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Innovative options can cut home heating costs

Friday, September 30, 2011
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With cold weather fast approaching and household budgets tight, many homeowners are looking for innovative ways to lower their heating costs.

While still sound, 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.

New heat pump systems by Lennox are now using solar panels to warm entire homes, with the unused energy routed to pay for additional utilities, according to Terry Bikowicz, vice president of Appolo Heating Inc. in Schenectady.

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.

Bikowicz explains 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.

"It's spinning the meter backwards in a sense, like a no harm, no foul type of thing," Bikowicz explained. "I put a system in for a gentleman about a year ago, and he hasn't had a utility bill since."

Jason Vandelay of Cobleskill had his system put in at the beginning of the year, complete with eight solar panels, and estimates his system will be paid for in three years. "It's fantastic," he said. "At first I wanted a new furnace and air conditioner installed, but then they talked me into switching over to this system with the heat pump."

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

"It was really a no-brainer for me with the money I would get back," said Vandelay, explaining how he 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, John Raucci of Adams Heating and Cooling in Schenectady recommends 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," he said. "They're able to keep comfort in mind more over a Plain Jane furnace."

Raucci also explained how 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.

He said 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 -- the same one Jason Vandelay received -- is available until 2016.

But some are reverting to older methods with a solid fuel source.

Bob Lilla of Adirondack Stoves on Nott Terrace in Schenectady said coal-fueled stoves, furnaces, and hot water heaters are selling fast and wood burning stoves are once again becoming popular.

"They're the hottest items we've got," he said, not meaning the temperature. "People are trying 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.

"People remember coal as a dirty, dusty product, but it's much healthier now," said Lilla. "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, Lilla said.

FIREPLACE INSERTS

Also available now are wood-burning stove inserts for fireplaces.

According to Lilla, 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.

"Some people are realizing they don't have to heat the entire house, just the rooms with the most activity, so this is a good option ."

Heating specialists agree not much has changed in insulating homes, but many believe foam insulation is best.

Mitch Foster, owner of Capital Foam Insulation in Ballston Spa, said the method is about 15 years old and became popular six to eight years ago. He thinks 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 for getting through the cracks," he said.

Foster explained that 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," he said. "Generally you'll be able to tell. If you have a lot of ice dams on your roof in the winter, you have problem with insulation in your attic."

Memo: Home energy savings

* Change furnace air filters once a year

* Make sure seal between the window and frame is tight so air is not getting in or out

* Check insulation between ceiling and attic to make sure cold air is not escaping

* Turn down the heat when people are not home or are sleeping, but not so low that water pipes freeze

* Turn the temperature down on your water heater

* Purchase electrical outlet and switch gaskets that are placed behind receptacle covers to prevent heat from getting out and cold air from getting in

SOURCES: Terry Bikowicz of Appolo Heating and John Raucci of Adams Heating and Cooling

 
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