A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Dan Rhodes, Education Coordinator
Not long ago, Pennsylvanian’s heating and cooling options were few and simple; home heating oil, coal, wood, propane, and electricity. To power lights and appliances, it was electricity from the general power grid. Now there are solar powered systems, geothermal systems, electric heat pumps, private mini-hydro water turbines, wood-boilers, and natural gas lines available to Bradford County residents looking for cutting edge energy sources that save money and reduce environmental impacts.
Before investing a lot of money and time into replacing your home’s heating and cooling systems however, it is always a good idea to perform what is known as an energy audit to test the efficiency of how your home uses fuel and electricity to keep you comfortable in winter and summer, and to run appliances and lights. An energy audit can be completed by a trained professional, or it can be completed by the homeowner, but to get the most accurate picture of where overall energy efficiency can be improved, hiring a trained professional with sophisticated technical equipment to complete the audit is advisable.
According to the US Dept. of Energy, the average annual American household spends upwards of $2,000 each year on utilities, but large percentages of this money are often wasted due to old and inefficient heating and cooling systems, appliances, leaky duct-work and less than adequate insulation in the home. Heating and cooling are often the single highest home energy expense for Americans today, using on average 30%-40% of a family’s annual utility bill. You may be able to realize 50% or more home energy savings by upgrading home heating and cooling systems to more efficient alternatives by improving insulation in your home, installing programmable thermostats to reduce energy consumption while you are at work or sleeping, sealing air leaks around windows and doors, and/or replacing them with highly efficient alternatives. Even planting appropriate evergreen trees on the north side of your home to shield the building from cold winter wind and planting appropriate broad-leafed trees on the south side of your home to provide shade throughout the summer months can amazingly further reduce your annual heating and cooling energy costs by as much as an additional 25%!
Switching to new, highly efficient heating and cooling systems such as the double-duty (heating and air conditioning) air-source heat pumps for instance, can increase total energy savings even more for the average household. A properly installed, air-source heat pump simply moves warm/cool air rather than heating or cooling the air through some sort of secondary fuel combustion. As a result, an air source heat pump can deliver as much as three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes. To put some actual numbers to the potential savings, the US Department of Energy estimates that homeowners in the Northeastern US would on average save $459 dollars each year if switching their entire home heating and cooling system to an air-sourced heat pump versus an electrical resistance heater, or a whopping $948 per year if replacing a traditional oil furnace heating system. (http://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-pump-systems/air-source-heat-pumps)
Solar is another technology that continues to become more and more efficient, while also less and less costly to install for average residential electric energy production. Before jumping into the installation of a solar system for your home however, there are several points the homeowner should consider. Firstly, according to online solar energy consultant Energysage, the cost to install a 10kW solar system in PA large enough to power an entire household and an electric car for example, can be between $18,000-$26,000 after federal tax credits.(https://news.energysage.com/how-much-does-the-average-solar-panel-installation-cost-in-the-u-s/) The pay-back time period and actual energy produced by this system can vary by as much as 30% annually based on the quality/efficiency of the panels, changes in cloud cover, temperature, annual rainfall & snowfall for your region (https://pvwatts.nrel.gov/pvwatts.php), but estimates of 8-10 year pay-back are about average for NY/PA residential solar systems. The good news is that between years 10 and 20 after installation of the system, a PA/NY resident might expect to see a $20,000 profit by the 20-year mark from the essentially free electricity generated over that past decade.
Far from flashy, another excellent, old stand-by home heating source that is sometimes overlooked by homeowners today is hardwood. Even though humans have heated with wood since the beginning of time, it makes just as much sense today in rural areas like Bradford County, rich with great firewood resources. Wood, unlike some other types of fuels is also a renewable resource, providing that natural forest regeneration replaces what is harvested. Proper selection of hardwood trees for firewood also improves timber values and creates valuable wildlife habitat in private, state and federal forests. Today’s high efficiency wood burners also produce very low emissions when considering air quality. Heating with wood, especially if you can cut it off your own property, can be a very cheap, efficient, low-tech, and environmentally friendly way to stay warm each winter.
Regardless of the sort of home energy system you have now, or choose to switch to in the future, knowing your home’s annual energy need is the crucial first step. Knowing this will lead to a properly sized system. Begin with a detailed energy audit and then work down your efficiency improvement checklist as you are able. When considering upgrades, plan ahead. Research all up-front and long-term maintenance costs, break-even time period estimates, local/state laws, codes, permits, and other considerations associated with a technology before purchase. When a home owner or home user knows where their energy comes from and where it is being used, they are prepared to make good decisions. They will be able to save money and protect their natural resources in the long run.
For more information on dozens of other exciting energy system options, energy saving tips, information and statistics, please visit www.energy.gov/energysaver
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District