With Oil running out, prices rising and the future bringing more of the same, one thing is clear: Maine homeowners and businesses want off of oil. What’s less clear are the alternatives. There is no one silver bullet that will install cheaply, run inexpensively and have zero environmental impact. Geo-thermal heat pumps are very expensive to install. Propane is more domestically produced, has marginally better environmental characteristics but is expensive to burn. Wood stoves use local and sustainable resources but require effort to maintain and may have a negative effect on air quality. People with Natural Gas on the street have a good alternative, but unfortunately not everyone has natural gas available to them.
Every day I go to people’s homes and try to come up with solutions to get them off oil and into more sustainable solutions for home heating. Over the years, we’ve found great solutions to get people completely or partially off of oil. The solutions fall into two categories: replace or supplement.
Replace or Supplement?
One of the first questions that I ask is if we should be replacing or supplementing. If you’ve got a relatively new oil boiler, you’ve already got a reliable back up system which is a huge blessing. You can now use it for what it does well, which is to augment other systems or use it for home heat backup. If your existing system is old, you’ll need to replace it at some point. In this case, it makes sense to spend money on a reliable new system that is energy efficient, will save money and is a better alternative to oil heat.
If you’ve got an oil boiler that’s less than 20 years old, consider keeping it on as a backup. The first thing you’ll want to do is get the hot water off of the oil boiler as that’s what oil boilers do worst of all. Because the oil boiler is always sucking heat up the chimney, when the boiler is running for hot water only, it’s running at an efficiency of between 20 and 40%. Heat pump water heaters are a highly efficient way to heat water and can slash 200 gallons yearly off of the oil bill for an operating cost of $15 a month.
Now that hot water is no longer coming from the oil boiler, we need to find a way to heat the space. We really want to figure out how to heat the whole space (not just part of it) because as soon as the boiler fires, you’re losing ½ to 1 gallon of oil up the chimney a day. Your goal as a homeowner is to keep the oil boiler off. In the world of supplemental heat, there are a number of options including air source heat pumps and quiet pellet stoves that can do just that.
Air Source Heat Pumps
Air Source Heat Pumps are just like Geo-thermal heat pumps but they take heat out of the air and not the ground. As a result, they are much less expensive to install and only marginally less efficient. Supplemental heat pumps work down to -13 degrees and create heat at an average efficiency of 270%. That means that for every unit of electricity you put into the heat pump to run the compressor, you get 2.7 units of heat out. Air source heat pumps are equivalent to buying oil at $1.80 a gallon.
Air source heat pumps cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to install, depending on the size of the house. They can mostly or completely eliminate your need for oil. Smaller houses, from 1200 to 2000 square feet with open floor plans are optimal for air source heat pumps. As a side benefit, the air source heat pump doesn’t need tending like a pellet stove and provides very efficient air conditioning as well.
Pellet stoves provide a great way to get off of oil in a cost effective way. Pellet heat is like heating with oil at $2.00 a gallon, so it’s very affordable. Pellets are locally produced and fully renewable. Plus, they create jobs in Maine in both the forest and the pellet mill industries. Pellet stoves come in a variety of sizes with various options. The less expensive stoves tend to be noisy and less efficient. Many home owners start with the lower cost models only to be disappointed and end up upgrading to a more expensive model that is quieter and more efficient.
Efficient pellet stoves can displace up to 600 gallons of oil. One key aspect of making the most of a pellet stove is moving the heat around the space. ReVision Heat has pioneered air moving equipment to allow a pellet stove to heat the entire space. When researching pellet stoves be sure to find out how efficient and quiet it is as well as how the heat will get moved around your space. ReVision Heat no longer offers pellet stoves.
How about wood stoves? They can be a good option for the right person. We often find that people with wood stoves don’t use them as diligently as they wish they would. As a result, they end up using a lot more oil than they intended. The beauty of a pellet stove is that for a small fuel premium you go from something that needs tending every 4 to 6 hours to every other day. Air quality is much improved with a pellet stove as we bring fresh air right to the stove keeping the moist air in the house. Because Pellet stoves are forced combustion (they’ve got a fan on them), they keep the smoke out of the house as well.
If you’ve got a boiler that’s pushing 20 years or older, you’ve got a system that may spring a leak at any moment, requires more annual maintenance, is older and less efficient technologically. It will need to be replaced before too long. Were you to install a new oil boiler, you’d be spending at least $8,000 for something that is marginally efficient and reliable. Chances are you’re going to be better served by putting that money toward a system that uses something other than oil.
In Maine, you’ve got two excellent options: air source heat pumps or automated pellet boilers. The one you choose has everything to do with the size of your home. Smaller houses are best served by air source heat pumps while larger homes fair better with automated pellet boilers.
Air Source Heat Pumps for full heating.
It’s harder to design an air source heat pump system for 100% heating than it is to design one for supplemental heating. The system needs to work even when the temperature dips down to -17 degrees, and it needs to heat all corners of the home. In order to get an air source heat pump to meet the demanding needs of 100% home heating, an energy audit is often required to dial in the heating load. Insulation upgrades are often necessary to bring the heating load down and comfort up. We now have air source heat pumps that work even when the outdoor temperature is -17 degrees and can displace about 600 gallons of oil a year. Unlike boilers, heat pumps don’t scale well. The bigger the heating load is, the more the system costs, so bigger houses with larger heating loads and more rooms are best served by a pellet boiler system.
Fully Automated Pellet Boilers
Fully Automated pellet boilers like Kedel do what oil boilers do, only with pellets instead of oil. Bulk pellets are blown into a hopper and pulled into the boiler as needed. Pellet boilers will use the same infrastructure the oil boiler used. They install for somewhere between $9,700 and $18,000, depending on the house and the difficulty of the installation. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but when you consider the fact that the average home in Maine uses 900 gallons of oil a year, the average home will save $1400 a year by switching to pellets. At today’s energy prices, the average home will pay for the price difference between of a new pellet boiler or a new oil boiler in about 4-6 years. With Oil prices going higher and higher, pellet boilers will look like an even better deal over time.
Which is the best alternative heating option for your home?
While there are no silver bullets when it comes to energy efficient yet affordable home heating solutions, there are great alternatives available. Your home’s current heating system, your financial resources, and your desire for oil independence will determine what the best solution is to meet your needs. We encourage you to take time to determine if supplementing or replacing is the best option for you. It’s important to look at all the factors including heating options available, long term payback of your system and future fuel costs before making a decision.
If you live in Maine, we offer a free telephone consultation to help you find the best heating solution for your home.