How to be sure home has comfortable and economical heat system

judysgardensJuly 1, 2012

Hi, we are designing a custom home and plan to have a forced air heating system. All of our ceilings except the foyer and great room will be 9' tall. The house will primarily be a one story with 1/2 second level. The great room and foyer will be some kind of higher, possibly cathedral style. The house will be approximately 3400 sq. ft. with 2700 on the main floor.

I want to make sure we do not lose heat with the tall ceilings in the great room/foyer area which will drive up the cost of heating the house. Also, I want to be able to control the comfort level in different rooms, i.e. colder in the bedroom, warmer in the bath, and a comfortable 69 degrees in the other main areas in the house. The house is going to be an open floor plan with kitchen, great room, dining room and foyer without walls to separate.

These newer types of furnaces and vent systems with zones, dampers, thermostats in separate rooms and other types of controls claim to take care of these types of problems. I will be putting electric infloor heat in the master bath. Also, I've been told that a fan in the cathedral ceiling pushes the heat down so you don't lose heat up there. Is this really true?

Before I design my house with cathedral ceilings, I want to be sure I'm not going to be either paying a fortune for heat (which I can't afford to do), or be forced to live in a cold house because I can't afford to heat my house.

I would love to hear from you with information regarding heating systems or your personal experiences on this subject.


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Yes, a fan in the cathedral ceiling will push the hot air down to some extent. But a better and less intrusive system might be intake vents near the ceiling with a circulation fan that pipes the warm air down to outlet vents at the floor level. This system is independent of the forced-air heating system. This is pretty common in New England.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2012 at 2:18PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

What you need to do is a function of what part of the world you live in.

We built green and used 5kw of solar panels on our roof, geothermal heating and cooling, closed cell insulation, passive solar design, all ductwork in conditioned space, wood stove and more. We are in CT, zone 5 and our total energy costs are about 1/3 of what they were in our old 50s ranch, even though our new house is larger and we keep it warmer than the old house. We pay more for cable than we spend on energy.

I strongly recommend you look into geothermal as it paid back immediately. There are quite a few posts about it on the renewable and hvac forums where you could learn more.

Insulation is also critical as, no matter how you generate a BTU, the longer you hang on to it, the better off you are.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2012 at 11:58PM
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Annie - just an aside, probably any new house should have a lower energy bill than the average cable bill...

Totally agree, where is the house? Any high ceiling will be more expensive to heat. If you insulate it very well, it will be less. If you heat with an economical heating system, it will be less. All those things cost money - reducing ceiling height does not.

So it really depends what you think of as expensive and how you are heating your house and where you live.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 5:59AM
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If you intend to live in the house for more than a few years, rather than assume the system will be based on a forced hot air furnace you should ask a professional HVAC designer to recommend a more efficient system based on the climate, house orientation, shading, fuel cost/availability, house design/insulation and your personal preferences/needs.

Electric heating in a bathroom floor should not be considered part of the heating system. Its purpose is to warm the floor for a short period of time.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 7:28AM
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We live the Seattle area in the PNW. And, even though we do not get extremely cold temps in the winter, it can stay in the 40's and 50's until May. It "normally" stays in the 30's during day and 20's at night during the winter Dec - Feb. In our last house we had whole house radiant heat and it was wonderful, however, this time we are on a tighter budget and do not want to put the $50k+ into the whole house radiant. But, I just want to be sure there is a way to keep the heat in the living space below 8' like the radiant did.

Annie - So even though the geothermal would be wonderful, it's initial cost would be prohibitive for us at this time.

Renovator8 - Yes, we are definitely going to talk to a HVAC person for the best system for the size and layout of our home. Also, I agree that the electric floor heating in the master bath is not a true heating system. I just want the bathroom to heat up quickly when I get up in the morning to get ready for work. We will probably have a separate zone for the master bath. (I think)

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 1:53PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

Are you sure geothermal would be cost prohibitive? The only difference in cost for us between geothermal and a regular heating and air conditioning system was the cost of the wells....but that was more than offset by the 30% tax credit we got, so it paid for us right away.

Of course your part of the world has completely different heating/cooling needs so perhaps it would be...your area may be mild enough to use an air-sourced heat pump rather than a ground sourced one.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 3:27PM
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Great discussion and points. Probably the MOST economical path to lower heating bills is ensuring you get great results on your Blower Door Test. Lots of good threads on this site about that. Going along with this is making your insulation continuous or eliminating thermal bridging as much as possible. The Building Envelope is the most permanent part of a home, the hardest to correct and improve once complete and has the biggest impact on our energy costs.

Agree with putting return grills up high and personally, dont see the need to do this separately. Fans carry an energy penalty so might as well tie this into the HVAC or ERV/HRV duct system.

Passive Solar Heating also makes a lot of sense if your site allows it. Sounds like your design might be past this point but this design method can be done with zero extra up-front costs and can reduce your heating costs by 40-90% depending on your design and building envelope.

Here is a link that might be useful: Cost Effective Passive Solar Design

    Bookmark   July 3, 2012 at 12:08PM
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