete, stone or tiles; a common choice being polished concrete floors. A detail to think about however is the color, as dark colors are recommended to increase heat absorption. A somewhat dark gray is a smart choice, dark enough but not too dark as to create a heat spot in the home!

A major consideration when converting a home to accommodate passive solar heating methods is whether or not the size of the window will let in enough heat to make it worth installing thermal mass materials. To give a general guide: the windows should exceed 7% of floor space for thermal mass to be worth installing; for every square foot of floor space that exceeds that percentage, more thermal mass can be added.

A good accompaniment to having large south facing windows is insulating blinds or curtains that you fit on them. There are various kinds blinds available on the market today suitable for homes that use passive solar heating.

An innovative idea for insulating around the windows are "kume" curtains - a type of curtain which is made form several layers and is rolled up, it seals around the window as much as possible when closed to prevent as much heat as possible from escaping.

Heat Pumps

Another sustainable energy source are ground source heat pumps, which as their name implies extract heat from the ground, which can then be used to heat water, air or used in radiators.

The system itself consists of pipes filled with a mixture of anti-freeze and water that is pumped into the ground. Since heat is naturally transferred from hotter to colder areas, the mixture absorbs the heat stored in the ground, which is then transported to a heat exchanger for use in your home. This is a complex process that involves the use of a refrigerant that begins to boil as it is heated to produce a gas. In turn, this gas is fed into a compressor that causes the temperature of the gas to increase until it’s fed into a second component called a heat exchanger, resulting in a set of plates becoming heated. These heated plates operate to heat water that can be used to meet a range of home energy demands, including common hot water systems such as radiators. 

As you can imagine, fitting this system does require some space, although don’t let this put you off as it’s probably less space than you might have guessed. Typically, a heat pump demands around 400m2 which doesn’t necessarily require a large garden, but certainly enough space to dig a trench and accommodate the equipment used during the installation process. For this reason, many people find that fitting this type of system is more cost effective to do on new property developments.

Solar Water Heating

If you have a roof to use that faces east to east through south and is exposed to direct sunlight, then you may want to consider installing solar panels. This is certainly something worth considering for those designing a new build that they want to make work for their pocket and the planet for years to come. All you have to pay is the initial upfront cost of the materials and installation, and since it is powered by sunlight, which is free, your heating bills will be reduced considerably.

There are a variety of solar heating systems that vary in the way they collect and circulate the solar energy. However, the principle of this method remains the same for all varieties and is simple to understand - as the sunlight heats the panels or collectors, the fluid contained within them is heated. This fluid is then transported through a heat exchanger and results in heat being transferred to water, resulting in hot water that can be used to meet the common energy demands of households.

As well as having a roof space to fit your panels that is facing the correct orientation, you will also need space to install and house a hot water cylinder. Other than that maintenance of a solar heating system is very low and the majority come with a lengthy warranty.

Heating with Biomass

Biomass simply means attaining energy through the burning of wood and although wood heat is by no means a perfect energy source. The reality at present is that there is no energy source that is free from drawbacks. However, biomass is a renewable source, since it’s sourced from trees, and the nature of a woodlot to regrow makes it a truly sustainable energy source. Wood itself contains around half the carbon content of fossil fuels, however using it is a carbon-neutral process, since trees trap carbon dioxide as they mature and grow.

Biomass systems use wood in the form of pellets, logs and other wood waste in order to provide heat or to power hot water systems. Common biomass appliances include pellet burning stoves, typically used to heat a single room, and boilers that are designed to provide hot water for radiators and domestic use. Therefore, the one you choose will be dependent on your specific requirements.

Although the price of wood varies depending on location, it is often much cheaper to source than conventional fossil fuels. It also allows you to visually monitor your energy use, promoting a responsible approach to your energy usage. It must be mentioned that however, burning wood is not a great method in densely populated areas as its emissions are typically higher than other types of energy.

However, large areas of North America are sparsely populated and have densely populated forests – these are the regions where heating with a wood stove are wise. Forests by nature need to be controlled and taken care of, but the tactics employed to achieve this are rarely discussed: thinning of dense areas, harvesting trees of poor quality and encouraging saplings to grow.

Go Green and Prosper!

With the pace of advancements in green heating technology and the number of businesses providing installation services and DIY kits, going green is becoming easier to achieve than ever before. The one you opt for should be most appropriate for your requirements and take into account the limitations associated with every type of heating method. By taking these steps, you’re helping to provide a greener, more sustainable future.

Written by Jude McLean, a green energy consultant and long time wood stove user who contributes at the heating and cooling blog HeatTalk.com

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