Home & Design September 15, 2016
Winter Warmth
Alternative heating systems offer long-term savings and environmental benefits

With mountain winters bringing sub-zero temperatures and waist-high snowdrifts, heating one’s home takes on special significance. We have devised all types of methods to battle the cold, from fireplaces to the first central heating systems invented by the Romans, which sent heat from a furnace up through a web of pipes hidden behind walls and under floors. Most North American homes these days still rely on an updated form of that ancient system: a central furnace, generally powered by natural gas, burns a flame that heats the air, which is piped throughout the house.  These are commonly referred to as forced-air heating systems.

Some homeowners, however, are stepping outside the box, looking for ways to heat their home more sustainably and efficiently. Whether driven by economic or environmental concerns, many are looking to update their heating systems.

One way of decreasing the heating costs and environmental impact of your home is to simply build a home that requires less energy. Designing a home that is well insulated and does not lose heat ensures that you are not wasting any energy. Steve Kearns, a contractor with Kearns, McGinnis and Vandenberg Builders, stressed the importance of designing an airtight home, as, he argued, “Air infiltration is a killer, because it contributes hugely to energy loss.”

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Over 100 homes in the Wood River Valley have installed solar systems, which include both flat panel and evacuated tube (shown here) technologies. (Photo: courtesy Sagebrush Solar)

When working on one of the first LEED Gold houses in the Valley, Kearns’ company focused first and foremost on reducing the energy requirements. Energy-efficient homes should have insulation on both the inside and outside of the wall, he explained, to guarantee heat is not slipping out through the thermal break in the wood. “Building codes are changing to require more and more insulation, and it’s reducing the energy necessary to heat the home, which then minimizes the requirements on the equipment you are using,” Kearns said.

Once a home is airtight, there are various options to pursue regarding heating equipment. For those with an existing forced-air heating system, an upgrade can increase your energy efficiency without a complete overhaul. “While most furnaces used to be about 80 percent efficient, in terms of natural gas use, a high-efficiency boiler or furnace can be up to 95 percent efficient, meaning most of the gas is converted into actually heating or cooling the house,” Kearns noted.

For environmentally conscious homeowners who want to go the extra mile, solar-thermal and geothermal systems are both innovative options to reduce one’s carbon footprint.  The solar-thermal systems require a collector bank of solar panels, which collect energy from the sun and convert it into heat. The heat is then transferred to water that travels between the collectors and a thermal storage tank. The hot water stored in the tank can be used for radiant or forced-air heating systems, as well as any hot-water demands.

Billy Mann, the managing director of Altenergy Inc., has installed over 80 systems in the Valley. Investing in solar energy has “huge financial, environmental, social and local economic benefits,” he argued.  “An investment in solar yields better financial returns, through savings on your energy bills, than most Wall Street investments, and the savings are tax free. And instead of paying utilities, which pulls nearly $80 million out of our local economy every year, going solar keeps that money in the Valley to be spent several times over.” In addition, the environmental benefits of eschewing fossil fuels are well established.

Geothermal systems are another green option that many are using to heat their homes. Regardless of where one lives, the temperature beneath a home is constant, at roughly 50 degrees. Geothermal systems tap into that reliable heat source by placing what Brian Formusa, an engineer specializing in HVAC systems, termed “a reverse air conditioner” underneath the home. Rather than pushing hot air out, the heat pump, connected to an underground well system, or, alternatively, a set of tubing, collects the heat from the ground and compresses it to a much higher temperature, which is then released to heat the home. The system can also cool your home in the summer, using the relatively cooler ground temperature.

Under Formusa’s oversight, the Blaine County School District has installed geothermal systems in its schools, most recently at Hemingway Elementary, which Formusa completed in 2013. The school district now has almost one million square feet of geothermally-heated buildings in the Valley. With these systems, Formusa opted to use an underground well, fed by the aquifer, to run through the outdoor condenser.

One drawback to these green options is the upfront costs. Both systems require costly initial investments, and homeowners must be willing to consider the long-term benefits. It can take a decade or more to break even, and with Idaho’s low natural gas costs and the subsidized nature of fossil fuels in the U.S., it is hard for many to economically justify the acquisition. However, the equation could change soon, if natural gas prices rebound, as many predict they will. In a world where fossil fuels are bound to become increasingly rare and expensive, investing in alternative options is an economically wise action.

Regardless of economic cost, the environmental benefits are obvious and important, and any concerned citizen with the means to make a difference would be well rewarded by investing in one of these new, energy-efficient heating options.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.