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Outside woodburners deliver cheaper heat

With cold weather approaching and household budgets tight, homeowners are looking for ways to lower their heating costs.

The often-heard advice to make sure windows are completely sealed, change furnace air filters and turn down the heat when you’re not home isn’t always enough.

To cuts costs, some are looking to new technology, while others are reverting to older methods, but with 21st century twists.

Wood-burners are now highly engineered to consume every last ounce of energy from their fuel, and outside burners can be fed with huge logs, cutting cost and effort.

New heat pump systems are now using solar panels to warm entire homes, with the unused energy routed to pay for additional utilities.

Solar Panels

The system uses solar panels placed on the roof with individual transmitters that convert the solar power into AC energy. A heat pump is installed with a high-efficiency furnace to convert the energy to heat. This cuts down on fuel costs, but doesn’t completely eliminate them.

Note that the heat pump cannot work in freezing weather, so consumers must rely in part on oil or natural gas on winter days when temperatures are below 32 degrees. But the Energy Star furnace runs three times less than older models, saving heating costs, and the energy produced from the panels supplies power to the grid to help pay for the homeowner’s electricity. During winter months, electricity bills can be reduced by 90 percent..”

A system for a 2,400-square-foot home — which includes a high efficiency air conditioner — cost $14,000, but came with a $1,500 rebate from the supplier, a $500 rebate from National Grid and a nearly $6,000 tax credit from the U.S. Department of Energy. So the total net cost will be around $6,000.

“It was really a no-brainer for me with the money I would get back,” said one customer who now pays less than $100 a month in electricity and is hoping to only pay a $100 heating bill come December.

Furnace Upgrades

If the aesthetics of solar panels don’t sound appealing, you can try upgrading older furnaces to an Energy Star-qualified model with a variable speed motor and digital thermometer.

Variable speed motors essentially control the amount of heat blowing into your home and reduce gas and electricity usage required to operate the furnace.

The programmability of digital thermometers gives greater control of temperatures at certain times of the day, like when no one is home or when people are sleeping.

An Energy Star-qualified furnace with a variable speed motor costs between $3,500 and $4,500 with installation, depending on size. A $420 rebate is available through the federal government, as well as one from National Grid and an additional tax credit is available until 2016.

But some are reverting to older methods with a solid fuel source. Coal-fueled stoves, furnaces, and hot water heaters are selling fast and wood burning stoves are once again becoming popular as consumers try to get away from oil and natural gas and take heating into their own hands.

New coal stoves are now fed automatically with room for about three days worth of fuel. A computerized censor maintains a chosen temperature and the anthracite coal used is cleaner than the older, bituminous version.

These aren’t the old dirty stoves of the past. It doesn’t even leave soot in your hands when you touch it.

A new coal stove, depending on the size, can cost between $2,000 and $2,600, while a coal-fueled water heater can cost $4,500 to $10,000, with installation. If the customer doesn’t have a chimney, a hole must be put in the wall for ventilation pipes and an additional $600 is added to the cost because a power ventilation unit is needed.

It’s pricey, but reduces fuel costs in comparison with oil and natural gas by a minimum of 50 percent.

Fireplace Inserts

Also available now are wood-burning stove inserts for fireplaces. They’re small, quick to install and work with the chimney already in place while using a blower to push heat into the house. He’s already sold 30 since August, which he says is a lot for so early in the season. Each one costs about $2,000.

you don’t have to heat the entire house, just the rooms with the most activity.

Heating specialists agree not much has changed in insulating homes, but many believe foam insulation is best. The method is about 15 years old and became popular six to eight years ago. Some think it’s the best insulation choice on the market.

It’s sprayed on as a liquid for a more even coat and expands with air when it dries to prevent wind getting through the cracks.

The foaming product expands 30 to 40 times larger than regular fiberglass insulation and is guaranteed for the life of the home because it’s three times stronger. Energy savings are also expected to be 30 to 50 times greater.

Fiberglass insulation shouldn’t have to be replaced but it does happen over time with wind going through it, or it could get dirty, or patted down, so it’s not going to be as effective.

Cost of wood

Wood is a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but in an unexpected side-effect of the increasing interest in wood-burners, demand for wood to heat homes and businesses and generate power is surging.

Forestry Commission Scotland says that the use of oven-dried wood fuel, such as chips and pellets, rose 118,000 tonnes (23%) last year to 618,000 tonnes in the UK.

Usage this year is expected to top 800,000 tonnes. Sales in excess of 1million tonnes are expected in 2012.

In recent months, the UK Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive has been stimulating domestic and commercial sales of the more expensive boilers that can burn wood and other forms of biomass, such as straw.

But one pioneer of wood pellets said yesterday that, while demand was rising, he had not seen the sixfold increase trumpeted by the commission.

Keith Arbuthnott, of Kincardineshire-based Arbuthnott Wood Pellets, said: “There are more people coming off the fence and switching.”

Scottish Environment and Climate Change Minister Stewart Stevenson said wood fuel and other types of biomass had an important role to play in developing a long-term renewable energy supply for Scotland.

He added: “While the Scottish Government is keen to ensure that appropriate support is provided to help further biomass development and that the full potential of biomass is realised, it is vital that, in the face of the increasing demand for wood fuel and the growing competition for supply, everyone plays their part to ensure that the most efficient and beneficial use is made of this finite resource.”

Oliver Middlemiss, of land agent Savills, at Perth, said woodland owners were also expecting strong demand for firewood this winter from those with fires and wood-burning stoves at home.

He said surging utility prices lay behind that expectation, adding that the firm’s clients with firewood operations had been stockpiling wood through the summer.

Mr Middlemiss added: “Base demand is increasing year on year as more people turn away from the utility companies and install wood burners in their homes.

“However, another extremely cold winter will push demand to new levels. It will be interesting to see if supply can keep up.”


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