The human race has been using fire to keep warm and cook food for about 2 million years. And despite massive advances in technology in other fields, burning stuff is still the most common way to keep warm. Burning coal, natural gas, and oil produces three quarters of global temperature-increasing gasses. We’ve moved from drums to cell phones, stone tablets to thumb drives, and quill pens to printers, but the ancient technology of fire still dominates heating.
Burning wood — the original fire fuel — has at least a hint of sustainability to it. Wood burned and decomposed on the forest floor both release the same amount of carbon. But the majority of our heating fuels are now made up of formerly sequestered carbon: gas, oil, and coal. The electricity used to heat homes is often produced by burning those same fossil fuels.
But a relatively old technology — the heat pump — has been modernized and is now the most efficient way to get something hot, or cold. Heat pumps keep your freezer cold, your house warm, and your water hot, while using far less energy than burning things. (For you younger folks, the old gas refrigerators used a flame to keep food cold.)
The increasing use of ductless heat pumps has not only reduced energy costs and emissions, it has put common sense back into home heating (and, unfortunately for Oregonians long spoiled by our mild summer temperatures, made home cooling more practical, too).
A heat pump takes some of the warmth in the outside air and puts it into your home in the winter. Forty-degree air goes into the outdoor pump unit, 30-degree air comes out, and a smaller stream of 80-degree air from the interior unit heads into the house. That is an oversimplification, but the technological point is important: no flame is involved in the heating of your house.
The newer ductless units will often serve only one or two rooms, and that is great. Keeping the living/dining/kitchen area warm (or maybe cool again this summer) makes sense when you are using that space. Heating the unoccupied bedroom all day with a central (kind of rhymes with wasteful) heating system doesn’t make sense. Heat the bedroom when you use it — or better yet, get a warmer blanket (you can’t beat down for warmth), and snuggle. A mattress heater or electric blanket is a far more efficient use of power than heating the whole room.
Installing a heat pump water heater in your home can reduce water heating energy consumption to one-fourth that of a standard electric water heater, and to one-seventh of a gas water heater. Heat pumps have become more common in our area, but they should be universal. Given our dependence on hydroelectric and, increasingly, wind power, the units make sense. The residential heat pump water heater is a newer development — the technology has long been used in commercial buildings. But despite the upfront cost, they pay for themselves in only three or four years. That is a great return on your money invested, and a great thing to do for the planet.
Many local utilities have incentive programs that can significantly reduce the costs of both water heaters and home heating units. State and federal governments often add energy reduction incentives of their own. A little research can save you a lot of money. There are many contractors who install both units, and one — The Heat Pump Store — that does the technical work on heat pump installations while you do the grunt work. I’ve put in half a dozen, and have gotten faster each time.
Sadly, solar water heating incentives have all but dried up. Only Ashland offers any help with what anyone who has turned on a garden hose in summer knows: the sun makes water hot. I have a solar water heater on my roof, and even when it can’t heat water to 120, it warms the incoming water so the heat pump unit has less work to do. In summer, a special valve adds cold to the solar heated water, which can reach 160 dangerous degrees in the primary storage tank.
With almost two-thirds of energy use in your home accounted for by space and water heating, switching to heat pump or solar technology will make a difference. Combine technology with zonal heating—heating just the area you are using—plus good insulation and good timing (warm when you are home, cooler when you are gone), and you can make a world of difference on your bill, and a world of difference for the world.