HOULTON, Maine — When it comes to staying warm in the winter, there are a number of ways to heat a home thanks to innovations in technology.
Homes that were once only heated with wood stoves or fireplaces now have a variety of affordable options, whether it is pellet stoves and furnaces, traditional oil furnace, propane and heat pumps.
Mark Bossie, service manager for Dead River Company in Houlton, said the price of heating oil often dictates just how intently people search for alternative heating options. When oil prices skyrocket, many people look to install heat pumps or other supplemental heating options to ease the impact on their wallet.
“We have seen a definite movement in recent years away from pellets and wood, which are the fuel sources that require constant work to maintain,” Bossie said. “Right now, oil and propane are very comparable in price, which have people shifting to those sources.”
Over the years, Bossie said he has seen a number of new trends rise in popularity, especially when the price of oil is high. However, when oil prices drop, many people revert back to using oil because of how simplistic it can be.
“With oil heat, you turn a thermostat and it starts working immediately,” Bossie said. “There is no work like there is with filling a pellet stove or stacking wood in the basement.”
Because of the volatility of crude oil prices, Bossie said Dead River Company has focused its marketing strategies on propane.
“At any given time, oil prices can spike,” he said. “To that end, we as a company have been focusing on propane as the fuel of the future. It’s clean, environmentally safe and efficient. Because it burns cleaner than oil, you can use higher efficiency heat exchangers.”
He explained that oil furnaces can only operate at about 84 percent efficiency because they must lose heat out of the chimney to avoid other problems in the home.
“Oil furnaces must lose about 350 degrees to the chimney,“ he said. “If you drop the temperature too low going into the chimney, you will cause the gas to condense. Oil has a lot of sulfur and when it condenses, it forms sulfuric acid which will eat the chimney.”
Propane furnaces can operate at as much as 95 percent efficiency because they burn cleaner, which means more of the heat generated remains in the home and less is lost out the chimney.
Electric heaters operate at 100 percent efficiency since there is no loss of heat to a chimney or vent. However, most of those heating units only provide heat when they are on, which can lead to wild fluctuations to temperatures in rooms throughout a home.
Also depending on where a person lives, electricity rates fluctuate dramatically. Houlton residents have the benefit of one of the lowest electricity rates in the state, according to Bossie, and therefore electric heaters can often provide exceptional cost savings.
Bossie said infrared quartz heaters which have become popular in recent years, are fine for heating one or two rooms in a home, but should not be counted on as anything other than a supplemental heat source.
“All electric heaters operate on the same principle,” he said. “It’s one kilowatt of electricity in and one kilowatt of heat out. There is nothing magical going on with these [quartz] heaters. There is nothing in them that will make it work any better than any other electric heater.”
Another issue one has to watch for when using these types of heaters is the lack of heat they provide in the basement, which can lead to frozen pipes.
Heat pumps are growing in popularity as a source of supplemental heat because they also double as air-conditioning units in the summertime and also operate at an extremely high efficiency — as much as 300 percent, according to Bossie. Heat pumps are designed to move thermal energy opposite to the direction of spontaneous heat flow by absorbing heat from a cold space and releasing it to a warmer one.
“Heat pumps are great for what we call ‘seasonal’ heat source for those months before winter has set in like October and November,” he said. “Once it starts getting really cold, the efficiency starts dropping.”
While many find savings by turning their thermostats back at night, or when they are away, Bossie said that practice can sometime backfire if a person turns the heat down too low.
“For every degree that you drop, there is a 1 percent savings,” he said. “If I had a house that I normally kept at 70 and at night turned it down to 60, in a 24-hour period, I will save 10 percent for that day.”
Turning the thermostat up and down, though is not without its drawbacks as it can cause problems with pipes freezing.
“When it gets really cold, I tell people to leave their thermostats alone,” Bossie said. “When it’s 20 below and the wind is whistling, you stand a really good chance of freezing things. When it’s really cold, don’t play with the thermostat because you may want that 10 degree cushion in case the furnace goes out or the power is off.”