Heating your Farmhouse
Published April 16, 2021
Hello! Thank you for watching this video about heating your farmhouse and water. My name is Michelle Medina and I’m with the Minnesota Farmers Union. This video is a joint effort between the Clean Energy Resource Teams and the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota.
Heating types and costs
In Minnesota, approximately 55% of all energy used in our homes is for heating and cooling. Another 15% is used to heat our water. Heating your farmhouse and your water makes up most of household energy expenses.
In this segment, we will discuss the factors that influence your energy costs and suggest ways to reduce those expenses. Let’s start with heating your home.
Farmhouses are heated in a variety of ways including furnaces, boilers, wood stoves, air source heat pumps, and others. The efficiency of these heating systems and the source of energy or fuel type they use impacts the cost of heating your home.
Baseboard electric heating or an electric furnace, also known as electric resistance heating, tends to be the most expensive type of home heating. These heating systems use a lot of electricity. Because electricity tends to be more expensive than other heating fuels, unless the electric heating system is very efficient, such as an air source heat pump which we will discuss later, it is going to be a more expensive heating option. You can reduce the cost of electric heat by taking advantage of special electric rates offered by your utility. We’ll talk more about this later in the video.
A propane furnace is a very common way of heating rural homes, where natural gas service is not available. The price of propane makes it noticeably more expensive than heating with natural gas, and the price can vary substantially year to year or even week to week during the winter. Filling your tank during the summer and pre-buying additional propane you expect to need for the heating season can help you avoid the risk of winter price spikes.
Air Source Heat Pumps are a technology that can both heat your home in the winter and cool it in the summer. An air source heat pump is functions an air conditioner that can run in reverse when heat is needed, putting warm air into the home and removing cool air to the outdoors. They are fueled by electricity and are extremely efficient. In our cold Minnesota climate, air source heat pumps require a back-up heating source, because they can’t generate enough heat when it gets very cold. However, a study conducted here in Minnesota found that, in most .cases, an air source heat pump plus any type of backup system will be less expensive than solely relying on electric resistance or propane heat. Taking advantage of special electric rates can also make this a cost-effective way to heat a rural home. Additionally, many electric utilities offer rebates on air source heat pumps.
Where natural gas is available, it is currently the least expensive way to heat a home. The historically low natural gas rates make it difficult for other heating sources to compete on an economic basis.
Another option used by many households as a heating source is wood or pellet stoves, either as supplemental heating or as a primary heating source. The operating cost of this will be dependent on the cost of wood or pellets. It’s helpful for efficiency and reducing air pollution to have an EPA certified wood stove. According to information from Project Stove Swap, run by the organization, Environmental Initiative, switching out just one older wood stove for a new model has the impact of reducing pollution equal to removing more than 700 cars from the road per year.
Sometimes space heaters are also used to warm up specific spaces that a regular heating system doesn’t reach or reach well. However, space heaters require a lot of electricity, so managing, minimizing, or avoiding their use is helpful to keep your total winter heating costs manageable.
Now that you know the basics of typical heating options, it’s important to think about your individual situation. First, make sure you are taking good care of your existing equipment- getting it cleaned and serviced regularly for safety reasons and to maintain its efficiency. You don’t want to forgo regular maintenance only to have your furnace go out on a cold January weekend. Next, check that you are taking advantage of programs and rates offered by your utility.
For example, your utility may offer a rebate for getting your heating equipment serviced. Additionally, if you are using electric heat, check with your utility if there is a rate program that can reduce your existing costs. For example, some utilities offer demand control rates or dual fuel rates that can be a good fit for reducing heating expenses. Also, note that you should not be charged tax on your primary heating fuel from November to April per state law. Double check your bills to make sure you are not being charged tax. If you are, tell your provider so they can remove the tax. That will save you nearly 7% right off the bat.
Adjust your thermostat
For the hundreds of people that the Citizens Utility Board advises each year, the number-one money-saving recommendation is to adjust their thermostat. Regardless of your heating system, managing your thermostat is an effective and no cost way to save money. In the winter, the Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat to 68 when you’re up and reducing it by up to 10 degrees while away or asleep. While 68 may be too cool for some, others might be comfortable at 65 or lower. Regardless of your own comfort level, every degree you can lower your thermostat will help.
CUB recommends reducing it a degree or two at a time to find the right balance between comfort and energy savings. Using a programmable thermostat is an easy way for the thermostat to automatically adjust to your schedule. If your schedule varies a lot, a smart thermostat that uses wifi and a smart phone can be changed remotely and also learns your schedule. A regular dial thermostat works just fine too as long as you remember to adjust it!
Planning for changes
Another important aspect of heating your home is thinking and planning ahead for future needs. Is your current heating system expensive to operate or ineffective in keeping your home comfortable? When do you expect your current system will need replacement? If you are thinking about upgrading to more efficient heating or cooling system, it makes a lot of sense to do it when a system needs replacement anyway. For example, if you’ll be replacing the air conditioner, think about whether an air source heat pump could be a good choice. However, also consider- Could it be cost-effective to switch out something sooner than later?
If your heating system is expensive to operate-such as electric resistance heat, sometimes you can save enough after a few years to pay for itself. The physical aspects of your home may limit what heating systems are viable. A heating and cooling professional can help you understand the options for your home, and don’t hesitate to compare quotes from more than one company.
Most heating systems will last 20 years or longer, so you want to make sure you have the information to make a good decision for your family.
Having a well-insulated home, without air leaks, will make your home more energy efficient and comfortable regardless of your heating system. Check with your utility for information on how to get a home energy audit and rebates for making weatherization improvements. Also, check out these resources for weatherization (insert links).
If you are eligible for the income-based energy assistance program, you may also qualify for free weatherization assistance as well as free or low-cost efficiency improvements from your local utility. Check with your local energy assistance and weatherization provider and with your utility.
15% of an average Minnesota household’s energy use goes to heat water. Like heating systems, there are a variety of options to heat water based on the fuel types available to your home. Natural gas, propane, electric, and electric heat pump water heaters models are all options. There are also traditional storage tank water heaters of different sizes and tankless water heaters, known as on-demand water heaters.
Just like heating your home, the cost to generate warm water is based on the cost of the fuel type used, and how efficient the water heater is. The lifespans of water heaters vary based on type. For example, according to the Department of Energy, a storage tank water heater will last 10-15 years and a tankless water heater could last 20 years. As you get closer to reaching the expected end life of your water heater, it’s useful to learn about various options and what would be a good fit for your household needs and budget. Just like a furnace, it’s not ideal for the water heater to go out at an inconvenient time, so planning ahead is useful.
It is important to also understand some of the physical constraints of your home regarding options for water heaters and possible associated costs. Do you have space limitations? Would you need to make changes to allow special venting for a high efficiency water heater? What plumbing changes and charges are involved with installing an on-demand water heater? Are electrical upgrades needed to make an electric on-demand feasible? These are all good questions and why it’s useful to bring in a professional to help you understand viable options and do some cost/benefit analysis.
The costs for water heating should generally correspond with fuel costs assuming the efficiency levels of the water heaters are similar. Energy efficiency can vary significantly based on the age and type of water heater. For example, Newer tank models of water heaters are going to be better insulated than older models and won’t take as much energy to keep water warm. High efficiency water heaters may cost more upfront, but will use less energy.
Air source water heaters use significantly less energy than regular electric storage tank water heaters. Tankless water heaters use only energy needed at that moment to meet demand. For some households, the tankless water heater can keep up fine to match demand. For some households, during peak demand, say in the mornings when everyone wants to shower, a tankless water heater may not be able to keep up. This brings up the issue of sizing water heaters. If you have a storage tank water heater, it needs to be large enough to keep up with demand. I’m sure many of you have experienced the unpleasant moment when all the hot water is used up! Some extra large water heaters can be heated overnight (at special low rates) and are insulated so well that they have enough warm water to last an entire day without needing to continually be heating water.
Speaking of special rates, just like home heating, there are a variety of utility programs and rate structures that help save money on water heating. High efficiency water heaters are often eligible for utility rebates. For electric water heaters, many electric utilities offer special overnight water heating rates. They may provide you with a discount or rebate as well to buy an extra large water heater that heats overnight at a greatly reduced rate. Utilities are able to purchase cheaper power overnight and they can pass those savings on to their customers through these special rates. You use the water during the day and each night it refills the tank with warm water.
As you tell from this video, there are a lot of options to consider in how you heat your home and heat your water. When thinking about improving your comfort or replacing worn out systems, doing some research ahead of time will help your pocketbook and keep your farmhouse cozy for years to come.
The Citizens Utility Board can help you think through the options for your household and the kinds of questions you should ask as you’re making these important decisions. Contact CUB at 651-300-4701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.