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Heating Options for Your Home

All sorts of people, for any number of reasons can be interested in getting “off the grid” of dependence on utility companies. Indeed, if it could be done by flipping a switch, it is hard to imagine choosing to stay connected to a system where costs perpetually rise.

It takes considerably more than flipping a switch. But whether you want to try to keep your power bills down or just want to be safe and self-sufficient somewhere when the power grid goes down, there are alternatives. The necessary investment can range from building a house from the ground up (or in, or down) to a few hundred bucks for a wood stove and the ongoing cost in cash, barter, or labor to keep it burning.

In a sense, all implementations of alternative home heating begin with home design. This is true whether one is consciously trying to build a home that requires no heating (or cooling) or one is dealing with a set of givens—a home designed for a time when heating fuel was treated as if it were limitlessly available and affordable. In the latter case, a good place to start would be to quantify present utility usage: is it exactly what is needed for comfort and health? Or is your house or apartment, (as exasperated parents cry to their kids lingering in the doorway), “trying to heat the whole outdoors”?

Where Do I Start?

Your utility bill should tell you how much heating energy your home is using—possibly in “therms”. In comparing heating systems, you’ll want to compare something like therms per month to BTUs (British Thermal Units) per hour, and there are online converters to help you do this. You will also want to look at past bills, or contact your utility for more information, so that you’re not trying to plan for next year’s blizzard based on your usage during this year’s relatively mild winter. You may be able to request an energy audit from your utility, or conduct one yourself.

At a minimum, you will want to walk around your home with the heat on to check for cold spots (probable leaks) and for hot spots, which could indicate drafts, improper thermostat settings, or other heat distribution problems that add to your home’s thermal load. This is also a good time to check for inactive and possibly blocked vents, and for design inefficiencies such as heat vents near the ceiling or conflicting cold and warm air ducts—some of these problems might be resolved by going to alternative systems such as fireplaces or wood stoves that deliver heat directly into living spaces rather than through a house wide forced-air system. With or without additional heating efficiencies such as caulking, weather stripping, reglazing, moderating vent use, repurposing rooms, or any other steps, examining present use gives a baseline for what kind of thermal output will be required of any alternative system.

What are My Alternatives?

Once heating requirements are calculated, planning can begin. Alternatives to a fossil-fuel-heated home break down into three main categories:

The roof of a typical house gets more solar energy than is required to heat the home it shelters.  So why aren’t all houses solar-heated? Well, for starters, they are not all typical. Suitability for solar heating depends at least in part on location. And even in the typical cases, we are heir to several millennia of opposite thinking: roofs in the temperate zone are designed to keep the elements—wind, rain, snow, and sun—out, not to let any one of them in. (Yes, there is a common exception for ventilation, but it is often a closed system, unconnected to the living space, or is connected only when used for cooling.)

Location permitting, a passive solar system should be a no-brainer for new construction: one exchanges the cost of feeding and maintaining a heating system for minimal additional cost, if any, in building. The massive walls that are one solution for a fully passive system can be made of materials as cheap as discarded tires and rammed earth, and offer unmatched acoustic privacy and structural stability. Two minimal requirements for passive (non-mechanical) solar heating are a southern exposure with unmediated access to the sun and a material—often but not always structural—that provides thermal mass for the storage and release of heat. Even when these basic conditions are met, other climatic or geographic factors may determine whether “direct gain” solar heat will be sufficient for the space, or whether indirect or isolated gain systems, using a form of convection to transfer solar heat is preferred or is required as a supplement.

Geothermal heating and cooling would also seem to be a no-brainer for new construction, particularly in tract development: unlike solar heating, which can be a mite particular in its requirements for each heated house, geothermal is easily scaled up to shared infrastructure for a group of homes. Each unit contains a heat pump to direct transfer of heat. (Since the heat pump can be fitted to existing ductwork in place of a conventional furnace, geothermal also lends itself readily to retrofitting existing housing.) An underground or underwater “ground loop” does the actual heat transfer, drawing heat from the Earth in winter and discharging house heat into the ground in summer. A “flow center” connects the interior and exterior elements. In an “open-loop” system, well water is used for the heat exchange and goes to a drainage field after use. Alternatively, a water and antifreeze solution circulates in a closed-loop system. Loops operate about six feet underground, and can be installed vertically where space is tight. Like a passive solar system, geothermal cools as well as heats. As an additional bonus, a water heater can be easily piggybacked onto the system.

Wood stoves are the least versatile option in terms of their abilities—they don’t cool or heat water for washing. Yet for many people they may be the most versatile insofar as they can be deployed in an incremental or modular way according to circumstance: starting, say, with that back bedroom that the central heating never quite warms even when the rest of the house is roasting, and possibly even lightening the burden and the expense of that central system.  They are not necessarily just one-trick ponies, either, since some of them can be used for cooking. They also come in a variety of sizes to fit different rooms and circumstances; some models come with “direct venting”, meaning no external vent or chimney is required. Despite their low-tech (and cheap, and potentially local) fuel of wood or corn—often in the form of easily stored pellets—they are controlled by thermostats for precise temperature control. Simpler models are also available, more like the traditional “pot-belly” or Franklin stove—for efficiency, comfort and safety (minimizing creosote buildup in the required chimney), these should include a catalytic combustor that allows burning at lower temperatures. For these stoves, the extra weight of cast iron, possibly of a firebrick lining or a soapstone body, may make the stove harder to move around—not an issue if the stove requires permanent exterior-vented installation. The payoff is in the thermal mass that absorbs heat slowly when the stove is activated and releases it slowly when the fire goes out.

Other options you have are propane heaters and outdoor wood burning heaters that hook into your existing plumbing and vent system (heating not only your house, but your water too!). Some of the manufacturers of outdoor wood burning systems are Hardy Heater and Central Boiler.

One resource that goes more in depth about different methods for heating your home is Whether you just now building your home or have a home with limited options for upgrading, there’s a system out there that will help you become more off-grid.

Other articles in this issue:

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