Thursday, September 4, 2008

Stay Warm, Save Money

Trent wrote a great post about minimizing your winter heating bills and it really got me going. Actually, all of this started the other day when he also linked to a post on how to install a programmable thermostat. I looked at programmable thermostats last year but chickened out of buying one because neither Hubby nor I is confident doing anything electrical.

I have an oil burning furnace at my rural home. In 2 rooms and the front hall I also have electric baseboards. The furnace is 40 years old and needs a servicing before winter. Last year I had 2 deliveries of oil for a total cost of about $700. My electric bill is about $30/month ($360/yr).
My next door neighbour on one side has what I believe is called a swamp cooler. It looks like an air conditioning unit, sits outside on the ground, heats in the winter and cools in the summer. I don't know how it is in terms of cost but the big downside for me is that it's noisy. I can hear it inside my living room when it comes on.

My other next door neighbour changed his oil burner for a pellet stove a couple of years ago. He buys all his pellets ahead of time and stores them in a little shed. He loves the pellet stove and says it's much more economical than their previous furnace.

I can't switch to the pellet stove myself because we're not there all the time and you have to feed the pellets into the stove every couple of days. I don't think any kind of new furnace (or a swamp cooler) is going to be good for me economically. The upfront cost is just too high. So, as long as the oil furnace works, my best bet is to keep it and do some of the other things like sealing the windows, weatherstripping doors, installing a programmable thermostat, changing the furnace filter and looking into an insulating blanket for the water heater.

Doing all the above I should be able to knock about $600 off my heating costs. Yeah, that much. The programmable thermostat alone should account for close to $500 of that. Since we only go for one day at a time during the winter I can set the thermostat to a very low level 6 days out of the week (in the low 50's, enough that the pipes don't freeze and that the place can be raised to a normal temperature in a relatively short time in the event that we arrive at an unexpected time or have to have workers in the house). Saturday evening the heat can rise to normal and stay up until dinnertime Sunday. That means I'm heating the house to my usual levels one day per week and to around 55 the other 6 days. If I was turning it right off 6 days per week I'd clearly be saving 6/7s of my oil costs, or $600. But I think I have to assume I'll spend at least $100 over the winter keeping the temperature above freezing.

A new furnace filter will also help, as will reducing the heat loss through the windows by sealing them with plastic this year. In fact, sealing the windows will also reduce the amount of heat lost from the rooms with electric heating, saving money there too. Weatherstripping the front door in particular would also reduce the heat loss in the front hall. Replacing the front door would be even better but costs too much.

If I'm going to keep my electric hot water heater I should buy an insulating blanket for it, but it's about 25 years old and I'm wondering if some of the nasty yellow colour of the water has to do with the hot water heater because the hot water is noticeably worse than the cold and it's worse when you start running the water than it is a couple of minutes later.

Replacing the tank with a new conventional tank would cost about $350 plus installation costs. But why do we heat the water 24/7 when we're only there 1 to 3 days per week at most? And, even when we're there, it's not like we're running hot water all the time. In many ways a point-of-use heater makes much more sense. It costs about $900, more than twice what a conventional heater does but its operating costs are obviously much lower. So, what to do?

I can defer payment for 6 months by putting the water heater on my Home Depot card, but I still don't have $150/month to put aside to pay for it. Maybe it would be better to just put away what I can for a while, hope that the existing water heater doesn't die on us, and wait until I'm in a better position to pay for it. In that case, I should probably spend $35 on the insulation.

If I really can save $600 in heating costs this winter, that's 2/3 of the cost of the point-of-use heater, or the difference between it and a conventional tank. Maybe that's how I pay for the tankless version.


Bill in NC said...

Hello, found you from Trent's site.

You can pay an electrician to put a timer next to your electric water heater, or just get used to switching the circuit breaker for it on and off as you arrive/leave your vacation home (surely you have a "to-do list" for arriving and leaving?)

Your neighbor likely has a air-source heat pump (heats and cools), not a swamp cooler.

Most air-source heat pumps don't work well below freezing, and so need a backup hat source (electric strips, or gas heat), though there are models that are designed to work down to -15F.

Be sure to insulate your attic as well.

Shevy said...

@bill in nc
Yes, after reading those 2 wiki articles I would say my neighour's unit is most likely an air-source heat pump, although they do seem to use it all winter, even when it's 25F or less.

As for the water heater, a timer would be better than turning it on when we get there because of the lag time for the tank to heat. But I will still probably need a new unit in the next year to 18 months so I'm still considering Point-of-Use because it will still reduce power usage even when we're there all the time.

I had to laugh at the "to do" list. Um, not really. Turn hot water urn on/off, set lights, everything neat, blinds open/shut, doors locked would be the extent of my "list" if I'd ever written it down.

And I guess I should make it clear that it actually is our home (as opposed to our cottage or vacation home), even though we don't get to spend much time there yet (because we have jobs that keep us in the city).

I consider the suite we have in our daughter's house in the city to be our pied a terre and our rural location to be our actual home.

Bill in NC said...

Do you mean a tankless heater when you say "point of use?"

And does anyone in your area use gas instead of oil?

In the long-run, that is usually the cheaper fossil fuel heating option.

Shevy said...

Yes Point-of-Use is the same as a tankless heater. They're available in gas and electrical power formats and range in price from about $300 to $1,200 from what I've seen. Most of them are rated for one application at a time, a few for 2 applications.

Since I almost never need to use 2 applications at once (i.e. laundry and dishwasher, or shower and laundry) I'd use a single application one.

Some people use gas and I have a gas meter although it's only for the gas fireplace and I already need to get a gasfitter out to reconnect that properly.

My furnace uses oil and I will consider all options when I have to replace it, but it's not worth it right now.

The water heater is electric and that's probably the best bet at $.07078 kw/hr. Gas prices now change every quarter and I find it harder to figure out. Plus I understand you can't insulate the tank and pipes or turn it off and on very easily and safely.

I'm a big fan of keeping it simple, plus I'm having a really tough time finding a gasfitter who will come out to our area. There was a guy, but he retired and moved away.

Bill in NC said...

The companies that sell you the gas (natural gas or propane) are usually also very happy to sell and install gas-fueled appliances.

If temperatures are mild enough that your neighbor can use a heat pump, in the long-run an air-source heat pump with gas furnace backup is probably the good option once you have the funds to replace your oil-fired furnace.