Heating Your Home

It should come as no surprise to anyone that a good heating plant is a mandatory part of most habitable structures. What is less well understood is the fact that such a heating system is important not only for the home's inhabitants, but for the structure itself. A good heating system helps reduce the moisture that enters our homes and accumulates as a result of day-to-day living activity.

A home's heating system must also be looked at as a source or potential solution to indoor and outdoor air quality. On the one hand, it is a potential source for toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, and a contributor to outdoor air pollution. However, with good equipment and proper maintenance, it can filter and clean indoor air while minimizing the impact on the environment.


  • No Magic! Just a bunch of incremental steps.

    Here are some tips to improve your heating system and reduce your heating costs. Some of these tips may also help reduce your "carbon foot-print", the amount of fossil fuel you use and the amount of Carbon Dioxide you add to the atmosphere.

    Just a bunch of small steps that can add up to some significant savings.

    Our ongoing energy crises comes with a silver lining. We have learned a lot from the past and need not make all the same mistakes again. We can also benefit from some newer and proven technologies that were not previously available. Here is a partial list of what works and what should be avoided.

    • Installing and using setback thermostats that allow you automatically increase and decrease the temperature setting during various times of the day and week. The cost is about $100. The return on the investment is under one year.
    • Installing and Using Zone Heat that allows you to have the warmth you want in the area that you are using at any one time. This allows you to heat the entire house to a safe level (say 55F) and the "zone" your are using at any one time to a higher and more comfortable level.

    Some examples of zone heating systems are:

    • Electric wall heaters with individual thermostats.
    • Gas fireplaces and stoves.
    • Hyronic (hot water) heating systems with multiple zones and multiple thermostats.
    • Portable Heaters - but be very careful with these, the unsafe use of portable heaters is an all to frequent cause of injury and fires.

    Zone heat it a great way to get the desired heat to the areas you use the most.

    • Adding insulation to accessible and poorly insulated attics.
    • Using compact florescent light bulbs that fit into existing light fixtures and use less electricity. The cost is $5+ per bulb and they now come in many shapes and sizes. The bulb lasts much longer than regular light bulbs and the payback is in: energy savings, total light bulb purchase prices and less frequent need to replace the bulbs. Such bulbs are particularly helpful where the lights are left on for a long time and/or the bulbs are difficult to replace.

      Getting used to florescent bulbs

      When I first put one of these bulbs into my walk in closet I thought that my eyesight had deteriorated again but after a few seconds I had plenty of light (which is not to say that I did any better in matching socks etc.) - George

    • Scheduling regular heating/cooling system service insures for the safe and efficient operation of the system. This is particularly important with: heat pumps, gas and oil furnaces. It is also very important to clean and service forced air system ducts.
    • When replacing appliances compare the energy usage of the new appliances and investigate utility rebate programs for energy efficient models.
    • Keeping the fireplace damper closed whenever the fireplace is not in use and close the damper again 12 hours after the fire is out.
    • Turning down the temperature setting of you water heater to bellow 130F and turning the temperature setting on your gas water heater to the lowest setting during an absence of 3+ days.
    • Using passive solar techniques to help with summer cooling.
    • Wearing sweaters and warm socks!

  • In most areas, today's codes require the construction of energy efficient homes. Such codes have made new homes much more efficient than those built to previous standards. These requirements for tight construction and insulation necessitate interior moisture control systems and ventilation. In addition to building a home to these new standards, energy savings are possible by:

    • Building or buying a smaller houses! A smaller interior air volume requires less heating and/or less cooling than a larger interior air volume - no matter how much insulation or what type of other systems are used.
    • When purchasing land, considering various factors that will impact the energy budget of the house. For example: the availability of natural gas service, solar orientation, summer shading and wind patterns. Also consider the relative cost of travel to work, school and play.
    • Using passive solar principles in the design of the house to help heat and cool the structure. Such design principles will most likely not eliminate the need for other heating and/or cooling systems but they can make a very large and positive difference in the energy needs of the structure.
    • Purchasing energy efficient appliances.
    • Installing and using setback thermostats that allow you automatically increase and decrease the temperature setting during various times of the day and week. The cost is about $100. The return on the investment is under one year.

    Things to Avoid:

    • Miracle products that are usually accompanied by high pressure sales techniques.
    • Installing new windows or siding products for the purpose of reducing heating or cooling costs. There are many good reasons to buy install new windows and siding, saving money on heating and/or cooling bills is not one of them.
    • Other expensive insulation retrofits such as blown-in sidewall insulation. Such insulation is relatively expensive in relation to the potential energy savings.

  • The most common heating system in most new construction and much of the existing housing stock is natural gas heat. This is usually in the form of a forced air furnace with a duct system which distributes heat throughout the house. The use of natural gas for heating purposes appears to be one of the more economic ways to heat a house. With proper equipment and maintenance, such a heating system can be efficient and effective, as well as, a clean and trouble-free component of the home.

    The modern gas furnace is a complex piece of equipment with built-in systems to enhance the safety of operation, reduce the likelihood of dangerous conditions and increase the efficiency of operation. It is a system which requires expert installation and maintenance, and one which does not lend itself to homeowner tinkering. Homeowners are encouraged to have all types of gas furnaces serviced every year by a professional gas furnace maintenance company. Such maintenance must include: a check for any small gas leaks, a careful examination of the heat exchanger, a review of the adequacy of an outside air supply, and an examination of the various complex components of the furnace itself. In addition, the furnace and home should be tested for carbon monoxide.

    When a gas furnace is installed using an unlined masonry chimney, a common practice in many older homes, the masonry chimney should be lined with a metal liner. This prevents chimney failure, and potential exposure to combustion gases such as carbon monoxide.

    Some "high efficiency" gas furnaces don't require a roof mounted chimney. Such furnaces cost more than the medium efficiency units and require a bit more maintenance. By eliminating the need for the old masonry chimney, they can simplify and enhance some remodeling projects.

  • In the last few years a new system has been introduced that uses a modified gas hot water heater to heat the potable water and heat the air in the house. In these systems, hot water from the tank is circulated through radiators in the individuals rooms or in a duct system.

    These systems are being used in smaller units such as smaller townhouses and those that are well insulated and thus require less heating capacity. The advantage of these systems appears to be primarily in their lower up front cost.

    How satisfactory are these systems? I don't know. My guess is that they will work well in moderate climates and small families. I am less sure about the adequacy of these systems during very cold periods or in homes that use a lot of hot water.

    Imagine the following scenario: During a cold snap, a family of 4 takes four long showers during a 2 hour period. At the same time, a washing machine is also used. Under normal circumstances such hot water usage would tax the capacity of a 50 gallon gas water heater - pity the poor person who takes the last shower. In this case, the lack of hot water would also delay the heating of the house. It might take 45 minutes to heat enough hot water to heat the interior of the house.

    One nice feature that I have seen in some homes with such heating systems is the use of a gas fireplace/area furnace as the primary or auxiliary heating source in the living room. Ideally such a gas fireplace would be on a thermostat and be an adequate area heating source. If the living room is also on the main floor, then such a fireplace can provide some heat to other portions of the house through natural convection.

  • With the oil crisis in the 1970's, the reputation of oil heat declined and common wisdom suggests that oil heat is among the more expensive methods of heating a house. Such an assumption may or may not be true. The advisability of using oil heat depends on the particular conditions of the home, the availability of other fuels, such as propane or natural gas, and the cost of converting the existing oil heating system into a new fuel source. Modern oil furnaces with flame retention burners can be a safe, effective, and efficient alternative to other fuel sources. Annual professional maintenance, automatic oil fill-up service, and oil tank insurance is recommended for all homes with oil heat.

    One good reason to avoid oil heat is the use of underground oil storage tanks. All too many underground tanks and associated pipes leak and contaminate soil and ground water. Cleanup/mitigation can be very expensive! Above ground tanks maybe ugly, but they allow for much easier monitoring for leaks. Tank insurance that includes cleanup insurance is always a good idea. See the topic page on href="article/underground-oil-tanks">Underground Oil Tanks.

  • Very popular prior to the increase in energy costs, these systems are relatively inexpensive to install and maintain, but have a high operating cost. We often find electric forced air furnaces which have not been maintained for up to 10 years. In the process of removing the service panel, we discover that one of the electric coils or the fan belt has deteriorated, it requires replacement, and is likely to fail at the least opportune time during the upcoming heating season. Service for such furnaces is recommended every three to five years.

  • On a trip to Portugal I visited the very nice 2000 year old Roman excavation at Conimbriga (a short drive from the university town of Coimbra). The heating systems in the villas at this site were in the form of an elaborate set of tunnels under the floors. Small fires would be made in these tunnels, thereby heating the mosaic tile floors. Similar heating systems can be found in other very old structures in Asia and the North American Southwest.

    What an idea! Placing the heat in the lowest part of the room and allowing radiant heat to envelope the inhabitants of the structures! These ancient systems worked particularly well if you had a few slaves to keep the fires going...

    Floor Heating Sponsor - PexSupply.com

    No slaves are required for today's floor heating systems, nor is there a need for tunnels under the floor. The heat is distributed through a set of electrical wires or pipes filled with warm water.

    Modern floor heating systems take up very little space, and can be used in any type of construction. Unlike the old Roman systems they are not heavy, and don't require structural modifications to the home.

    Floor heating places the heat in the very best location, it provides for even heat distribution, it is very clean. There are no heat registers, radiators or other heating system components to see. The heating system is in the floor. The floor surface can be tile, stone (marble), wood, vinyl, almost anything you like. Some systems don't allow for use with thick carpet. Some floor heating systems are designed for general heating purposes; other systems can be used to heat areas with special heating requirements such as bathrooms (Zone Heating).

  • There are many types of electric heating systems that can be used to heat individual portions of the house, with each area controlled by its own thermostat. Among the most common of such heating systems are baseboard heaters, wall mounted radiant heaters, wall mounted fan assisted heaters, electric ceiling radiant heat, and for bathrooms; heat lamps and ceiling mounted resistance heaters. The advantage of such heating systems is primarily in their relatively low installation cost and the ability to control different heating needs in various portions of the home. This ability to control the temperature in different zones of the house also helps to make this form of electric resistance heat a bit more efficient than the central forced air electric heating system.

    The disadvantage of an electric zone heating is primarily its inability to help dry out air circulating within the home, and the danger that in the name of economy, a portion of the home will not be heated at all during the winter months with a resultant increase in mold, mildew, and overall building moisture. A complete discussion of this issue may be found in Moisture Problems with Electric Zone Heating Systems.

    Electric zone heaters typical require little, if any, maintenance on the short term, but usually will only last about 15-25 years at which point they will require rebuilding or replacement. Dirty heaters, heaters with missing control knobs, a damaged grill, or other defective portions of the housing, as well as, those which are loosely connected to the wall, should be repaired or replaced as required. Loose drapery, bedding, toys, or other materials should always be kept away from the heaters and a 12-15 inch separation maintained between the heater and all objects in the room.

    A common cosmetic problem with baseboard heaters is a dark staining in the wall immediately above the heater. This can be reduced or eliminated by putting a bead of caulk along the top edge of the baseboard heater where it connects to the wall. You should then secure the heater to the wall with additional screws or other fastening devices. Any additional caulk can then be wiped clean and the wall repainted.

  • Modern portable electric heaters are manufactured with a number of safety features which allow for safe operation. Such heaters are intended for the temporary need for additional heat and should not be used as a substitute for an installed heating system.

    All electric household heating appliances must be plugged into properly sized receptacles such as those found in new electrical systems. Connecting household heating appliances to tube and knob wiring, extension cords, or multiple plug devices is unsafe and a major cause of home fires. See the topic page on Electrical Systems.