A Journey in Home Heating and Cooling Solutions
If you live in New England, you know full well how expensive heating your home is every winter. Lately, summer has become a problem too, with warmer and more humid days and nights. So if you gave in and started using air conditioning a lot, summer became the other expensive time of year.
But what if I told you there is a great environmentally-sound, cost-effective and convenient solution to both problems? Enter the heat pump, also known as the ductless mini-split system. I will tell you all about that in a minute, but first a little bit about my journey to cost-effective heating and cooling.
Sixteen years ago I bought a fixer-upper, four bedroom colonial built in 1968. It had an oil boiler with baseboard radiators for heating and a whole house fan to help cool it in the summer. Back in 1968, the price of a gallon of heating oil was 20 cents. They did not build houses with the idea that energy was expensive back then. The windows were single-pane and drafty. The attic had almost no insulation. The whole house fan was like a chimney that allowed heat to waft up through the louvres and out through the attic.
The first winter in my old house was a shocker. Oil was $1.46 a gallon and I used just under 1,125 gallons for the year for a whopping annual bill of $1,643. The next year I had found weatherization and home insulation religion. For $500 worth of blanket insulation covering the entire attic, I saw my heating use go down to $1,367 and it was a colder winter – 600 heating degree days more than the year prior. I only used 964 gallons! That was immediate payback on my investment.
But what would my next act be on the energy savings front? Oil wasn’t getting cheaper and now I was worried about global warming too. Over successive years I replaced windows, had a home energy audit, replaced my original oil boiler with a newer more efficient one, put in a wood-burning fireplace insert, and joined the heating oil purchasing co-op. All the while, I measured my oil consumption diligently. The price of oil kept going up as my consumption steadily declined. I was on a cost treadmill. My efficiency was as good as I could get it. I went from consuming .22 gallons of oil per degree day to .09 gallons per degree day. My lowest consumption year went from 1125 to only 564 gallons for a year! That was a good thing because that was the year oil was averaging $3.63 a gallon and so my expense had gone up to $1,841 dollars, even with all those investments in heating efficiency. Ouch. Oil heating is a racket, and I hate to be a part of it.
Well, summers were no fun either. I first put in ceiling fans in the bedrooms. It helped but not with heavy humidity. Besides, that insulation is good in the winter but now trapped the heat in the house in the summer. Then we bought window air conditioners. There were four in the house, and they were a relief. But what a pain moving them from the basement, installing them, then taking them out every fall and lugging them back to the basement. They were noisy even though they were newer Energy-Star models.
Eventually, I became aware of ductless mini-splits. Whisper-quiet indoor units are mounted on the wall up near the ceiling, with the compressor and fan outside so I could get a cool and quiet night of sleep. What a godsend. I tell my wife that this was the best investment we ever made in our house - no ductwork needed and my back doesn't miss moving window units.
For about five years, I lived in quiet and energy-efficient comfort every summer. And then it finally dawned on me. I didn’t just purchase an air conditioning system, I bought a heat pump system that air conditions and could also heat during the winter. The problem was, I always thought heating with electric heat was inefficient and expensive, so I failed to try it.
Recently I read an article that home heating is one of the big causes of climate change. The oil and natural gas we burn to heat our homes account for a very large percentage of our carbon footprint (along with transportation and home electric use). The article suggested heat pumps that are using electricity from renewable sources is the wave of the future for both home cooling and heating. I had to try it for heating, and I wasn’t waiting for the grid to get greener in Connecticut. The less oil I used the better.
I began using my heat pump in the cooler seasons first – October to Thanksgiving and then in Spring too. The cost of my electricity was comparable to the cost of my oil. Then I changed the game. What if I could heat my house with free and green electricity? I installed solar on my roof and sized the system to cover all my electricity including my heat pump for heating and cooling and enough extra to charge my plug-in hybrid electric car.
As I enter spring of 2019, I am moving to a place where my oil heating system is an emergency backup. This past winter I used oil to heat the entire house every morning and then ran the heat pump the rest of the day. Even on the coldest days, it keeps my 2200 square foot home very comfortable. I will run my heat pump for the full next year and see if I can turn off my oil forever. I estimate between the savings on electricity and heating oil and including the gasoline my electric car saves, my solar system and heat pump will pay for itself in less than 8 years.
While every home is different, I believe many can take advantage of these ideas for comfortable, cost-effective heating and cooling that uses renewable energy and dramatically cuts your carbon footprint. A journey to a leaner, greener energy-saving future begins with learning more to see if heat pumps are right for you. Join the revolution!
Stephen Lewis is a Sierra Club member.