Zone heating generates cost-effective comfort
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
Laura Streitman says deciding to install three wood-burning fireplace inserts in her Butler County home was not a tough decision.
“It was the cost,” she says about heating the all-electric home. “The first bill we got, I think, was about $650.”
Now, she says, they have cut that amount by about 30 percent by turning to zone heating as a way of paying less to stay warm. The American Council on Energy-Efficient Economy estimates zone heating can reduce a home energy bill by 20 percent to 40 percent.
“You can knock $1,000 a year off a heating bill in an old home,” says Laura McDaid, vice president of Hearth & Home in Zelienople, the company that installed the Streitman inserts.
Zone heating has risen as a way of warming a home, as residents only heat the parts of the homes that are being used. That decision allows the furnace to be lowered for the whole house, not heating bedrooms, for instance, when they aren't being used during midday.
“Think of it: We only really use 40 percent of our home, so why should we pay to heat 1,900 square feet of unused space?” says Jess Baldwin, director of stove programs for Monessen Hearth Systems, a Kentucky maker of hearth inserts.
Mike Buckiso, co-owner of Fireplace & Patioplace in four area locations, says zone heating has been a big boon for his business, often because homeowners buy more than one unit to heat various parts of a home.
It is not a cheap job, McDaid says. A gas-burning furnace insert can cost between $3,500 and $5,500 but are efficient enough to make that investment pay off, she says.
Baldwin agrees, saying high-efficiency gas heaters generally are “ventless” and burn 99 percent of the gas they use, thus needing no vent.
“How often can you tell a person he is going to get 99 percent of the amount of fuel he uses, “ he says.
At it simplest, zone heating could be done just by shutting all the doors in a room and letting the occupants' body heat make the room cozy.
The solutions also could involve plug-in heaters and other devices, but Laura Wheeler, communications director for the Virginia-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, says efficiency and dependability are the keys to zone heating.
That organization deals with a range of heating elements, from those that cook food to those that heat. She says inserts have become one of the most popular ways of doing the heating job because of the efficiency. They fit into practically any hearth and provide a great deal of heat with little fuel waste. Plus, both gas and wood inserts have blowers that push warm air into the room.
“One of the problems with fireplaces,” Buckiso says, “is that a lot of the heat is carried up the flue.”
McDaid says gas inserts can easily top 85 percent efficiency, often going into the 90s; wood inserts cleanly burn 75 to 80 percent of the fuel they use.
The size of the inserts is a plus in many older homes with hearths that were made to burn gas. To convert one of those to a wood-burning fireplace would require creating a bigger firebox and installing a bigger flue, sometimes not possible.
Inserts fit, however, and are often helped by another design element.
“In those older homes, you have rooms with pocket doors, so you can slide them shut and really keep that room warm,” McDaid says.
Gas inserts can be controlled with a thermostat, also adding to the efficiency, McDaid says, explaining the burners are shut off when the heat is not needed.
Wheeler says wood inserts, naturally, do not have the benefit of a thermostat, but, because the fuel-burning is so efficient, heat can be regulated by hand and the warmth kept steady for a time by building a solid fire. She compares it to building a fire in a soapstone stove, which gets hot and then stays hot.
Efficient production of heat also can be generated by a pellet stove, the experts say, but they have lost some of their popularity because of one major element of design. Those stoves create heat from the steady supply of tiny wood pellets fed to the blaze through an auger. The auger is electric, and many homeowners want their heat supply to be independent from any other utility.
McDaid says the reliance on electricity and the need to keep pellets safe and dry has worked to trim interest in pellet stoves, while Wheeler says the simplicity of keeping fuel in stacked bags of pellets makes them popular. Plus, she adds, they are a green, renewable source, many coming from ground woods or plastics.
Naturally, the layout of a house has a great deal to do with how zone heating is used. Just as McDaid describes closing the pocket door of a Victorian house to create a warm spot, Wheeler says using two inserts at the opposite ends of an open-concept design can warm a whole floor.
Streitman says she decided to go with inserts in her kitchen and living room about a year ago to warm the two busiest spots for her nine-member family. A little more than a month ago, they decided to put one in a basement family room.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have done the basement first,” she says. “It is creating warm air that rises and helps the first floor.”
Baldwin says that aspect of creating warm air is one of the advantages of the blower-ready inserts. Stoves, even efficient stoves such as soapstone ones, create warmth simply by being warm objects, not by replacing cool air with warmer.
Of course, such benefits can emerge as a surprise. George Garces of Upper St. Clair says he and his wife decided to install an insert purely to make the room look better. Because ventless inserts require no flue, they had it installed in a wall in the house “just for aesthetic reasons.”
That was in August, and he admits reducing energy bills was not one of the ends he had in mind.
“We haven't had it long, so I can't tell you about savings,” he says. “But I can tell you one thing: We were able to wait a bit longer before we turned on the furnace this year.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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