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Published Columns: March 2007
Curbing Your Consumption:
Heating and Cooling Alternatives

By John Ford

Most of us have homes heated with traditional systems using oil, gas, or in some cases electricity. An increasing number of us have air conditioning systems running on electricity. As these systems age and you start thinking about replacement, it's a good idea to explore, in advance, the alternatives that could save you money in the long run as energy costs change.

There is a heating and cooling system which has been around for awhile, but is getting more attention: the heat pump. Most air conditioning systems are heat pumps that move the heat from inside to outside using an air-to-air exchanger. This transfer can be reversed to heat your home in the winter. However, as the air temperature goes down, they become less efficient. When pipes are used to transfer heat to and from the ground (Earth-Energy System), the process becomes more efficient, but at a higher installation cost. EESs can be built on a large scale to service whole communities and pool the cost. They can also provide domestic hot water.

The Coefficient Of Performance (COP) of an EES can range from 2.5 to 4.0. Compared of a 1000 watt baseboard heater, an EES would provide 2500 watts of heating (or more) with the same energy input. At today's prices, that could be cheaper than natural gas.

If one of your goals is to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, then EES may be the way to go. If Ontario's mix of generation moves away from fossil fuels, an EES system will be GHG free. You could even buy from a renewable supplier now to reduce your carbon footprint.

One of the fuels receiving more attention as others increase in cost is wood. Since the CO2 created is recaptured when a tree grows, it is also a renewable energy source.

Traditional fireplaces have an efficiency of between -10% and 10%. Many actually carry more heat up the chimney than they produce, and the thermal radiation is blocked by the glass. Newer advanced combustion designs (including inserts for your old fireplace) have efficiency ratings of 50% to 70%, and use a special ceramic glass that allows thermal radiation to heat the room. More importantly, the new designs reduce the high emissions typical of old stoves by promoting more thorough combustion.

Europeans have been building another type of wood heating which is starting to catch on here, called masonry heaters. They burn at a higher rate of combustion for a shorter time, trap the heat in a large mass, and gradually release the heat. They are also quite attractive, and can feature built-in seating – great for warming up after a skate on the canal.

John Ford is a technology consultant, owner of a small energy conservation business, and the Energy Advocate for the Green Party of Ontario.