Country heat for city boy?
April 20, 2007 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Househeatingfilter: Saladpants is a city boy from major east coast city, who recently moved to smaller west coast city, Portland, OR. He and Mrs. Saladpants are looking at a house which, while only 15 minutes from downtown, is essentially out in the country. This means that the house has no gas line running to it and no sewer either. In this particular house, the Saladpantses have two potential heating options: Propane or Electric. They have no experience with either, and are uncertain as to which is better. They seek opinions, wisdom and experiences of fellow mefites. third person narrative aside, this house we're looking at is awesome. But the heating system scares me.

It currently has a propane tank and baseboard heat, which doesn't thrill me. We've received rough estimates for installing ductwork, and for installation of a furnace -- propane or electric heat pump. The fixed costs on these options are more or less equal (and not entirely unreasonable, amazingly), except that the heat pump will include A/C and the propane furnace would not, which is one check in favor of the heat pump.

As far as variable costs go, the person who gave me the estimate said the costs would currently favor the heat pump because gas and propane prices have spiked so much recently. I'm not so sure I believe that, and I'd be curious for anyone's thoughts.

Also, assuming all other factors are equal, I'm curious about performance of these two options. My readings lead me to believe that heat pumps can have trouble keeping the house warm enough in fairly cold weather and cold enough in fairly hot weather. But I've also read that newer heat pumps do a much better job. True? Untrue? I've read a lot that also indicates that propane heats very well. On the other hand, it seems like a real pain the butt to me to have to rely on a propane truck show up every X number of months to refill the tank.

I know in the end, if we get the house, we'll have to weigh all these factors on our own. But I want to get feedback on whether my presumptions are at least sound.

So those of you out there with heat pumps or propane, what have your experiences been? Are there are significant factors that I'm missing?

(Also, as I noted above, I'm in pacific northwest, to the extent that factors in.)
posted by saladpants to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why are you adding a new furnace, if the old one works ok? Baseboards provide decent radiant heat; the forced air you are proposing to add works ok, too, but isn't more "perfect" as a heat source (aside from maybe getting AC in the summer).

Electricity in the northwest has always been really cheap, because of the dams and so on; gas/propane was cheap but has recently become less cheap. Long term who knows -- if you can predict energy prices accurately, take your furnace money and invest it in energy futures. (Because of the cheap electricity, many older homes were built uninsulated, and with screwy things like electric furnaces in the attic. This was true even just a couple of decades ago.)

There are other options besides the ones your furnace guy has offered you. You can have a gas forced air furnace with an attached AC unit, for example, so you would heat with gas and cool with electricity. Options like pellet stoves have gotten much more mainstream recently, although there may not be a cost-savings with electricity prices so low. So I think you need more quotes and to think more carefully about what it is that you actually want and need.

Having propane delivered is no big deal, as long as your tank is reasonably sized (if it is too small then you have to schedule deliveries all the time). It is a standard commodity; gas deliveries are normal and unexciting.
posted by Forktine at 5:27 PM on April 20, 2007

I've had gas, oil and electric in Portland over the last five years, and I think electric is the best cost-effective option in this city, given our climates.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:30 PM on April 20, 2007

We have propane with baseboard radiant heat and love it. We buy our propane in "bulk" yearly from our provider. This means one huge payment per year, which does have to be taken into consideration budget-wise, but the savings on the price-per-gallon is more than worth it (45 cents per gallon savings). Plus, the payment plan means that the propane folks have us on a schedule to refill our tank (500 gallons, requires refilling three or four times per year) so that we don't have to remember to call and ask for refills. As a customer, we can also use their emergency line in case the furnace breaks, and they will come out to do yearly maintenance if we ask them to.

I love our baseboard because the radiant heat is less noisy, less drying, and more temperature consistent (less off/on cycling) than forced air heat. Plus, it doesn't stir up dust around the house the way forced air does. Of course, we can get away without ductwork and AC since we live in Vermont. You may be looking at installing duct work if you feel you have to have an AC system. I would say keep the radiant heat if you have room for the radiators and pipes, and can still run the ductwork.
posted by turtlegirl at 5:33 PM on April 20, 2007

Response by poster: Two reasons I don't like the baseboards. First, like you noted, no A/C in the summer. As someone who grew up in hot humid summers on the east coast, I have trouble sleeping at night when the temp gets really warm, even here in the Pac NW where the humidity is lower.

Also, the baseboards limit placement of furniture. This isn't a huge house, and I want to be able to put furniture up against the walls in the places where there are baseboards.
posted by saladpants at 5:35 PM on April 20, 2007

When my dad built his house in SW Portland, my mom was afraid of gas heat. The electric heater recently died and he replaced it with a heat pump. Dunno about the cost, but it's pretty snappy to both heat and cool and this is the crazy architect's house with insane amounts of cubic feet of air to heat, what with the lofted ceilings, skylights and the mid-levels with the 1970s safety yellow railings...
posted by Skwirl at 5:55 PM on April 20, 2007

SP: In that case, I would investigate the heat pump idea further. You may even be able to power u it with solar if you are interested in that option. I think a heat pump is compatible with both radiant floor and forced air heating - both would eliminate base boards. Please email me (info in profile) if you go with the heat pump. Terrapin and I are looking at possibly switching to a heat pump system in the future if we install solar power (so that we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels). Good luck!
posted by turtlegirl at 5:59 PM on April 20, 2007

Propane is ALWAYS better than electric for a stove. If you cook even a little bit you will truly appreciate that.
Just saying.
As far as overall heating for your house I've no experience.
posted by Dizzy at 6:46 PM on April 20, 2007

This isn't really answering your question since you seem set on doing something, but unless the heating system scares you because it's ready to die, I'd hold off on making any major changes right now. New houses suck enough money as it is. Is it just the baseboard heating? Honestly, baseboard heating is fine (I actually prefer it to forced air.)

The economics are dependent on your local energy markets and though I've done the math before the best thing is to see if your state's Consumer Affairs Department (or equivalent) can help you out there. And the equation may change in the near future. So unless you're calculating savings significant enough to pay back the conversion cost in a short timeframe, I'd wait until the thing kicks (who knows -- in a few years there may be even better options out there.) And that money might be better spent today making sure the house is otherwise as energy-friendly as possible.
posted by Opposite George at 6:53 PM on April 20, 2007

Best answer: Heat pumps work efficiently in moderate weather conditions, and less efficiently as the outside temperatures move to extremes of heat and cold. In a temperate environment, such as the Pacific Northwest, they probably are the most energy efficient option, and for a system with both heating and cooling requirements, they'd clearly be the most mechanically inexpensive option, as both heating and cooling functions are provided.

All modern heat pump systems provide an "emergency heat" capability, which is simply an additional resistive heat coil in the inside portion of the heat exchanger, which can be switched on when desired, for fast warm up of the interior space, or in situations where the outside temperature drops so low that the heat pump can't efficiently extract heat energy from the cold atmosphere. It's more expensive to heat with resistive heat, because 100% of your heating energy is electrical, as opposed to normal heat pump operation where you are extracting at least some heat energy from the environment.

But you can extend the heat pump system in many locales with additional geo-thermal loops. These are essentially in ground refrigerant or "working fluid" loops, that exploit the constant 55° - 60° ground temperature (or ground water temperature) as a sink/source for the external side of the heat pump. The exact layout will depend on the geology of your area, but in many places, it's just a set of 1 to 8 6-inch diameter well casings drilled 20 to 50 feet deep (like shallow water wells), into which loops of pipe are placed, which pipe is filled with circulating working fluid, or refrigerant. These kinds of geothermally extended heat pump systems can run efficiently even in areas where the atmospheric weather conditions would preclude efficient operation of standard heat pumps much of the time. Of course, there is a greater cost in initial construction, and some greater periodic maintenance expense for these kinds of systems, offsetting their greater operational efficiency. You really have to talk to local contractors for cost estimates, and you may need some soil testing work done to determine feasibility.

And FWIW, I agree with Dizzy about the value of gas for cooking, but heating with a heat pump doesn't preclude having propane as a backup heat source, and cooking fuel, too. Dual fuel capabilities in a home, where winter weather can occasionally be extreme, can be a great thing.
posted by paulsc at 6:55 PM on April 20, 2007

Sorry, missed the "I don't like baseboard" comment. In that case, my gut goes with turtlegrl and paulsc. Most of that's predicated on cheap electricity and modest heating demands, which seems to fit your situation.

Definitely keep the propane for cooking.
posted by Opposite George at 7:09 PM on April 20, 2007

Propane for cooking is great.

As far as heating ... some of you actually like baseboard heaters? I've just had horrible experiences with baseboards as a former college student with slumlords renting to me during my undergrad, but maybe newer baseboards do an OK job. Forced air heating is far better, imho. I guess that doesn't really weigh on propane vs. electric, so take it for what it's worth. Also, I've come close to burning couches before, so I know what you mean about the furniture, Saladpants.

On the A/C ... have you lived in Oregon before? AC isn't a necessity, it's just moderately convenient. Usually, our really hot summer days aren't very humid. The typical summer day is 70-85 degrees, low to moderate humidity. We get some days that top 100 but they certainly are nothing like living in the South or East. My family didn't have A/C until I moved out ... our solution in Eugene was always to run several box fans in the morning to suck in air and turn them off by 10 a.m., then vent out the house again around 8 or 9 in the evening.
posted by Happydaz at 10:47 PM on April 20, 2007

I know this isn't part of your question, yet you did mention the lack of sewer lines. Research all regulations regarding your septic system! I almost bought a country house in Wisconsin, until I learned regulations would force me to install the most expensive septic system available (a mound) and a simple tank (requiring routine pumping) was not an allowable option! (the place had a stream, so ordinary septic wasn't an option).
posted by Goofyy at 11:15 PM on April 20, 2007

Yeah, lots of places have enough groundwater to require an engineered septic system (mound etc.), which is way more expensive. That's worth checking before you commit to buying the house.

Re heat pumps: one down side is that they have lots of moving parts (and fluids), and this makes them prone to breaking down. My single-data-point anecdotal experience is that heat pumps are noticeably less reliable than other central-forced-air systems (electric or gas). But this experience is with an oldish heat pump system.
posted by hattifattener at 1:57 AM on April 21, 2007

Radiant heat in the PNW is a recipe for mold in your house -- because it's less drying as an earlier poster said. Make sure you have the house tested for black mold inside the walls before you move in. I think they call it 'sick house syndrome'...
posted by SpecialK at 7:53 AM on April 21, 2007

Response by poster: Happydaz: on the A/C part of your question, we moved to Portland last July and currently rent in a non-air conditioned apartment. We suffered through enough warm August evenings which, while not all that humid, were still warm enough to have me sweating in bed and up all night stuck to the sheets. Call me a product of my east coast upbringing, but I figure damn, if I'm installing a new system in this house, why not include the A/C for those nights if it isn't going to be a huge difference in price. Besides, didn't you hear? Global warming is coming!

And Goofyy: Re septic tank. Yeah. That scares me as much, and was going to be a second question before I realized I could only post one question every seven days. We plan to do a full septic tank inspection and make VERY sure that it is a) in good working order and b) conforms to code before we move in. We've written into our offer letter that any and all septic tank work would be borne by seller.
posted by saladpants at 8:13 AM on April 21, 2007

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