please help with electric heat and oil questions

CR1974December 4, 2012

Dear Friends,

We recently purchased a home in Southern Massachusetts. We love the home. We've been dreaming of a home like this but we've not been able to afford it until recently. We've been renters most of our lives and this is our first home.

It was built in 1979 and is mostly pine on a concrete foundation surrounded by woods. We found it in the late summer and closed on it in October. It's up on a mountain about 1600 ft above sea level. It's cool in the summers but colder in the winter (we've realized).

The main part of the house is heated by an oil fueled furnace/forced air and the other part of the house (perhaps a later extension and is mainly the master bedroom and bath) is heated with electric heat through base board units. The thermostats are all from the late 1970s or early 1980s. The electric heat thermostats/dials don't even have a number/farenheit settings but rather a dial with "comfort zones". We keep the house at 60F when we are not home and dial it up to 68-70 when we are home.

When we got our electric bills this month, we PANICKED. We were very shocked at how high it is because of HEAT and now, we think we might not be able to sustain this if it continues. We've used most our savings on the down payment and some minor improvements.

We cannot afford to change the heating system to a more energy efficient system at the moment (and perhaps in the near future). So here are some questions to all of you. Please know that I have some DIY skills but electric is not my strong point.

1.) Because we travel a lot for work and when we're not home, we actually can lower the heat low enough to a manageable temp but warm enough so the pipes don't freeze . What is the ideal temperature for this ? Would it be 50 F?

2.) Is there a way for us to replace the thermostats to a more automatic thermostat units? Something we can do ourselves ? DIY ? Are these units expensive?

3.) I have no idea if the house is efficiently insulated. We don't notice any major drafts. When we did our house inspection, the inspector did not mention any red flags regarding insulation. My guess is that the insulation on the outside walls are still the original insulation from the 1970s. Is this something I can take on myself when the weather warms up ?

4.) Should I consider using a wood burning stove to heat up our master bedroom and bath and not even turning on electric heat at all on that side of the house ? And perhaps just installing an automatic electric heat tape around the water pipes that lead to and from that bathroom ?

5.) Should I consider wrapping the windows with plastic wrap ? I don't know how to do this but I'm sure I can ask the nice people from Home Depot. Have any of you found this effective ?

6.) Is an automatic thermostat/switch for our water heater so it only heats up when we need hot water ? Is this effective ?

7.) Are there any other tips any of you can give us to reduce our electric bill ?

We don't want to have to give up our home just because we can't sustain the high electricity bills.

Any ideas or leads to websites would we most welcome.

Many Thanks,


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Ive noted this before so I'll just post the same here .. seeing that your on the east coast you might be able to get on one of the suppliers shown below ... trust me this will help .. it doesn't cost anything ...good luck.

"Don't know about your area, but here in Connecticut we are allowed to pick a alternate supplier of our electric. Our main supplier still bills us and does all the repairs if needed etc BUT the supply rate is cheaper... granted it's pennies less per KWH but a penny here and penny there soon adds up to real money saved. Go to your main supplier of your electric and see if they offer a aggregator to lower your KWH cost.Note if they do find one that has a min of 6 months contract so the price is firm and wont go up even tho your main suppliers might. I have been using an aggregator for years and trust me it makes a difference here ...good luck and OH, BTW there is and should be no cost to choose an aggregator."

Here is a link that might be useful: Suppliers

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 9:09AM
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Here are responses to your questions:

1. Setting the temperature to 50 degrees will cause no harm to your house. Be prepared for a long recovery when you get home.

2. Honeywell has several programmable thermostats which are for DIYers. They sell for $50 - $125 depending on the features. Check out the models on the Honeywell web site.

3. You are not going to be able to increase the insulation within the walls without opening them up. Check on the insulation in the attic. Adding additional attic insulation is a DIY project.

4. You can use a wood burning stove, but it requires work. You have to decide whether you want to do this.

5. Plastic window wrap cuts down on air infiltration. It will help if the windows are old.

6. The hot water heater turns on automatically when the temperature in the tank drops below the set value. If you are going to be away for several days, you could lower the set temperature. You could have an electrician install an on/off switch so you can turn it off completely when you are away.

7. Is it possible to run a duct from the furnace to the master bedroom and bath and eliminate the electric baseboard heat?

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 10:02AM
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6. I've used a timer on my WH for several years. I think it helps. I've monitored the WH usage. I know it only turns on when the time is active, then maybe a bit extra when in use, but not much. I also have an insulation blanket around it. The first WH I had was poorly insulated (warm to the touch). The 2nd was well insulated and the blanket didn't do much. The current unit is somewhere in between (thermometer between the blanket and the heater reads around 75F with the air temp around 65F.

Here is a link that might be useful: Here is like what I have.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 3:33PM
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BTW: I will mention that when it comes to the total electrical load on your house, the WH is not the big user (unless you have it set real high and take a lot of hot baths). The big users are those baseboard units.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 3:40PM
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Thank you big al and mike !

Big Al : Thank you and I will research the other suppliers in our area.

Mike : Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

1.) We will try setting the temp to 50 degrees the next time we are away for a longer trip. Hopefully this will help.

2.) We will buy the Honeywell Thermostats.

3.) Our house, has an attic only on 1 area, which has a gable. I checked the insulation there and it's those old fiberglass ones with the silver foil on one side . I can tackle adding the insulation there. IS IT ALRIGHT TO ADD ANOTHER LAYER ON TOP OF THE EXISTING ONES OR DO I HAVE TO REPLACE THE OLDER ONES ? The majority of the house is a cathedral ceiling. The Master Bed/Bath is on an addition above the garage.

4.) Maybe not on the wood burning stove.

5.) We will add these plastic wraps as well.

6.) I will ask our electrician to add a switch to the water heater. But that's an hourly cost so I might research how to do this myself.

7.) I imagine it is possible to run another duct to the master. there is a concrete wall dividing the main part of the house and the master bed/bath (since this was an addition) so it would have to go above the floor and onto a wall register. I don't know if there is a limit to the length of the run on the duct ? My question is: If I do run a duct, how do I regulate the temperature on the master bedroom side ? Do I add a second thermostat in the master bed/bath connected to the furnace? My fear is that because the furnace and the present thermostat is on the opposite end of the house, it might not "sense" the temp in the master ?

Sorry if my questions are bordering on stupid but I am still learning how to be an efficient homeowner.

Thanks again !

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 4:03PM
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"6.) I will ask our electrician to add a switch to the water heater. But that's an hourly cost so I might research how to do this myself."

I'm not an electrician, but I have to wonder if it wise to even consider a manual switch for the hot water heater. Does it not have its own breaker in the electric panel? If so, just trip that breaker to disable the hot water heater.

This post was edited by saltidawg on Wed, Dec 5, 12 at 21:25

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 4:14PM
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Thanks Weedmesiter !

Were you able to the install the WH timer yourself ?

Our water heater is insulated.

Somehow, our water heater seems to take up a lot of amps on out breaker panel.....

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 4:22PM
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Thanks Saltidawg. that makes sense.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 4:24PM
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Salitdawg makes a good point. The hot water heater should have its own breaker in the panel. I assume it is a 220V circuit.

For item (7) I recommend creating a separate zone for the master bedroom and bath. This means installing a separate thermostat which will control a damper in the new duct work. It will cost some money, but it will be cheaper than trying to heat with electricity.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 5:18PM
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The water heater is typically 4500 watts which is a lot but it doesn't run that much. Sure you can improve on it but here are a few numbers to chew on - based on national average electric rates.

Standby loss for a modern hot water heater - $30 a year. This is what you could save if you shut it off all the time. So if you travel 50% of the time and shut it off then, you could save $15 a year.

The average family uses $500 or so to heat the water with electricity per year. So standby loses are a very small proportion of that.

Switching to a heat pump model cuts the usage down to about $200 a year. They cost $1000 so if you can do it, it is not a bad idea.

Oil heat and electric heat are pretty close in cost depending on your local rates. So adding the duct from the main furnace won't actually save you any money (unless your electric is really high).

I say this all the time. If you live in the North in an old house with no access to NG, you should do one of two things - move or install geothermal.

Sure geo might cost $40k ($30k after tax credit) but will recover its cost easily amortized over its life. You live in a very blue state so there may be state programs to help you finance it.

I'm going to throw out a guess. Your heating costs are somewhere around $5000 a year. Geo could make that $1500. The interest+principal on a $30k loan for 10 years would make that a break even proposition and all the installed cost would be recouped at resale.

Strange how the NE states haven't all figured a way to rip out the oil and electric heat at time of sale and wrap geo into the mortgage....

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 6:08AM
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Your numbers don't seem right. The average electric rate in Mass. is $0.15/KWH. I think fuel oil right now is averaging $4.00 per gallon. Heating with oil is less expensive than electricity.

The standby loss of $30 is a deceiving number. If you use the hot water constantly, then the standby time is small. But if you go long periods of time without using the hot water heater, then the hot water heater has to turn on more frequently just to maintain the hot water. Do you really think you could keep 40 gallons of water at a temperature of 120 degrees for a full year for only $30?

I suggested running a duct to master bedroom and bath because I assumed a house built in 1979 would have an oversized oil furnace. I think the added fuel cost would be small.

You estimated the yearly heating cost is $5000 per year. Let's assume the house was only heated with fuel oil. At $4 per gallon that would mean 1250 gallons of fuel oil per season. That's a lot of oil for a residential house.

I don't know much about geothermal, but $1500 to heat a home seems like a lot of money. I would expect it to be less with a conventional air sourced heat pump.

When you are buying a house, how do you get the bank to lend you an extra $40K so you can remove the oil furnace and tank and install a geothermal system?

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 9:38AM
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Yes, I installed it myself. In my case, it was simple to place it at the wall where the wire exited prior to reaching the WH. There are 4 connections (and a common ground). Two hots in, two hots out. Well marked on the unit.

The newer ones give you more programmability than the one I have. Mine is just a 24-hr timer. I have it set to come on before I get up, turn off before I leave, then turn on when I get home and turn off when I go to bed. It's active maybe 5 hours a day. If I need more I can walk up to it and press the 'ON' button which turns it on until the next cycle.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 4:27PM
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Weatherization (air sealing and insulation) is your best bet if there have been no improvements to a 1979 house. A lot can be DIY. A wood stove makes sense if you are cutting your own wood, but please learn how to use that power equipment safely. It should be an efficient stove with its own combustion air source rather than sucking out warm room air. Make sure that you get annual cleaning and maintenance on your furnace.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 2:38PM
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I was basing costs on national average and it is about 11.5 cents so Mass is high.

Putting 15 cents in makes electric 10% more expensive then 82% oil furnace at $4 a gallon. Throw in duct losses and the likelihood that the burner is not even 82% and you are equivalent (or really really close).

The standby losses are very small and yes $30 can keep water hot for a year. Now - it does depend where the hot water heater is and if it is in conditioned space, then the net standby losses for 6 months are zero since the heat is lost to the house and the house needs it. So the net standby losses could be $15 (or $22 with Mass rates).

It is hard to find hard numbers on standby losses since it matters where the tank is. If it is in a 70 degree house or a 100 degree attic or a 50 degree basement. Standby losses for an electric tank are less than a gas tank. They are tiny compared to other costs

As far as $5,000 heating - the OP is at altitude in Mass in a 1979 house that has been renovated. I don't think it is a stretch. The estimate on Geo incorporated Mass high electric rates and was high either way. Sure it might be $500 a year but I wouldn't count on it.

I think weedmeister is saving $5 a year with his hot water setup - hardly worth the trouble.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 3:34PM
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Thanks friends ! We sure have a lot to discuss. Very grateful for your wisdom and experience. Home ownership does force one to prioritize and compromise. Time to grow up !

Thanks !

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 1:47PM
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