Space heating only - yea or nay?

Gina_WNovember 4, 2011

I moved into this 2200 sq ft, 2-story home last year. It was built as an ultra-modern, all-electric house in 1968 - that includes the furnace. Last winter we spent about $500 a month in electricity heating the house.

We are considering two options - swapping out the old furnace for a gas one, using the same ductwork which means when it's on it is heating the whole house.

Or, using space heating in each area/room instead.

My thinking is that it is not necessary to heat up the whole house. This is Southern California. It's just me and my husband and sometimes guests. Whole-house forced-air heating seems so old and inefficient.

The original open living area had an orange floating fireplace that the previous owners removed. I'd like to put back some kind of fireplace there, as well as in the master bedroom/bath that will be remodeled next year.

Downstairs there is a family room which I've turned into a Western-themed room and looking at an electric pot-bellied stove in there. The guest bathroom has an electric wall heater already.

So do you think it's a good idea/efficient to put individual heating options in each area and not use a whole-house furnace at all? We are not going to be selling the home anytime soon!

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david_cary

Do you have a heat pump or just an electric strip heating?

A heat pump would probably make the house more comfortable for a lower cost than space heating but it depends a lot on your insulation qualities. Obviously if you have NG, then get a furnace. You can actually heat a house in its entirety with either NG or a HP for less than space heating 1/4 of it with electric strips. Really.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2011 at 6:03PM
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pjb999

More electricity with space heaters - yuk. I would bet that you can get government subsidies to put in a heat pump, aka reverse cycle. It's am air conditioner that can cool AND heat, and they're very efficient. In Southern California it's probably ALL the heat you'll ever need. It's the most popular form of heating in New Zealand and Australia, with similar climates, second to space heating. That energy in space heating adds up very quickly - two rooms say, and you are probably using more power than the heat pump anyway, which, as an added bonus will dehumidify the air too.

You can get split-system cartridge units and do one or two throughout the house, but I'd go for a whole - house unit. If you really want to limit the area you cover, close some registers.

Space heaters are inefficient, ugly and tend to be a fire hazard. You'll have to rewire for them. If you already have an airconditioner, it'll probably be cheaper to go to a heat pump already, the lines and power will be there.

You will still need an air handler of some sort, to provide a fan etc. You could add a furnace, or just an air handler which would probably have backup electric heating elements. Basically what you already have. At a pinch you could probably just keep that, although high efficiency models (ok no high efficiency electric furnaces, but they have much better fans now)

If you replace the fireplace with a pellet stove or something like that, you'd already have backup heat. You won't need much anyway.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2011 at 6:19PM
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pjb999

dehumidifies in heating mode. Not sure how damp it is in the winter there, but that's a big part of how cold it feels in that sort of climate.

You should also look at extra insulation and upgrading windows and doors too, which will make the place easier to hear.

The other factor with the heat pump is you will actually get more heat from the same amount of electricity used in a space heater - the space heater converts almost 100% of the electricity it uses into heat whereas the heat pump takes heat from the air of the great outdoors, where it's 'free,' and does not rely on directly converting electricity to heat. In a sense you're getting >100% efficiency in comparison.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2011 at 6:41PM
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Gina_W

Wow, thanks for the quick and good info you guys. I think I may not have used the right terminology - by "space heater" I meant standalone electric heaters, not something built into the wall.

The old GE furnace doesn't have a pump. The master remodel will include upgraded windows - the original aluminum Jalousies let in a lot of cold air - right next to the bed!

The house is a split 2-story (not a split-level), with a concrete and dirt crawl space in the middle, so it does get a little damp and smells it too, when we have rains. I'm close to the ocean too. So the forced-air does do a good job of dehumidifying.

What about radiant electric heat? Anyone familiar with that?

The house does have gas now.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2011 at 6:56PM
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alphonse

If you already have the ductwork, here's another vote for a heat pump; you're in a good locale for it.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2011 at 7:22PM
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david_cary

Wait - forget all the recs for a heatpump if you have gas. What posters may not realize is what your electric rate is. For CA, gas is the way to go. I assume that you are paying over $.20 a kwh. At that price, no heatpump is competitive with good old NG.

CA is potentially a great locale for a heatpump. But because of the electric rates, gas wins out. The unintentional consequences of environmental legislation in CA, is that NG winds up being cheaper despite it not having as clean a potential as a heatpump. What CA should do is give an electric discount for heat pumps but I am pretty sure they don't - but your utility might and that could change things. But I am going with the assumption that you pay over $.20 a kwh in the winter using electricity to heat (even if it is a HP).

    Bookmark   November 5, 2011 at 12:33PM
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Gina_W

Okay, did a bunch of reading online. I think the heat pump is not in the running. Electric is too $$, and we don't need cooling at all. SoCal coastal is colder than people imagine, wayyy colder.

I picked up a Lennox brochure at Costco - they are doing some deal together. I'll call them to get pricing on switching to a gas variable furnace and a zoning system.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2011 at 6:16PM
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david_cary

The advice here is to skip the big box store deals. Costco is not Home Depot but generally you will do better just working with local contractors.

I don't know about cold. I lived on a sailboat in Marina Del Ray - that isn't cold. You really would be fine with a heatpump based on temps but like you've learned, the electric rate is the issue.

You don't really need a fancy furnace. Even if your insulation is terrible, you really don't need much gas to heat a house in Socal. I'd suspect a HE furnace is likely to save you $50 to $75 a year so don't go spending $2000 extra for a higher efficiency furnace. Put that money into insulation and you will be far better off. A well insulated house on the coast in Socal should be $200 a year to heat with a 80% NG furnace.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2011 at 7:22PM
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pjb999

That's a great shame that the electric price is skewed that way, but I still don't know if you have AC or not. If yes, when it craps out, it's easy to convert to a heat pump. Meantime gas furnace is the way to go. Choose high efficiency (you may not have the choice anyway) - even in a retro there is ALWAYS a way to make the vents work.

Plug in heaters? You probably have aluminium house wiring. Don't risk overloading it. It will cost you as much or more than the electric furnace in the end, as well as burning your house down.

I think our gas bill here in central British Columbia is around $60cdn or a little more monthly in winter. You will spend much, much less. Our gas rate might be a little cheaper of course.

If the electric rate was better, a heat pump will work efficiently right down to 0ÃÂ C/32ÃÂF. Some even lower.

What you are perceiving as cold is probably dampness. Consider getting one or two dehumidifiers, and run them in the occupied areas (and maybe move them around) - you will find the place feels much warmer, and you won't need to turn up the heat so much anyway. The forced air you have now is not really removing that humidity.

NZ and Australia I referenced earlier are now tending to recommend dehumidifiers commonly now, for that reason. It rarely gets to freezing and more commonly sits in the double digit Celcius range, but parts can be damp. That's the chilly part.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2011 at 7:42PM
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Gina_W

I don't have AC now.

Can I zone my current forced air heat? Is there a way? If I could zone it, I would keep the old furnace as it works just fine.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2011 at 10:21PM
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david_cary

It is very difficult to say if you could zone your current system. I'd suspect that you could but the cost would be prohibitive. You would need to greatly increase the ductwork size which may not be feasible depending on your setup. If you do that, there will still be issues, mostly with shortcycling due to oversize issues.

I would not think that $500 a month would be working fine. Even if you zoned and got it down a little. Mostly zoning doesn't reduce costs that much. In your relatively low use situation, it may help but don't expect that heating 1/2 the house would result in 1/2 the costs.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2011 at 8:15AM
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Gina_W

Thanks pjb and David. Disappointing about zoning but makes sense. I'm going to call a local contractor to come out and look at my options. I've used him for my rental condo and he is reasonable, i.e: doesn't try to sell me expensive stuff. I am still mulling over just keeping my current system and running it much less, and augmenting with space heating in rooms as needed. The heating options out there are frustratingly lacking.

In my rental condo, where I used to live, about the same sq ft. I had a gas furnace and it cost about $100 a month to run in winter.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2011 at 5:13PM
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pjb999

Something probably isn't right with those bills you're paying. Your old system is not working fine, but I also I think you are failing to see what I/we mean about space heating the odd rooms. You will probably end up using the same amount of power or more. Don't be fooled by the 'amazing Amish space heater' spiel, they are NO MORE efficient. If it gets sufficiently cold and damp enough it's bad for the house to have those cold spots/rooms - you'll have condensation and mould issues, for one.

Absolutely talk to a contractor or three - there are actually LOTS of heating options.

If you're determined to heat only a few rooms, shut the registers in the rooms you're not using. Consider the location of the thermostat or upgrade to one with remote sensors.

If your crawl has access to your ductwork, then zoning COULD be a possibility, but if they are exposed, that's part of your problem. The place is probably poorly insulated and you're probably losing a lot of heat via the ducts in the crawl etc.

When you said $100 a month for your gas furnace in your condo, was that JUST gas? I don't know what the price is compared to here but our gas bill is probably close to that or cheaper in winter, and we have a real winter here (although nothing compared to other parts of Canada.)

    Bookmark   November 7, 2011 at 7:44PM
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Gina_W

The existing furnace was inspected and it does work. It is in a large crawl space that is un-insulated. I suspect at least some of the ductwork is exposed there - I could get a closer look. I know that electric is $$ here, so the numbers are not that off. I have friends who won't use their expensive ovens because of the $$.

The house is semi-remodeled, and is drafty on the main living area and master bedroom, which are on the same floor. We will be remodeling these areas next year and will put in new windows, which will help the heat escaping/cold air coming in.

I understand the value of using the whole-house system to circulate air and dehumidify. And that's why I will use it from time to time. We just started our rainy season this week.

I will have the contractor in next week and I will update this post with his findings and my decision.

Thanks for all your help - greatly appreciated and I have learned some things.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2011 at 8:07PM
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