Straight Talk Articles

Keeping the Home Fires Affordable: Home Heating Options
January, 2019

Dear Pat and Brad, I have some big energy bills, especially in the winter.  My home is heated with a twenty-year-old propane furnace.  To make matters worse, I’ve been paying the expenses on my mother’s house, which is heated with electric baseboards and wall heaters.  Should I upgrade them to a different kind of system? – Ryan


Dear Ryan,

You’re really getting the double whammy, especially if you live in a cold climate.  Fortunately, there are a few possible solutions.


A good first step, before making major changes to the heating system, is to look at the area you are heating.  The amount of heated space and the efficiency of that space determine how large of a heating system you need.  Air leaks and inadequate insulation might be a major cause of the high bills, and fixing these problems might enable you to install a smaller heating system.  A good energy audit will give you the answers you need, and give you an idea of how much you can save from weatherization measures and from a more efficient heating system.  Contact your co-op to see if they offer energy audits or can recommend an auditor.


Let’s talk about heating systems.  Propane furnaces are expected to last 15-25 years (1), but if yours has been well-maintained you may get more mileage out of it. Even if your furnace is still running well and has some life left in it, it may not be efficient.  Propane, gas and oil furnace efficiency is measured by the Average Fuel Utilization Efficiency, or AFUE. This is indicated on a label which may still be attached to the furnace.  Your twenty-year-old unit might have an AFUE in the 70% to 80% range. (2).   A new high efficiency furnace can have an AFUE rating of over 95%, which can reduce the portion of your propane bill that goes toward heating by 15 to 20% (3).  The AFUE doesn’t account for any heat escaping through poorly-insulated or badly-sealed pipes or furnace ducts, so you want those issues taken care of first.(4)


Instead of replacing your old propane furnace with a new one, you have two excellent options. You could install an air source heat pump, which would use your existing duct work, or a mini-split heat pump, which can heat up to four rooms.  In the past decade, the efficiency of heat pumps has greatly improved, to the point where they are solid options even in very cold climates.


It’s not surprising that your mother’s electric heat bill is high. This isn’t uncommon for inefficient homes that rely on resistance heat using wall heaters, portable heaters or baseboard heaters. 


Your mother’s home probably doesn’t have ductwork, which makes the installation of a central heat pump very expensive. Instead, I suggest getting a quote on a ductless mini-split heat pump. They are very efficient for heating and cooling, so if your mother uses a window AC unit (or two), she can save even more money.  Mini-splits are usually installed to heat and cool the largest, most used area of a home.  Your mother can continue to use baseboard heaters in the rooms she doesn’t use as often.  As efficient as the mini-splits are, they might not provide enough heat in a prolonged, extreme cold snap, so leaving a few baseboards connected is a good idea. 


Heating system upgrades have a big effect on comfort and the pocketbook for many years.  Getting an energy audit and considering all your options gives you the best chance at making the right decisions.


The website below has links to more resources, including cost calculators that will give you more information on which to base your decision. Good luck, and stay warm!

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on home heating options, please visit the January 2019 more information page.




Portable Electric Space Heater.jpg

Electric resistance heat, which is much less efficient than a heat pump, can be delivered using portable electric space heaters. Photo credit: Pat Keegan