Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

RENOVATION: Residential heating choices

Examine all options before buying new furnace

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People who look forward to a Manitoba winter are known as snowbirds. Like most migratory members of the species, they become restless in the fall and begin to prepare for the long flight south, where on arrival they change plumage to include hideously coloured shirts, shorts and hats.

People who dislike the thought of a Manitoba winter are known as snow-bounds. Like most sedentary members of the species, they become restless in the fall and crank up their thermostats in the hope of creating an indoor environment in which they can don hideously coloured shirts, shorts and hats.

Besides this similarity, both the tanned-snowbird and the ruddy-cheeked snow-bound share another thing in common: The home nest must be heated to prevent, in the former case, pipes from freezing, and, in the latter, bodies from crystallizing.

The segue here is, of course, the residential furnace, for a nest is nothing if not equipped with a proper heating system. Post-modern technology has blessed homeowners with many efficient heat sources, each with its own pros and cons. Let's look at the most commonly used systems to determine the right choice for you, whether it's a new installation or upgrade.

Ron Robins, of Winnipeg Geothermal, has a word of advice for all his prospective customers, "Before you install a new furnace or other heat source, take advantage of Hydro's Power Smart program to upgrade your existing insulation to meet recommended R-values."

A poorly insulated home will take years to pay back the cost of a new furnace plus installation, he adds, whereas a properly insulated dwelling will pay back these costs in a much shorter period of time and put some cash in the homeowner's pocket.

For those considering geothermal heat, Robins suggests you first subtract the price of a new or upgraded gas or electric furnace (about $6,000 to $8,000) from the cost of a geothermal system (about $22,000 to $28,000, taxes included).

"This figure gives them an idea of how long it will take to pay back their original investment in geothermal and start saving money on heating costs," he said, adding that geothermal furnaces are generally about 66-per-cent less expensive to operate than electric or natural gas ones.

Robins and his partners, Deborah and Darren Holmberg, have been selling, servicing and installing geothermal heating equipment in Manitoba for a dozen years. Though the first geothermal patent was taken out in 1912, the technique is still viewed by many as a form of alchemy. In reality, a geothermal system is nothing more than an efficient method to extract solar heat stored in the ground or water, Robins said.

There are two basic heat extraction methods, called closed and open loops. A closed system consists of a loop or web of different-sized polymer pipes with heat-welded connections buried below frost level (horizontally or vertically) where the ground temperature is about 6.5 C year-round.

A water/methanol solution circulates slowly through the loop, absorbing solar energy from the ground much like a solar panel on a rooftop. The warm liquid is pumped to a heat exchanger in which a gas (refrigerant) absorbs the heat and is then compressed to a temperature of about 80 C.

The super-heated gas is channelled through an air heat exchanger like a car's radiator. A fan or blower forces the warm air out of the exchanger into the duct work of your home. The refrigerant returns to the heat exchanger, and the antifreeze is pumped back through the loop to pick up more heat.

Robins said an open loop system works the same way, except that heat is extracted from water and, instead of being recirculated through the loop, is expelled into another body of water such as a second well.

Deborah said the knock on geothermal heat is that installation costs are about three times more than traditional heat sources, depending on the size of furnace and type of loop required. (Hydro offers a $20,000 geothermal loan amortized over 15 years at 4.8 per cent interest, according to a Power Smart spokesperson.)

There are also some areas of the province where bedrock is close to the surface, increasing the cost of installing a loop. And it's nearly impossible to install a loop in sand because it collapses as soon as a hole is drilled or a trench is dug, she added.

On the plus side, geothermal is a green, renewable source of energy requiring a very small amount of electricity to operate the pump, compressor and blower motor, Deborah said. A geothermal system can also be used to preheat hot water, to heat swimming pools and to provide heat to areas of a house or garage where conventional duct work is difficult to install.

Moreover, a geothermal furnace can be made into an air conditioner by simply flicking a switch to reverse the heat process, essentially turning the furnace into a refrigeration unit. Geothermal furnaces are also equipped with small electric heat coils to provide a boost to the system if outdoor temperatures dip to minus 30 C or lower, she added.

Manitoba's low hydro-electric rates (Ontario's are three times higher) should make it an advantageous environment in which to heat with renewable electric power, especially when electric furnaces and baseboard heaters are rated 100-per-cent efficient. But homeowners who heat with electricity are often shocked when they receive their month-end bills.

Take the case of Kevin and Lisa Ilchyna, who purchased a new home in Tyndall in 2012 equipped with an electric furnace.

"We spent the first winter freezing in our new house," Kevin said. "Although the basement walls are insulated to R-12, the temperature down there was uncomfortably cool, and the main floor never maintained an even heat."

When Kevin received a bill from Hydro for $343 for January 2012 (a warm winter), he decided to change his heat source.

"I purchased a pellet-burning stove on sale from Apr Industries in Winnipeg and had it installed and certified for a total cost of $1,900," he said, adding the stove is coupled to a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) that transfers recovered heat to incoming fresh air, making the system more efficient.

"My most recent hydro bill was $143, a $200 saving over the same period last winter," Kevin said. Adding the cost of wood pellets at about $5 per day during peak heating months, he said he still ends up with a $40-per-month saving, plus both his 1,400-square-foot basement and main floor are comfortably and evenly heated.

"Wood pellet stoves are absolutely bullet-proof," he said. "I'd recommend them to anyone."

Dave Hoban, of Krevco Embers, noted that one downside to pellet stoves is the quality of the pellets on the market. "You can purchase some really bad pellets that leave a lot of ash and produce less heat because they have high water content, are made of softwood, or both," he said.

Hoban said pellets can be purchased from Krevco Embers for about $5 to $6 per bag, adding the high-quality hardwood pellets are manufactured in Swan Valley by Valley Lyons Recycling Project. A non-profit teaching organization called Wood Energy Transfer Technology Ltd. (WETT) is also working to ensure that the quality of wood pellets becomes consistent across Canada, he noted.

"WETT-certified consultants such as myself are also available to help people with problems associated with wood heating equipment or to consult on new installations and certifications," he said, adding that there are about 50 WETT-certified professionals in Manitoba. (Google WETT for a list of names.)

Although expensive to install, in-floor heating is a very efficient way to utilize various sources of heat. On the advice of his contractor, Rick Morrison had it installed in his new home north of East Selkirk a couple of years ago and has "never regretted it."

He said a small electric boiler and pump supply and distribute heated anti-freeze that circulates through pipes located between the floor joists.

"The floors are always warm and the air temperature in the house only varies by a degree or two," Morrison said, adding that his year-round electric bill is $40 per month for heat.

Another source of renewable heat is the hybrid wood/electric furnace that offers the consistent heat generated by wood with the reliability of electricity to back up the system when the firebox needs to be refilled.

David Rousseau, of Flame and Comfort, said a modern down-draft wood furnace will produce about 100,000 BTUs of heat and burn for more than 24 hours.

"The electric furnace only kicks in if the wood box is empty or if a homeowner goes on holiday and requires enough heat to keep his house from freezing in winter," he said. He added that the electric furnace is purchased separately from a dealer such as Wholesale Heating and "we supply the wood furnace manufactured by RSF, as well as the chimney package."

The total installation cost is about $7,500 for an average-sized house, he said, noting that the forced-air unit supplies an even source of heat because the wood burner produces about 20,000 BTUs even when it is in slow-burn mode.

"This type of heat is extremely reliable, but is not for everyone as it requires physical labour to cut, split and feed wood into the burner. However, it's great exercise and the furnace utilizes a renewable source of energy."

High-efficiency natural gas furnaces are the most commonly used source of heat in Winnipeg and areas of the province where gas is available.

Mark Pelletier, of Shorty's Heating in Winnipeg, said state-of-the-art gas furnaces are about 98-per-cent efficient, compared to about 80 to 90 per cent several years ago.

Newer models have thick, tubular steel heat exchangers that will last for at least 25 years, and installation costs are quite low at $5,000 to $7,000, depending on the size of furnace required, he said. (Hydro offers a $5,500 gas- or electric-furnace installation loan amortized over five years at 4.8 per cent.)

"It's best to get an estimate from a contractor, but houses that used to require 80,000 BTU furnaces are now being outfitted with 40,000 to 60,000 BTU high-efficiency models," Pelletier said.

On the positive side, natural gas, which is traded as a commodity, has dropped from $6.70 per million BTUs in January 2008 to $3.40 in January 2013, making it almost cost-competitive with geothermal heat. But natural gas is not a renewable resource and the price will rise as demand inevitably outstrips production.

For those seeking the solace of a wood-burning fireplace on a bitter night, there are many high-efficiency products on the market, including gas and electric models. Most heating-equipment retailers stock a selection and can order a model that meets personal specifications. Google "fireplaces" to find out at what's available and at what price.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 F4

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