Did you know the average North American home has gaps, cracks and air leaks that add up to a hole the size of a 2’ diameter circle? That’s like having a medium size window left open all winter!
It begs the question: “Why bother getting a more efficient furnace, if you are just going to pump a lot of high-efficiency heat straight out a window?” The truth is, upgrading your insulation and air sealing are the first steps to getting rid of heating bills.
Before you replace a furnace, read the article, “How to Get Rid of Heating Bills with Insulation”, and then read on below to find out how you can reduce your bills even further by installing a better furnace.
1. Insulate well
The best furnace is no furnace at all. The German building code has adopted “Passiv Haus” standards, which make furnaces obsolete at the same latitude as Winnipeg, Canada, and we could do the same.
These German Passiv Haus standards are called “Net Zero” over here; meaning the house uses “net zero” energy. You might use some electricity to run your TV set, but you generate more than what you need off your rooftop solar array.
A properly insulated Net Zero house will lose about one degree of heat per day, even on the coldest days. A little heat is nice, but you could literally heat such a house with a toaster oven or a big shaggy dog.
2. Radiant heat
Many people in Net Zero homes use excess hot water generated by solar hot water panels on their roof to feed radiant floor heat to supply all the warmth they need. This way, their water heater system doubles as a furnace, which saves a lot of money. Sustainability often means more luxury at less cost, and radiant heat is a prime example of that.
Modern radiant heat is run at 98 degrees, so it doesn’t need all that cement bedding that it used to, and is an easy retrofit using PEX pipe. Just run the pipe up and down your floors in between the joists, and you won’t even notice the heat, you will just always feel warm and comfortable in your house.
3. Forced-air furnaces
Mid and low efficiency furnaces must be vented out through the roof, likely through an old chimney, by 5” metal pipe. High efficiency furnaces can be vented in small 2” ABS style plastic pipe. An older high efficiency furnace isn’t cost effective to replace until it dies, but the newer ones are quieter and smarter.
When you buy a new furnace, get a multi-stage unit, which will come on “low” when you only need a little touch-up heat, and only kick into high gear when you need it to. Modern furnaces learn how long it takes to warm your house up, and track their performance in changing weather conditions. They really are smart machines.
Multi stage units with variable speed fans are much quieter than older furnaces, and the air isn’t as dry as it is coming through old furnaces. Add an electrostatic air filter for about $900 and you won’t believe how dust free and clean your indoor air quality is.
4. “Geothermal” furnace technology
You’ve probably heard about “Geothermal” furnaces, and how much you can save with them. Unfortunately, the savings figures are usually calculated relative to oil heat in an un-insulated farmhouse, because Geothermal competes best when used in rural properties that need electrical heat, because they are off the gas grid.
Geothermal, just to be clear, does not tap into active volcanoes; it is more accurately called a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP). Ground source heat pumps use refrigerator compressor technology running backwards to “pump” heat from far beneath your house into your living room.
At $25,000 a unit, however, they are not cost-effective for residential heating. If you live off the gas grid, spend your money on insulation and get a woodstove, which you’ll only need to run once a week for a few hours.
5. Kachelöffen: the supreme woodstove
In the 1700’s the king of Germany became concerned that the Black Forest was becoming the Black Wasteland of Stumps, and set up a national competition to invent a better wood stove. Funny how those Germans keep cropping up in heating bill discussions! Anyways, the winner was the “kachelöfen”. 300 years later, it is still the most beautiful and effective wood stove on the planet.
If a true kachelöfen is out of your price range, any modern airtight wood stove will cost you less than half what a forced air furnace will, last much longer, and give you cosy winter fireside moments and the chance to “play with matches” any time you like.
“No kids: daddy lights the fires in this house! That’s what Smokey the Bear says...”
6. Thermostats and good old sweaters
Perhaps the simplest way to get rid of heating bills is with sweaters and thermostats. If you insulate, your house will be way more comfortable, so you can turn the heat down and actually feel warmer. To do this, you need to beat the drafts, and the “cold wall effect”, where windows and cold walls literally suck heat from your body when you are near them.
One great thing about programmable thermostats is they can warm up the house for you, before you get out of bed. Then, when you leave for work, they’ll ease off and save you significant money. Coming home? Your thermostat will make sure the house is cozy when you walk in the door, and that you don’t forget to turn the heat down before you drop off to sleep.
7. The best furnace
The best furnace is still no furnace, because the big savings are going to come from the insulation. The efficiency of all your options are in the 90% range, so “how to get rid of heating bills with a better furnace” is a win-win question. The choice really comes down to a sliding combination of budget and personal preference.
Radiant hot water heat is the simplest to use, and most comfortable. Forced air is tried and true and may be the quickest to install. Kachelöfens and woodstoves are bombproof, durable solutions that you can feed with branches that fall off the trees in your back yard.
Whichever way you go, you’ll know that chopping your heating bill in half or more will significantly reduce your carbon footprint, and help us all leave a better planet for our children.
Those kids will appreciate that someday, even if we didn’t let them play with the matches.