When it comes to staying warm during the winter, most of us just stick with a standard furnace or heat pump. After all, there’s nothing wrong with following the rest of the crowd, and sometimes classics are classics for a reason. However, there are also plenty of alternative ways to keep your home nice and toasty all winter long, and it’s worth doing a little research to see if one of those methods is a better fit for you. Here are six popular ways to heat a house without using a gas furnace or heat pump:
The sun is an (effectively) unlimited source of energy, which makes it an efficient and green way to keep your house warm. Solar heating is still very much in its infancy, but the technology has already come a long way and will continue to improve in leaps and bounds. For now, it’s split into two different categories: passive solar heating and active solar heating.
Passive solar heating is currently the most popular way to heat your house with the sun. This method involves designing buildings that can make full use of the heat and energy from the sun’s rays during the day. You won’t be able to heat your home entirely with passive solar, but it makes for a great auxiliary method to support your HVAC system. Common passive solar techniques include making sure your windows face as close to true south as possible, fully insulating your house to keep the thermal pocket completely closed, using materials like brick and tile that absorb and retain heat from the sun throughout the day, and convection paths to distribute collected heat through the rest of the house. Passive solar techniques are best considered when you’re first building a new house so you can make sure you’re using the best possible materials, but you can also apply these techniques to an already-built house as well.
Active solar heating, on the other hand, involves connecting a solar energy collector to a standard heat distribution method like hydronic radiators. These collectors are very similar to the solar panels used for power, except they don’t convert solar radiation into electricity. Instead, they collect heat from the sun’s rays and transfer it into a working fluid like water or antifreeze. The working fluid holds the heat in a storage tank until it needs to be distributed.
Active solar heat can be distributed in a few different ways. One of the most common is radiant flooring. In a radiant floor system, the heated working fluid flows through small tubes embedded in a concrete slab floor, warming the room. The slab is usually covered in tile or something else to make it more comfortable to walk on. Heated working fluid can also be transferred into radiators or hydronic baseboard heaters to warm the room that way. Finally, you can install a heating coil in your ductwork to add active solar heating to your existing central air HVAC system. Working fluid flows through the coil in the ducts, and a blower fan forces air across the hot coil, transferring the heat into the air and distributing it through your house using the vents.
For now, active solar heating technology is still fairly rudimentary and inefficient, making it a less-than-ideal way to heat your entire house for the full year. However, active solar installations can easily cut your power bills significantly by lightening the load on your furnace or heat pump. In the next decade or two, expect to see an explosion in solar heating technology.
In the days before electricity, we kept our homes warm with central fuel-burning stoves that radiated heat through the entire house. Although modern HVAC systems are significantly more convenient and offer a higher level of control over the temperature, these stoves remain as effective as they’ve ever been and are still frequently used in rural areas.
Up until the early 20th century, most Americans heated their homes with regular wood-burning stoves, which required keeping a supply of logs on hand. Homeowners were quick to embrace fossil fuel furnaces when they were invented, but the oil crisis in the 1970s had people looking for alternatives. Enter the pellet stove, a more modern version of the old fire-burning stoves of years past. As the name suggests, pellet stoves use pellets as fuel, usually made from recycled wood waste. As the pellets burn, the heat is distributed to the house through a heat exchanger and blower fan.
Modern pellet stoves have a few advantages over old-school wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. Unlike wood stoves, which need to be fed manually, pellet stoves have hoppers that can be completely filled with pellets. A built-in thermostat measures the temperature of the room, and when the air gets a little too cold, an auger releases pellets into the stove’s burner. This means you can just set the thermostat and let the stove do its work – all you have to do is remember to keep it loaded with pellets.
While pellet stoves do need a small amount of electricity to run the thermostat, auger, and blower fan, they’re otherwise considered to be carbon neutral. The pellets themselves are generally made of recycled wood, and the stoves emit fewer pollutants than traditional fireplaces do. However, unlike a fireplace, a pellet stove won’t work without that little bit of electricity, which means you’re out of luck if the power goes out. Pellet stoves can also be fairly expensive, ranging between $1500 and $3000 to purchase with additional installation costs. You can also typically expect to pay between $25 and $35 a month on pellets, but the electricity costs are generally under $10 a month. Since the average American household spends about $840 a year on electricity for their heating systems, you could run a pellet stove for 12 straight months and still pay half of what you would for a winter’s worth of electric HVAC.
If you live in a colder area and you’re looking for a way to stay warm for cheap, a pellet stove is a pretty solid investment. They tend to work better in small spaces since they don’t use a central duct system to distribute warmth throughout the whole house, but they’re less expensive than most other forms of heating. The other downside is that it can take a little longer for them to warm up, so if you leave the stove off overnight it might be a little frosty in the morning.
Geothermal heating is a wildly unique way of staying warm but is still fairly niche. Also known as ground source heating, this method actually draws heat from the earth under your home and uses it to heat the air inside. Geothermal heating is more environmentally-friendly than most methods since it doesn’t require the system to create heat by burning fossil fuels. Instead, it just redistributes heat that’s already present under the ground. Essentially, these systems treat the Earth as one big heat source that can be drawn from as needed throughout the winter. It’s still fairly novel and recent so far as heating technology goes, but it’s becoming increasingly popular as the kinks are worked out.
The basis of geothermal heating technology is that, under the surface, the Earth stays at a fairly consistent temperature year-round. It’s warmer than the air during the winter, and colder than the air during the summer. This actually allows geothermal systems to cool your house down during the warmer months by treating it as a heat sink. During the winter, the system draws heat from the ground into your house, and during the summer it transfers right back down into the Earth.
The main component of any geothermal heating system is a series of pipes that run down under the surface of the Earth and back out, making a loop. The loop is typically buried near the house but not directly under it. Water or another working fluid flows through the loop over and over, going in and out of the ground. When the fluid enters the earth, it holds the temperature of the air outside. During the winter, the working fluid is colder than the temperature under the ground, so it absorbs heat as it flows through the lower part of the loop. When the fluid returns to the top of the loop, it’s warmer than it was before. During the summer, this process works in reverse.
The top of the loop is connected to a heat pump. During the winter, the pump draws out the excess heat from the working fluid, cooling it down before it goes back down under the surface of the Earth. That excess heat is then concentrated and transferred into the house much like any other central air system. During the summer, the process is reversed, with the pump drawing excess heat from the house and transferring it to the Earth through the working fluid.
During the winter, when the geothermal system is working as a heater, it’s capable of drawing much more heat than your house probably needs. For this reason, many geothermal heat pumps are also connected to the house’s hot water tank, allowing the Earth to be used as a giant boiler. This is extremely efficient, but can only be used during the winter. During the summer months, since the geothermal heat pump is transferring heat in the opposite direction, you’ll need to use a conventional boiler or hot water heater for your showers.
For a long time, heavy oil was the most common fuel source for furnaces in the US. Today, that position has been taken by natural gas, but oil furnaces are still an option. While they’re not as environmentally friendly or as cheap as natural gas, oil furnaces are efficient and reliable, which makes them popular choices for homeowners who live a little bit off the beaten path. Today’s oil-burning furnaces are much more efficient than the ones of days past, and they’re a great choice for anyone living outside any natural gas transportation infrastructure.
The main advantage that oil has over natural gas is its portability. While natural gas requires a certain amount of infrastructure to be moved from place to place, oil can be brought out to the country in trucks and kept in a containment unit in or outside your house. All you need then is a pipe running from the furnace to the containment unit and you’re all set for the winter. Oil also burns extremely hot, about 400 degrees hotter than natural gas, which means it can heat up the entire house very quickly. For this reason, oil remains a favorite in places like Alaska, where winter mornings can be pretty harsh.
If you live somewhere without natural gas infrastructure, you can always use electricity to heat your house by itself. However, that’s extremely inefficient, making it one of the more expensive ways to stay warm. Oil isn’t necessarily the cheapest option out there, but it’s a lot cheaper than electric heating, making it a great choice for anyone out in the sticks.
The biggest downside of oil furnaces is their effect on the environment. First things first – heating oil is a non-renewable resource. That means consistent use will continue to deplete the limited oil supply in the world, which can give more environmentally-conscious homeowners pause. It also creates a few byproducts that can damage the environment, mainly carbon dioxide, which is the largest contributor to climate change. Oil-burning furnaces also produce sulfur trioxide and sulfur dioxide, two chemicals that should be recognizable to anyone old enough to remember the acid rain fears of the 1970s. When released into the air, these chemicals affect the pH balance of water held in the clouds, creating acid rain.
Finally, heating oil is just plain expensive. While it’s still cheaper than a pure electric heating system, running an oil furnace costs about $1000 a year more than a comparable natural gas furnace. Oil prices are also more volatile than natural gas prices, so you can end up with a heating bill that’s significantly more expensive than you expected. If you live in a rural area and you don’t have access to natural gas, an oil furnace is an effective and relatively easy alternative that can keep you more than warm enough no matter how low the temperatures get. However, you might put some consideration into less expensive and environmentally-damaging options like a pellet stove.
Baseboard heaters are a great way to heat up a house that doesn’t have the ductwork necessary for a full central air system. They’re small, easy to install, and can fill the whole house with heat (albeit a little slowly). However, the heating power of baseboard heaters is much lower than a central air HVAC system, making them better suited for supplementary heating. Baseboard heaters are also sometimes used as primary heat sources in smaller living spaces like apartments or cabins.
Baseboard heaters come in two different styles: electric and hydronic. Electric baseboard heaters are what most people think of when you mention baseboards and have been around for quite some time. The heaters are wired directly into your electrical system so they don’t need a power outlet. As electricity flows into the device, it heats up a metal coil or series of fins inside the unit. The coils radiate heat out into the room, warming it up. It’s essentially the exact same way a toaster works, so make sure any children in your household know not to stick their hands inside. They’re very inexpensive, easy to install, and can last for quite some time even with the wear and tear they take from being on the floor. However, flowing electricity directly into the metal coils is one of the least efficient ways to create heat, so you’ll likely see some pretty high power bills.
Hydronic baseboard heaters came about as an attempt to create a more efficient alternative to electric baseboards. Hydronic baseboard units are connected to a boiler through a series of small pipes in the walls. The boiler heats up water or some other working fluid, which then flows through the pipes into the baseboard units. The heat then radiates out from the boiling water inside the units, warming the room. Because water holds heat for longer than the metal fins, hydronic baseboard heaters will keep the room warmer and don’t have to turn on as frequently. Water is also a significantly more efficient way to transfer heat, which means hydronic heaters are much more efficient.
The biggest downside to hydronic baseboard heaters is the cost of installation. Because you need to embed all those little pipes running back and forth from the boiler, the whole thing will cost you a lot more than regular electric heaters. However, you’ll get a lot of that money back in energy savings.
Radiant heating systems apply heat directly to panels in the walls, ceiling, and floor. The heat then radiates from those panels out into the room. Radiant heating systems are even more efficient than central air systems since they avoid the loss of airflow that comes from the ductwork. They’re also a lot better for people with allergies since they don’t involve any forced air that blows dust and other allergens around the house. Most radiant heating panels are connected to electric coils that apply heat to the slabs, but some are hydronic and work similarly to hydronic baseboard heaters. Hydronic radiant heaters are the most efficient, but also the most expensive.
Radiant heating panels are most commonly installed in the floor so the heat can naturally rise up through the room. As the heated air gradually cools, it lowers and is replaced by warmer air until it eventually reaches the floor panels again, creating a convection cycle. Panels installed in the walls or ceiling won’t be able to take advantage of convection to the same extent and are therefore somewhat less effective. The panels themselves are generally covered with some other material that’s more comfortable to walk on and protects your feet from the heating elements. Ceramic tile is the most popular option because ceramic transfers heat very easily. You can also use other common floor coverings like wood or vinyl but you’ll lose some heat to the insulating properties of those materials.
The most significant downside to any radiant heating system is the cost of installation. You need to tear up and replace the floor in any room where you want to install radiant heating, which costs quite a bit by itself. Add on the cost of the panels and the heating elements, and you’re looking at a pretty major expense. Electric radiant floor panels cost between $8 and $15 per square foot on average, while hydronic panels can get up to $18 per square foot. Most of this cost is going to be labor since the materials themselves are fairly inexpensive. However, if you want something nicer like marble flooring, the cost is going to go up.
Call a Trusted HVAC Contractor Today
No matter which heating system you end up going with, you’ll need to work with a contractor to make sure it’s all installed properly. An HVAC contractor can also help you make decisions by taking a look at your house and figuring out the specifics of your needs. Whether you’re supplementing your current HVAC system or looking to replace it entirely, make sure you get in touch with some experts for all the information you need.
If you’re in Sonoma, Marin, or Napa Counties and you’re thinking about making a change to your heating system, Valley Comfort Heating & Air is here for you. We’re more than happy to look at your home, make suggestions, help you find the right system, install a new system, or even just answer any additional questions you might have about alternative heating methods for your home.