Close the door, you're letting the heat out!
December 8, 2009 12:06 PM   Subscribe

My new house came with a scary, creepy "Cozy" brand gas wall furnace. It's 15º right now. How much money am I burning by using it?

This is my first house and I am new to gas heating. I moved in two weeks ago, so I'm pretty nervous about how much money I'm spending trying to keep the place habitable during this cold snap. I've tried researching operating costs for this type of furnace, but I'm not coming up with much. So I turn to you, the hivemind, for anecdotes of your own experiences with this type of furnace.

Potentially relevant house information:
- built in 1946
- 720 sq. feet, single floor, 100% crawlspace
- in Portland, OR
- insulation in the attic, not sure about exterior walls
- ancient, single pane windows

Main questions:
1. The furnace is probably 20+ years old and therefore, was not designed with efficiency in mind. Are my fears of a huge gas bill likely to pan out if I use the thing 8 to 12 hours a day?
2. Is it better to use it sparingly in favor of electric space heaters?
3. The controls are pretty basic and it's hard to keep it on a "low" setting. How can I use the thing as efficiently as possible?

When it's in use, I keep the house's two ceiling fans on the reverse setting on low and that helps move the heat down from the ceilings. I'm just terrified that I'm going to bankrupt myself by trying to keep my house warm.
posted by hollisimo to Home & Garden (26 answers total)
Is there a way to inquire about the amount paid by last year's occupants from the gas company? Before we bought our house this was one of the things we did. We called the electric and gas company and got monthly estimates for winter months.
posted by hecho de la basura at 12:17 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

The gas company can probably give you historical information on how much gas your house has consumed, per year, in the past.

What makes the heater "scary, creepy"? Does it somehow seem unsafe to you?

Plastic over the windows if you don't have storm windows. (FYI, your windows might feel ancient, but as the owner of a house built in 1913 I can assure you that it could be much worse.)

Does this furnace heat the entire house, or just one room?
posted by anastasiav at 12:20 PM on December 8, 2009

It's scary to me because it is exceedingly primitive. In order to light the pilot (which one must do every few days because it goes out), one must lie on the floor with a lighter while holding down the ignition button for a minute or two. The "thermostat" is buried under the unit and to adjust it, one has to reach underneath the often hot parts of the furnace. Plus it's gas and gas just scares me because I am a dippy girl.

The furnace is a dual vent, so it sits in the middle of the house and faces opposite directions. It does a pretty good job if left on long enough, but it takes forEVER to heat the house and because of the drafty windows, the heat doesn't stick around.
posted by hollisimo at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2009

Based on that clarification comment: yes, this is going to cost a lot of money.

Get historical info from the gas company. Turn the heat down at night. Consider a small space heater in the one or two rooms you actually inhabit.
posted by rokusan at 12:33 PM on December 8, 2009

You can probably make out a good estimate by looking at your gas meter and comparing to past gas bills. Specifically, you can tell whether you're burning much more gas as compared to the last month or two, and with a little simple math figure out an estimated bill.

If you feel like getting fancy, look at the meter before and after running the heater for a while (say four hours) and not using any other gas (maybe hot water, clothes dryer, etc.) Then you can figure out the hourly cost of running the heater.

Regarding the drafty windows, the hardware store should sell a coiled strip of sealing putty that you might try around the edges of the windows. Before I got that for my place, we used masking tape for the same purpose. Suggest you get a carbon monoxide detector.
posted by exogenous at 12:36 PM on December 8, 2009

Do you own the house? If you do not you should ask the owner to repair or replace the furnace. A pilot light that goes out could be dangerous.

If you own the house you should get the furnace looked at by someone competent. Your local gas company may have some deal on energy efficient furnaces that allows you to spread payments over a long period, or they may know of some community organization that has such a program. Natural gas heat is generally cheaper than electric.
posted by mareli at 12:36 PM on December 8, 2009

One other thing you should be able to do, if you're worried about heating costs - your utility company may offer free "energy audits". Basically, someone comes to your house and checks the efficiency of your furnace, water heater, checks the quality of the insulation, etc. At the end he'll provide a written estimate of things you can do to make your home more efficient. I can't tell if you're renting or own, but if you rent you may be able to show the estimate to your landlord to try to get some changes.

One thing I found out when I had this done - utility companies often will subsidize energy-efficient purchases or improvements. For example, there's no insulation in my walls. The auditor gave me a quote of about $2400 to to do the entire apartment, of which the gas company would pay for 75% (!). So, $600 out of pocket for the insulation, which meant I would break even in a year and a half. Unfortunately, the landlord didn't go for it (it would have involved cutting holes between every stud in the apartment, and it was just renovated), but it's something to consider.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:39 PM on December 8, 2009

In addition to these other suggestions, it's pretty easy to caulk windows and use or make door draft stoppers to help stem the loss of heat.

In the meantime, wear layers, socks, and fingerless gloves to help keep you warm.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:42 PM on December 8, 2009

Yeah, seconding mareli. I had a heater like this in my apartment last year--it was fairly expensive, for a really small space, and the pilot light kept going out, too. The landlord came over, tried to (unsuccessfully) clean the gas line, was unable to, replaced the line, and replaced the heater.

(We now have this weird infrared heater with a flame you can see--scary!--but it's almost half as expensive as the old heater and seems much safer.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:43 PM on December 8, 2009

Oh, also try getting rubber-backed insulated curtains for your windows. Those make a huge difference in my house.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:44 PM on December 8, 2009

Yup, I own the house. And it sounds like using this thing is going to be a losing battle if I don't want to go broke while it's below freezing for days and days.

I'd love to replace the furnace with something modern, more efficient and with an actual thermostat that I don't have to crawl on the floor to access. I feel a bit overwhelmed by this, since I know next to nothing about what I could replace it with. Another wall furnace, I guess?
posted by hollisimo at 1:10 PM on December 8, 2009

I'm curious--does it look anything like this one? That's vaguely what my old cozy furnace looked like. The landlord replaced it with one of these. My knowledge about heaters is limited (and we're in North Florida, in a small apartment, so we don't use it often and it doesn't have to heat a large space), but I've been happy with it.

Hopefully someone with more heater knowledge will chime in.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:16 PM on December 8, 2009

@PhoBWanKenobi: Nope, it's one of these dumb things, except that one probably has a nice thermostat meant for regular use and is modestly energy efficient.

My in-laws gave me some money to spend at Home Depot. They have the Williams wall furnaces. If I can find someone to install it, I might pull the plug on one of those.
posted by hollisimo at 1:24 PM on December 8, 2009

There are both gas and electric units which put out lots of heat and aren't too expensive. Look into "baseboard heaters" like these electric ones and these gas ones (which look to be a more modern update of the one you have). I would recommend electric for you, since you don't seem to like gas -- you could install one of these ~$200 electric heaters in each room, plug them in, and then just shut off the gas on the one you have now.

Most of these have a thermostat on them, and you could also install one on the wall and then connect it to the heater. If you're not handy, call an HVAC guy -- they could easily put these in for you, and probably also have some on-hand they could sell you.

The nice thing about baseboard heaters is that you can easily put one in each room, which'll help minimize your problems with initial heating speed and losing heat. It also allows you to run the heat in just one room, which is nice for saving money.
posted by vorfeed at 1:26 PM on December 8, 2009

FWIW, my anecdotal experience with the gas bill:

Like you I'm in Portland. My house was built in 1959, minimal insulation in attic and none in walls, 1320 SF single story. The original furnace from 1959 is still in the house and chugging along, so it is not all that efficient. Minimal insulation means as soon as the heat is off you can feel the cold coming back in and the heat leaving through the walls.

We usually keep the thermostat at 65 when we're home (evenings/weekends) and at 50 at night and during the day when we're at work. Doing that, the gas bill (NW Natural) came to around $125 per month last winter. During the holiday season last year, my mother visited for two weeks and insisted on running the furnace 24/7 at 72 degrees. Our bill for that month was around $250.

I don't know whether that's a lot to you or not, but that's what it cost last winter to heat a house almost twice the size as yours with similar insulation and an ancient gas furnace.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:33 PM on December 8, 2009

I've got Cadet heaters in each of the bedrooms. The wall furnace heats the kitchen and living room.

I wouldn't mind gas if it were 1. efficient, 2. safe and 3. reliable. It's just the current beast I have, with its intermittent/dubious performance, that makes me feel uneasy. Were it not so ungodly cold right now, I'd be more inclined to leave it off and hole up in either of the bedrooms with the space heaters blazing. Sadly, it's just too cold/my house is too drafty for that not to be seriously unpleasant.

Part of my Master Plan is to replace the windows this year, but that process is in its infancy. It's heartening to know that this is the only winter I'll have to endure the draftiness. I just don't want to go broke in the meantime!

On preview: @rabbitrabbit-- thanks! That's helpful info.
posted by hollisimo at 1:40 PM on December 8, 2009

There's lots of low hanging fruit that you could hit first - caulking, window quilts, that sort of thing. Hit your local library or book store and grab a book on heating, ventilation & air conditioning, so you can get an idea of what's involved. I liked This Old House HVAC, but it's pretty dated now. You definitely want to check out the energy audit situation, and whether you have any rebates or subsidised loans available.

If the insulation situation is bad enough, space heating small zones of the house may be a false economy - if your pipes freeze and burst, that gas bill won't look so bad after all.

man, look at me giving winter advice. Who'd have thought it?
posted by zamboni at 1:48 PM on December 8, 2009

I am in Portland, too, living in a biggish circa 1920's house with a gas furnace in the basement. When winter sets in, I hang up curtains in the open doorways, segregating parts of the house from itself. This means we have a freezing cold bathroom and office (we never go in the office except on our way to the bathroom), and a cold kitchen, but the living room is a warm place. Less heat escapes, and instead of heating the whole house, we move an electric heater into whichever room we're going to spend a majority of time in. We can sort of
block off the heat in the office and kitchen, so more heat is directed to the main living areas.

Can you try blocking off the living room and keeping the heat in there? Maybe use the space heater to focus the heat?

We didn't put up that plastic sheeting over our windows this year, but we totally should have. It does wonders in these old houses.
posted by redsparkler at 2:12 PM on December 8, 2009

I would call the Gas Company and ask if they have a service to come out and check your heater. In the past I have had the Gas Company (not in Portland though) come out and go through the heater, stove, etc, to check for safety and efficiency. They'll tell if the pilot needs cleaning (might even do it), whether the vent is working, all kinds of good stuff. They might also have a good deal or reference to a good deal on a replacement heater. With the same call you should be able to get a record of the past 12 month's bills, as mentioned above. The Gas Company loves energy-aware customers and will help you a lot. They would rather sell you less gas and still have you happy, than to have you convert to electricity.

Also, just hanging heavy curtains over the windows will help a lot. And if you only run the furnace during waking hours when you are at home that will cut the costs down a little.
posted by Old Geezer at 2:28 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your pilot light going out is really worrisome to me, please have someone come check that out. I had a similar heater in my old house, but controlled by a wall thermostat, and maybe 10 years old. It heated the two rooms it faced really well, and fairly efficiently. If you decide to replace it with a similar, but newer, model, try to find one that would qualify for the energy efficiency tax credit - that would really help mitigate the cost upfront, as well as leading to lower costs in the long run.
posted by donnagirl at 3:16 PM on December 8, 2009

I have a Cozy wall heater (this one or something very similar). Several points:

- Heating with electricity, especially in a poorly insulated house, is likely to be more expensive than heating with gas. I have a super-insulated house and even I won't heat with electric.

- My heater didn't age gracefully. It looks a lot older than it really is. So your heater might not really be as ancient and decrepit as it looks, unless the previous owners told you it's really that old.

- Spend $60 to have a technician adjust your pilot light. Look in the yellow pages under "furnace maintenance and repair" and tell them what kind of heater you have. After about 5 years of use, my pilot light started going out with annoying regularity. It just needed cleaning and a nudge.

- If the heater bangs as it heats up, that's normal. It's just the metal bits expanding.

- Your model of heater might work fine with a normal wall thermostat. I installed a thermostat for mine, following the instructions that came with the heater, and it was very easy. See if you can download the manual from Cozy's site or just have the technician who adjusts your pilot light install a wall thermostat. If a wall thermostat isn't an option, ask the technician to find some other way to make it possible to run the heater on low.
posted by PatoPata at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2009

First thing to do is insulate. It's silly to spend a lot of effort making a heater more efficient when you're letting tons of heat out through holes in your walls or around windows.

If new windows aren't in the cards right now (they are a fairly good investment if you're going to be in the house for a few years, and the sooner you get them the more benefits you'll be able to enjoy), get the plastic wrap stuff. Most hardware stores sell it, and you stretch it around the interior window frame, then shrink it down to make a tight seal with a heat gun. (As I've suggested in a few similar AskMe's, be sure not to seal at least one window in your kitchen, so that you can use it for ventilation. Otherwise it can get really miserable to cook in a hermetically-sealed house.)

Make sure that you're not leaking tons of air around your doors — there are little barrier strips you can install fairly easily (using tacks or Liquid Nails) if this is the case. Check around electrical outlets too (foam inserts that go behind the outlet cover will solve this).

At the very least, try to get the "low hanging fruit" — basically anyplace where you can feel a draft or where surfaces feel cold to the touch — taken care of. Then you can think about heating.

The only reason to use electric IMO is to spot-heat small areas of your house. It's a very expensive way to heat, per BTU, compared to gas. But if you have a crappy gas heater located on the other end of your house, it can definitely save you money to get an electric space heater and put it in your bedroom (or other room where you spend a lot of time) and keep the doors closed. When I lived in an old apartment with a crappy furnace, I did this using electric oil-filled radiators and it saved a lot of money even in the relatively mild mid-Atlantic US winters.

And PatoPata's advice about getting the heater looked at by a professional is good advice. I would suggest getting a Carbon Monoxide detector and placing it somewhere between the heater and your bedroom, just to be safe. In general, gas heaters don't produce a lot of carbon monoxide (and poorly-insulated houses are actually safer, perversely, than well-built ones), but when they are not working properly and combusting inefficiently, they can produce CO. No reason to take a chance. Even with a brand new, 95+% efficient furnace with a watertight exhaust system, I have a CO detector just to be safe. Just don't put it right next to the heater, or you may get false positives.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:52 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

How timely, I just moved to Portland. I recently did some research and discovered the Energy Trust of Oregon. it turns out that if you qualify -- relatively easy: you need to be either a Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, NW Natural, OR Cascade Natural Gas customer -- you can have someone come out to your home and perform a home energy review. For free! Schedule one today.

My friend had his home visit yesterday and I tagged along. The auditor checked out our furnace, water heater, ductwork, windows, and attic space. Educated us on different options and rebate programs. Installed two new water saving showerheads and faucet filters. And gave us 10 CFLs. Spent a bunch of time answering all of our questions. Again, all free. I love Oregon!

And to directly answer at least one of your questions, he said that as a general rule, using gas heat will almost always be more efficient than using electric heat.
posted by funkiwan at 8:28 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another general rule is that big heating bills are cheaper than fixing frozen pipes. Keep the house warm for now (get your pilot light fixed) and plan on revamping your heating situation over the summer when you won't be caught with no heat by a cold snap.
posted by fshgrl at 10:26 PM on December 8, 2009

@funkiwan: Awesome advice and thank you so much! I scheduled an audit.

All of this advice is great-- thanks to everybody who contributed. For now, I'll rely largely on wool sweaters/scarves/hats, down coats, my electric blanket and the gas furnace. I called some HVAC folks yesterday and apparently, efficiency on these wall furnaces hasn't really improved. The only reason to replace it would be because of the thermostat, which I can live with. I'll focus on the low-hanging stuff and get my damned windows replaced as soon as I can swing it, which looks to be late winter/early spring.
posted by hollisimo at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2009

Re: replacing the the windows, the home auditor said that window replacement is one of the most expensive ways to save heat. Put another way, the payback period for windows is one of the longest in your home weatherization arsenal of options. For us, he recommended using rope caulk over window replacement.

If you do go the window replacement route, he warned us that it's important to do your research, because the prices vary widely, and you can overpay by an order of magnitude. And while it might not be intuitive, new windows can in some cases actually bring down the value of your home. For instance, potential buyers might not be so keen on seeing modern windows that don't conform to the style of your 1946 home. I know nothing on these issues, but you might want to talk to someone who does before making the purchase.
posted by funkiwan at 1:46 PM on December 9, 2009

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