Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Heat Is On

The heat is on. And it costs $4.99 a gallon. We heat our house with oil, which is really diesel gasoline with dye added, which means in a pinch, we could syphon some from our underground tank for the UPS driver if s/he ever ran out of gas delivering our Amazon Prime orders. But in a temblor, it means our fifty-sixty year-old underground oil tank could leak, contaminating soil, and possibly groundwater.

Our oil heater

 We live on an island so it makes sense we can’t heat with natural gas: propane, oil, and electricity are the local options. We’re fortunate to have central heat, and our oil burning forced air unit is not quite ten years old, but we still use more than a gallon a day. Heat is one thing the former owners didn’t skimp on. We also have a pellet stove upstairs, and a wood stove downstairs.

The pellet stove upstairs

The wood stove downstairs

Hot air rises, and the vents in our ground floor are in the ceiling, so it’s about fifty-eight degrees near our windows (by the windows on both floors actually, they’re old, and made double pane simply by the addition of a storm window over a glass pane). I know this isn't really cold, but to be comfortable indoors without wearing a robe over my clothes, drinking hot tea, and running the vacuum to stay warm, I prefer sixty-eight.

We also are in the process of making a master bedroom down below, combining unheated basement with an existing bedroom.

All this has brought heat to mind. How best to warm our new room, and if we’re adding heat to one room, how hard is it to re-think the rest of the house? Why not stop heating the house with dead dinosaurs and use cheap clean electricity only?

The answer: money.

Back when we had money, we invested in a hundred thousand dollars of solar panels to heat and cool the new home we built in California, sure that we would live there long enough for our investment to pay for itself. It didn’t. In fact we lost everything we put into infrastructure: bringing water and electricity to the property, installing a non-standard septic system, building special earthquake fencing to stop falling boulders.  There’s more to that story, but we’ve taken from it a moral:

Be careful how much we invest.

We were careful to choose our fixer upper in a desirable/waterfront neighborhood so that if we sunk a hundred thousand dollars improving the house, we still wouldn’t overbuild or overdesign for the neighborhood like we did before. We also thought Kevin would have a job by now to fund our remodeling.

He keeps looking for paid employment and we factor square-foot costs and resale value in the decisions we make daily, tackling deferred maintenance, and making improvements that suit the home’s original design as well as our preferences.

Budgets are always good restraints in building. And, it turns out there are others equally as effective as money in our decision-making:

Hazard mitigation for one: We can’t just stop using our oil heater, we would need to have our 500 gallon oil tank drained, dug up from the front yard, and officially decommissioned.  Ka-ching!

Unconditioned living space (no heating or flooring other than cement) for another; we didn’t have enough of it to install the super efficient (and super pricey) ductless heat pumps that are the current heating modality of choice in this region.

Wall space being another. Where can you get forty-eight or seventy-two inches along a baseboard for a Cadet hydronic heater—which we used in our writers studio—four or six feet of wall that can’t also have a bed, dresser, or bookcase against it? That sort of interior real estate is more difficult to obtain than cash.
Cadet hydronic baseboard heater in writers studio

For now, we’ve settled on becoming a hybrid house, combining oil heat—thermostat set to sixty degrees—with supplemental electric heaters in each room, that we will turn on for comfort as we are using them.

Kevin contemplated building platforms in the master bedroom to house our closets and dressers above the heaters. But I didn’t relish the idea of standing on a stepstool to reach my heaters. So we’ve been testing out options.

By testing I mean that Kevin does hours of internet research—checking watts, dimensions, operating manuals—places orders online for heaters not in-stock at Home Depot, buys several at Home Depot, and we open boxes, inspect the contents, test them out in various locations.

I feel like Goldilocks. The great bargain from Groupon, although small and square enough to fit nearly anywhere and double as an end table, was too noisy, on par with our pellet stove, which though warm, is loud.
Noisy Groupon heaters

The Cadet hydronic series was too long to fit our walls. The Smal can be mounted high on the wall, but then I can’t reach the controls.

I can't operate the control when this heater is wall mounted

A second Cadet model is shorter, could fit it on our floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs.
Another, sleek and black, that looks like a flat-screen TV is coming and Kevin imagines engraving eagles, orcas, and Mount Rainier on its glass panel. I say this will void the warranty, but he disagrees and offers to email the company to find out.

TV on left. Heater on right. Clearly no one lives in this room.

Attention to detail is one of the many qualities I love in my husband. Nothing is too mundane for his full mental acuity and consideration. He loves to research, collect options, and mull them over. This might lead a person to think he can’t make up his mind. But that’s not so.

Thirty years ago when we were dating and couldn’t decide what to do one evening, I asked, “Will we always be this indecisive.” His answer was swift and emphatic: “Yes.” 

And so it is. We spend tens of hours contemplating how to heat our home, as if making a decision on par with buying the home itself. And it just might be. The options we select will become part of this home, impacting not only us (and by extension the environment) but all those who will warm themselves under this roof—whether it is ours or not—for the foreseeable future.

A big responsibility. No wonder we have trouble choosing.

1 comment:

  1. If you get enough sun to think about solar again, this time check out a "power purchase agreement".

    It's technically not a lease, but works sort of like one -- you let the solar company put up panels, they own & maintain them, and you agree to buy all the power it generates as a cost usually lower than your regular utility company. Here in the CA Central Valley, my electric meter spins backward on sunny summer days-- as we produce more electricity than we use.

    The best thing: you lock in your rate for buying that electricity for 15+ years!

    We got started for less than $300, and saved about $250 the first year....

    But I don't know if you have enough sun to make it worthwhile (or is that my prejudice about the Pacific Northwest?). And, that doesn't solve your immediate heating needs either.