Guide to Greener Heating: Your Best and Cheapest Home Heating Options

Cleaner, greener home heating options are abundant, but they’re not all equal. Compare the pros and cons before you decide which should heat your home.

| December 2012/January 2013

Energy Efficiency

MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Gary Reysa's Montana home has a shed (right) that collects and transfers heat to the house (left) through underground water pipes. The garage (middle) is heated by solar hot air collectors.  

Photo By Gary Reysa

Heating our homes and businesses is expensive, and doing so is getting more costly each year. As costs rise and climate change complications increase, more and more of us are searching for cleaner, greener and more affordable home heating options. Fortunately, there are many. Choose carefully, however, as not all options are equal. Some greener home heating options rely on nonrenewable fuels, such as natural gas. Moreover, some are ideally suited for new construction while others work best for retrofitting existing buildings.

Efficiency First

Before you start shopping for a home heating system, remember that significant gains in comfort and energy savings can be achieved quickly and inexpensively by making your home or business more energy-efficient. Doing so requires a series of relatively simple steps — most important, sealing leaks in the walls, ceilings and floors, and around doors and windows.

To get started, you can hire a professional energy auditor, who will give your home a complete energy physical examination. A home energy audit can also help you determine the exact costs and savings of upgrading your heating system to one of the available options described here. The cost of an energy audit will vary depending on where you live, but it can be $500 or more. (If that’s too expensive, you can do a free online energy survey or a DIY audit — for more information read Home Energy Audits: Measure Your Energy Costs and Add Up the Savings!. 

One of the most valuable tests an energy auditor will perform is a blower door test, which determines how leaky your house is. The test will also help you identify where leaks are located so they can be sealed with caulk, liquid spray foam or weatherstripping, depending on their location.

After the building has been sealed up, it’s time to pile on the insulation. Significant energy savings call for generous amounts of insulation that exceed current code requirements. Like caulk and weatherstripping, insulation not only reduces energy bills in winter, it also reduces heat gain in the cooling season, helping you slash your fuel bills while keeping you and your family comfortable.

You can easily add insulation to most attics and under floors lying over unconditioned (not heated or cooled) spaces, such as crawl spaces. You can also easily add insulation to uninsulated walls. Beefing up existing wall insulation is more demanding than adding insulation to an attic, but it can be done. Consult an insulation expert to find out your choices. Also consider installing insulated window shades and using them diligently to stay warm in winter.

11/6/2015 8:27:08 AM

As mentioned above, the very first thing homeowners should do is increase their insulation in attic spaces. My house was built in 1997. The insulation codes have changed since then to require much deeper insulation. I hired a contractor to increase the insulation in the attic to meet the new code at least. The difference in year-round temperatures inside are notable. The house rarely becomes too hot in the summer (stays roughly at 65-70 degrees) and in the winter stays at 59-64 without any added heating. Therefore I use heating and cooling about 50-75% less of the time. A HUGE savings to say the least. The cost of the insulation work was about 3,000 dollars but so totally worth it.

2/26/2015 8:32:04 AM

Very Exciting! Thank you for the concise guide. We're replacing the boiler after Hurricane Irene and are considering better ways to heat our home. New York also offers On Bill Recovery to help spread out costs of new more efficient heat and solar power. This brings systems into reach that used to have too many up front costs.

6/11/2014 10:54:09 AM

Having an efficient heating system in your home is so important and overlooked by so many people. They think that prices for things such as and solar panels are expensive, but in the long run they are paying huge amounts more on their annual heating expenses!

1/9/2014 5:02:53 PM

"Air-source heat pumps draw heat out of the atmosphere (even on cold days),..." Well there is a lower limit to the (even on cold days). Heat pumps start to loose their ability to draw heat from the outside air effectively at around 30deg. Most do come with an electric heat supplement, or are dual fuel, usually gas for colder weather for more efficiency and lower cost.

1/9/2014 4:55:04 PM

The statement that modern wood stoves burn the wood more efficiently is both the truth & a lie. True the stoves burn the smaller particles and burnable liquids BUT the flue gasses are much hotter so if the manufacturer or the homeowner don't do something to transfer that heat into the building it is all lost. I use a device installed in the chimney above the stove to recover some of that otherwise wasted heat.

1/12/2013 10:25:03 AM

We built in 2009. We put three sliding glass doors facing south. It is based on the salt box shape so we have vaulted ceilings and another row of windows facing south. We mainly heat with the wood we cut on our property. When the temps reach forty and the sun is out we have to open windows because it gets plenty warm in here. We also opted for propane appliances where we could. We have a supplemental wall furnace, the stove, the dryer, and on demand hot water. Our propane bill for last year was $132. Our electric bill is no higher than $100 during the hottest months and averages around $70 the rest of the year. We are very proud that we built our home so efficient.

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