Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cost-Effective House Heating

The house was built in 1970. It appears to be fairly-well insulated. But still, it needs heating.

As originally-built,  most of the rooms were equipped with electric radiant ceiling heaters. Some of those work, and some don't. The ones in the bedrooms work, but the one over the main living area (dining room and living room) no longer functions. Repair is, I have been told, impossible. These heat sources spin the electric meter and only provide heating in the rooms where they are installed and work.

Many of the rooms have small Cadet wall heaters. When we bought the house they were inspected and are up to code. Earlier models were recalled, I am told, due to being fire hazards. The electrician (Alex Johnston) who did the wiring upgrades for my downstairs shop, and the electrician (Shannon, of Tomco) whom we hired to take care of some aluminum wiring issues, are both of the opinion that these wall heaters were retro-fitted into the house and are not part of the original construction. There is a wall heater in the living room, and one in the kitchen, and a few in the various downstairs rooms. These also are electric meter spinners. Noisy, too. 

Finally, there are two fireplaces: one upstairs and one downstairs. I'm no fan of fireplaces as a source of heat: they're inefficient (about 90% of the heat released through combustion goes up the chimney); the hot gases blowing up through the chimney create a partial vacuum in the house so cold air is pulled in through cracks and crevices, chilling the interior air; and after the fire has died in the middle of the night, cold air comes dumping down the chimney throat; and finally, they only provide radiant heating. If you're not sitting someplace where the fire's heat can illuminate you, you're not going to benefit very much from it. 

The previous owners upgraded the downstairs fireplace by installing a Lopi "Freedom" fireplace insert. These do a somewhat better job of heating than a plain fireplace. The fire heats the metal box both through radiant transfer and by passing the hot combustion products through baffles which transfer some of heat to the metal bits. The hot metal bits then heat the surrounding air through conduction, and heat items in the room through radiance. However, they still blow hot gases up the chimney, which draws cold air into the house unless they are provided with a separate air intake, which this installation doesn't have. 

The efficiency of an insert can be increased by adding a blower which sucks in room air, forces it around the hot metal box, and sends it out into the room. I bought one for this insert and mounted it last week. Seemed like an inexpensive way to get more heat per unit wood. 

Okay then. So the living room area has (1) a fireplace, (2) an electric wall heater, and (3) warm air from the downstairs fireplace insert which rises through the stairwell. Since this is where we'll be spending most of our free time, we'd like an efficient way to heat it. 

For several nights I experimented using a fire in the upstairs fireplaces versus no fire. Frankly, the room was warmer with no fire and the damper closed. The past couple days have been colder, so I've been seeing how warm the downstairs insert keeps the upstairs. The results suggest that while it does an exceptionally good job of heating the downstairs (which contains Mrs Elliott's offices and the shop for my business), it not so effective at heating the upstairs. 

The room with the insert is directly below the living room, and the previous owner put a small vent in the ceiling of the lower room so that heated air can rise into the upper room. Not much comes up that way, but I'll be rigging up a couple of computer-type muffin fans to increase the upward flow--we'll see how that works. 

So anyway. The house seems to be fairly well insulated. When I went to bed last night I put a couple good-sized pieces of wood into the downstairs insert, and choked the air inlet to "overnight" position for a slow burn. This morning the fire was out, the wood consumed (there is no hardwood around here for burning, only soft woods). With an outside temperature of 28 degrees F, the living room was an acceptable 63F, a 35F difference. But when it's, like, 1F outside, it could be 36F inside. 

That's pretty chilly.

So I'm exploring other options for heating the living room/dining room/kitchen area. 

We visited Bend Fireside to inquire about wood or gas inserts* for the upstairs, and while they have some lovely models, we're not talking low low prices: $3,500 to $4,000 for the insert and installation were the estimates. That said, I inquired about the price of an ash bucket, a simple metal can with a fitted lid, both painted black, and a handle for carrying. $80. Online the same exact bucket is $40 (+ shipping). Bend Fireside might not be the most cost-effective place to do my insert shopping. [Update: The same ash bucket is $20 at Home Depot. I'm all for buying local, but not if it means paying four times the price . . . .]

Less-expensive might be to install a free-standing vented wood or gas furnace in the living room and let the fireplace be merely decorative. But still, the cost to run the electric heater as needed for a few months might easily be a lot less than what it would cost for a new wood or gas stove upstairs, even if factored over several years. 

I need more information about our wall heater's power consumption and cost of electricity here before I can run the numbers. [Update: The plate on the appliance states that it consumes 2000 watts. Or 2 kilowatt-hours per hour of operation.  How much does it cost for a kwh? According to my August Pacific Power bill, the basic charge for a kwh is $0.036, add $0.002 per kwh for Oregon tax, then assuming that the power for the heater comes from the 2nd Block of Supply Energy, which adds $0.041/kwh, the grand total is about $0.08, or eight cents per kwh. Is that right? Well assuming that it is, and if we run the living room wall heater for, say, 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 months, it comes to about $1,000 for power.]

In the meantime, I have purchased six cords (real cords, 4' x 4' x 8') of seasoned and split lodgepole pine. It seems prudent to get more than less when how much wood this house will consume is an unknown. 

The last thing I want is a cold and unhappy Mrs Elliott. 

As they say: "Happy wife, happy life."

* The house has natural gas in the kitchen, and the electricians told me that there's a gas line up in the crawlspace, already stubbed off for future connections. 


  1. If you're only using 1 or 2 rooms at night in your house, maybe you can try localized heating instead of whole-house heating?

    For example, a little $12 heater fan next to your easy chair at night?

    The downside is freezing yourself on a trip to the bathroom or during a snack break, but then, that's why Jimmy Carter said "put on a sweater".

  2. @ Jeff: Thanks for the tip! I recall Pres. Carter suggesting we lower our thermostats to 68 and wear sweaters. Localized heating is a great idea, in fact I've ordered a handsome electrically-heated throw for Mrs Elliott. 30 Watts to heat one woman is a lot less expensive than lotz of wattz (or btus) to heat a house.


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