The Heating Conundrum

Long gone are the days when turning on the heat meant simply lighting a fire.

Today’s consumers have more fuel options and delivery systems to choose from than ever before, and it’s easy to get lost in the torrent of information.

Fuel prices are constantly in flux, subject to demand, technology, and availability. Today’s money-saver could be tomorrow’s money-pit. Now, it’s also imperative to weigh the environmental impact of various systems.

Dale Wiegand works in sales for Wulf Brothers. If you’re not building a new home, he said the best choice for those trying to balance cost-effectiveness and environmental impact in a replacement heating system is a hybrid geothermal heat pump system.

“As fuel prices rise, your payback on a hybrid system is quicker,” he said. A hybrid system relies on a heat pump that would operate at temperatures down to about 30 degrees. When the temperature goes lower, a traditional system – gas, propane, etc… – would kick in, much as a hybrid car works. In the summer, the heat pump functions as an air conditioner.

At last year’s prices for propane, fuel oil and electricity, the payback period for a hybrid system would be as little as three to four years. Prices are down this winter, so the payback is a little longer, but still relatively fast. If more people had hybrid systems, Wiegand said it could mitigate several problems.

“It would save so much fuel, and it would drive down demand and prices of fuel,” he said.

Most of us expect to replace a heating system no more often than once every 20 years, if not longer. This means that making your best economic choice requires a guess at the future prices of fuel sources.

Since nobody is predicting the immanent demise of the sun, solar heat is a great option, if you have the money. Solar hydronic heating is efficient, but the systems are prohibitively expensive for many to install. So one must gauge the long-term price horizon and availability for wood, electric, fuel oil, propane, and natural gas. If that were easy, our nation wouldn’t be at the energy crossroads it is.

At current prices, a hybrid system will heat the average home for 10 hours for $11.27, about a dollar less than natural gas at $12.23. Fuel oil is about 30 percent higher at $18.75, and propane more than double the cost of a hybrid system at $23.25. The most expensive option is electric heat, at $36.62.

While electric doesn’t initially conjure up the dirty images of oil and gas, it’s important to remember that more than 50 percent of American electricity is derived from coal. Coal burns dirty, requires immense environmental damage in the mining process, and while efficient for heating, so much energy is used just to transport the coal and electricity to the home that it’s total efficiency is much lower.

Wood-burning stoves and wood pellet systems are low-emission methods using renewable resources, but require much more maintenance. Such systems must be loaded with fuel regularly, cleaned, and can’t be left on unsupervised if the owner is leaving the home for several days. It also requires a space to store the wood.

If you have access to a cheap supply of wood this could be your best option, and if you’re planting trees to replace those you burn this method can be carbon neutral. Wood pellet burners are a cleaner version, using compressed wood pellets made from sawmill waste. These are among the cheapest and cleanest heaters.

Factoring price, ease of use, and environmental concern, Wiegand said a hybrid heat system combined with a natural gas (if available) or propane furnace is the way to go. That choice would shield you if fuel prices rise, while minimizing fossil fuel usage. Such a system would likely run about $5,000, if you already have a backup furnace for when the temperature dips lower.