Winter is a long, harsh season. It can be especially harsh on our heating bills and the environment as we burn coal, fossil fuels, and natural gas through the long dark nights to keep warm.
In addition to contributing to global warming, heatings costs are expensive. The average American household spends over $3,000 every year on heating and cooling expenses.
For these reasons, many people are investigating alternative heating options to cut down on costs and minimize their carbon footprints. In addition to cutting down on heating bills, there may be tax incentives you can take advantage of to help offset the initial cost of purchasing and installing your new heating system.
Without further ado, here’s a list of the hottest sustainable heating options on the market so you can decide which one is best for you and your home.
No longer just a quaint holdover from the Little House on the Prairie, wood stoves are making a big comeback. While some forms of old technology rightfully fade into the history books, others unexpectedly resurface when they fulfill a modern need. This is absolutely the case for the wood stove: it’s simple, sturdy, and less messy than heating systems that rely on fossil fuels.
So, what exactly is a wood stove? Typically, it’s a small, freestanding stove that heats your home by burning cordwood. Unlike a furnace, wood stoves don’t require electricity, so they are more environmentally friendly in that respect. Wood stoves can make a great alternative to traditional furnaces.
Is a wood stove right for your home? That depends. There are a few things to keep in mind. The first is the size of your home. Wood stoves produce radiant heat, meaning it will always be warmest near the stove itself. Heat will spread out through your home, but you won’t get an even distribution like a traditional forced-air system. If your home is very large or spread out, you’ll have to be comfortable with some rooms being a little warmer than others.
One challenge of using a wood stove is that heat output can be inconsistent and unpredictable. This is largely due to the fact that the raw wood used to fuel the stove varies greatly. Wood doesn’t go through a refinement process like oil or gas; instead, it comes with natural variations in density and moisture which affect how hot it burns.
The environmental benefit of wood burning is also questionable. Burning wood releases hundreds of gasses including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter into the atmosphere. These byproducts can have negative effects on the environment and your health. For these reasons, some cities have restrictions or outright bans on wood burning stoves. If you’re interested in installing one, check your local building codes first to make sure you’re legally allowed to have one in your home.
If you’re on the market for something that burns cleaner than a wood stove, you might be interested in a pellet stove or masonry heater. We’ll take a look at both in this post.
Pellet stoves look just like a little black wood burning stove except instead of using raw wood as fuel, they burn energy-efficient pellets. While they look vintage and antiquated, their technology is ultra-modern and they operate much like a contemporary furnace.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “what the heck is a pellet?” Great question! Pellets are basically ultra energy-efficient fuel capsules made from waste materials like compacted sawdust, switchgrass, or corn stalks. Since the key ingredients are made from byproducts, you can rest assured that no additional trees are harmed in the making of your fuel pellets.
Pellet fuel is pretty affordable, which is great for homeowners looking to cut down on utility bills. You can purchase pellets in 40-lb bags for around $4 each. According to experienced pellet stove owners, you can expect to burn through roughly two tons of pellet fuel each year.
Pellet stoves come in two designs: free-standing and fireplace insert. Like the name implies, a fireplace insert can be easily slotted into your home’s existing fireplace. How convenient is that?
The pellet stove itself can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. If you opt for the free standing stove instead of the insert, you’ll also need to budget in the cost of having it installed since it will involve running a vent pipe through an exterior wall of your home. While the upfront sticker cost can be a little pricey, your new stove will save you a lot of money in the long-term.
Safety is always a key concern with combustion-based heating systems, or any system that relies on an open flame. We’ve all heard horror stories about space heaters catching fire, and understandably, we don’t want to put our beloved homes at risk! Pellet stoves come equipped with cutting-edge safety features like automatic shutdowns, sensors, and pressure switches that kick in and shut down the stove if anything goes amiss.
Harnessing the power of the sun is the most energy-efficient way to heat your home. While the sun has provided us with warmth since the dawn of civilization, recent technological advances mean we can now use it to keep our homes warm in a super efficient and surprisingly budget-friendly manner.
Solar systems work best in cold climates that receive a steady amount of sunlight throughout the year. The up-front cost can be a bit pricey, but over the long-run it’s cheaper than non-renewable sources of fuel like oil or propane. Plus, many municipalities offer tax credits or other benefits for switching to solar power which can help defray installation costs.
If you’re considering solar for your sustainable heating needs, you first need to know that there are two main systems of solar heating: liquid-based and air-based.
Liquid-based system: Panels filled with a liquid like water or antifreeze absorb heat from the sun and send it through a heat exchanger to be dispersed around your home. Some systems also include a storage tank where energy can be held for later use. Some solar owners even sell their excess energy back to power companies. To distribute the solar warmth, liquid systems can use forced-air, radiant floors, or hot water baseboards to provide a steady, consistent warmth throughout the structure.
Air-based system: Solar air collectors, made of a black metal plate surrounded by an airtight metal frame, absorb solar radiation and heat the air within the system. A fan or pump can then distribute the air throughout your home. They can be installed into south-facing walls or, for a more simple design, placed in an existing window. Unlike liquid-based systems, an air system can be built as a (albeit complex) DIY project for a couple hundred dollars.
Solar collectors run between $30-80 per square foot. It’s no secret that the upfront cost of a solar heating system can run high, but that’s just it: it’s all upfront! Unlike wood or pellet stoves that require a constant source of fuel to keep burning, sunlight is free and plentiful. As soon as your solar system is up and running, you don’t need to worry about monthly heating bills ever again.
You can even have them installed below your driveway so you don’t have to worry about ice. How cool is that?
If you like the radiant heat and nostalgia of a wood stove but aren’t completely sold on them, a masonry heater could be a great alternative for your home. Masonry heaters are a modern twist on a tried-and-true design that has been around since the neolithic period.
Masonry heaters burn cord wood but do so at a much slower rate than wood stoves, making them more fuel efficient and less wasteful. The heat generated from the slow-burning fire is trapped in a column of bricks which slowly release their heat over a longer period of time.
Ever notice that on a hot summer day, the pavement will stay warm even after the sun goes down? The same principle is at work here. The masonry works as a natural battery, storing the heat and releasing it after the fire has burned out.
In design, they look very similar to a traditional brick fireplace, but the science behind how they heat your home works differently. In a traditional fireplace, heat from the fire is transferred up the chimney and back out into the atmosphere. A masonry heater will instead capture that heat in the masonry stove and slowly transfer it into the house.
In terms of cost, a masonry heater will set you back anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 depending on how large your home is. The larger your home, the larger your heater will need to be to keep up with the optimum level of heat output. Since the installation is pretty serious, it’s recommend you call in the experts unless you have previous experience with masonry or bricklaying.
Once it’s set up and ready to go, the only ongoing cost will be for wood to burn. Unlike more high-tech heating options, masonry heaters require little to no maintenance or repairs since they’re essentially just a sturdy column of brick.
Geothermal means “earth heat,” and warms up your home by transferring heat directly from the earth. Unlike the ambient air temperature which can get frigidly cold during the winter, the ground below the earth’s surface remains a constant temperature. This consistency in temperature is what allows geothermal heating to be so sustainable and environmentally friendly.
To set up a geothermal system, pipes are buried 4-6 feet below the ground and connected to an indoor heat exchange unit. Together, the pipes and exchange unit form a loop which continuously circulates water warmed by the earth. Inside your home, an air delivery system distributes the warm air throughout your house.
At this point, it’s important to note that the system does require electricity, so depending on how strict you are about sustainability, that may be a deal breaker. However, keep in mind that the fuel source is completely renewable, so that helps to counterbalance the use of electricity.
Geothermal systems are also extremely energy efficient. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that geothermal units can cut household energy usage for heating and cooling up to 70%. Traditional furnaces are inefficient because they’re constantly drawing in cold air from the outside and fighting a nonstop uphill battle to keep it at the temperature your thermostat is set to. Since geothermal systems tap into the steady reservoir of warmth stored within the earth’s crust, they don’t need to expend additional energy to artificially warm up that air.
The benefits don’t end there. During hot weather months, the earth is cooler than the outside temperature, which helps keep your home cool. If your home becomes too hot, a geothermal system can even transfer heat back into the ground to keep the ambient temperature nice and comfortable.
In terms of cost, a geothermal system can range anywhere from $3,500-$12,000 depending on the size of your house. Although they’re a bit costly to install, they make up for that later on. They require minimal upkeep, the “fuel” is free, and the ground loops can last 50 years or longer. To put that into perspective, a traditional gas-powered furnace should be replaced every 15-20 years. Taking those factors into consideration, geothermal systems are a great long-term investment.
Fuel For Thought
We live in an exciting time. Thanks to recent technological innovations (and some contemporary twists on old technology), those of us looking for sustainable heating options have lots to choose from. However, the sheer amount of options on the market can make it a bit daunting to decide which one is best for you and your home.
We explored five of the most popular options as well as the pro’s and con’s of each. There is no right or wrong answer, it all depends on which one fits your budget and expectations.
Whichever option you ultimately choose, you’ll have the confidence knowing that you made a great decision for your home as well as the earth it was built on.