Home Heating

by Gary Foreman

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Dear Dollar Stretcher,
My husband and I aren't quite sure which way to go to conserve on our heating bills. We have steam radiators in our old Victorian house and just replaced the boiler. The old one was more than 60 years old and very inefficient. We have a programmable digital thermostat. Does it make more sense to turn the heat off totally at night and then set the thermostat to turn the heat on about an hour before we get up? Or should we maintain a lower setting during the night (like about 58 degrees) and then turn it up (we usually keep it at about 65-68 degrees) for the daytime? Does it use a lot more energy to go from having the boiler turned off to the desired temperature than to keep it at a moderately low temperature and then turn it up in the morning? Our house is large with high ceilings and at night we only use two bedrooms on the second floor. If it gets cold in there we're considering using some type of space heater rather than heating the whole house at night.
Beth S.

Yep, it's that time of year where we need to pay attention to our heating bills. During winter about 75% of your home energy usage is for heating. And with the recent run up in oil prices it could be a particularly costly winter.

Beth has already taken a couple of major steps to reducing her bill. The first was to replace an older inefficient furnace with a newer model. In some cases a new furnace could produce twice as much heat on the same amount of fuel. For those of you who are considering that step it's pretty hard to estimate savings without knowing both the old and new furnaces. You'll want to have a reputable furnace supplier provide you with an estimate of fuel savings.

The second major step to savings is lowering your thermostat, especially at night. Beth has done that, too. According to Reliant Energy in Minnesota you can save up to 10% on your fuel bill by lowering your thermostat by 5 degrees for 4 hours each day.

A setback or programmable thermostat will adjust the temperature during the day and night for you. They generally pay for themselves in two years or less. Of course, if you're willing to adjust it manually you can start saving money right now!

To answer one of Beth's questions, you will save money if you turn off your furnace at night and reheat the house in the morning. It takes more fuel to keep the house at a minimum temperature all night compared to letting it drop and then bringing it back up again.

She's also considering heating just the two bedrooms during the night. Most people would use electric space heaters for that. But remember that electric space heaters are not the most efficient heat generators available.

The University of New Hampshire says that natural gas and fuel oil are both five times more efficient in producing heat. While you wouldn't want to use electricity to heat your whole house, you might choose it for a room or two. If those rooms comprise less than one-fifth of the floor space of the house there should be a fuel savings.

There are two basic kinds of electric space heaters. The first type, a radiant heater, only heats objects in front of it. It's good for spot heating but doesn't raise the temperature of the air in a room. You'll find them for $40 to $70 in wattages from 750 to 1,500.

The other kind of space heater is a convection heater. They actually warm the air in a room. That's better for a room where people are moving around. They, too, will put out between 750 and 1,500 watts. Expect to pay between $30 and $60.

With any space heater be sure to read and follow all safety instructions. They can be dangerous if not used properly. Among the things to watch out for is not having any cloth or paper too close to the heater. You'll want a couple of feet of space all around. They're also inappropriate for homes with small children who could be burned.

If you're looking for a more permanent type of room heater consider adding electric baseboard heat. A 1,500-watt system will put out about 5,000 Btu's per hour. It will cost about $100 for materials plus installation.

Gas area heaters are also gaining in popularity. The best models draw combustion air from the outside and also vent exhaust to the exterior of the house. For about $500 you'll find a heater than can provide up to 10,000 Btu/hour. That would heat an area of about 2,000 square feet. The benefit of a gas heater is that it's nearly as fuel efficient as your furnace.

There are also other conservation methods that should be considered. Unless your equipment is new like Beth's, get a 'tune up' for your furnace. Just because it fires up and produces heat doesn't mean that it's doing so with maximum efficiency. Not only could you be wasting fuel, important safety systems should be checked.

And don't forget the easy things. The U.S. Dept. of Energy reminds us to clean air filters and registers. And try not to use your kitchen and bath ventilating fans. In just one hour they can draw all of the heated air out of a home.

Your ceiling fans can also be a help. Hot air rises. In a house with high ceilings that can mean that all the hot air is just hanging around over your head. A ceiling fan set on low can circulate the warmer air.

A final consideration is to make sure that your home has proper weather-stripping. All those gaps around your doors and windows can add up. In fact, a typical home that hasn't been weather-stripped is like having a window wide open all winter.

Hopefully Beth and her family will stay nice and cozy this winter without feeling like they're burning money in the process.

Updated October 2013

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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