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Tighten up the Home and Save

by: Bob Hardina

One of the professional publications that came to the Mid-Coast Energy Systems office had this eye-cathing headline: “Disappointing Results for Tankless Water Heaters." It seems a homeowner had complained that after installing a well-known high efficiency tankless water heater he/she was using more gas and more water. This homeowner wasn’t saving money.

An investigation revealed the homeowner had regularly run out of hot water with their old tank style of water heater. With the tankless water heater they never ran out of hot water, but they were spending more money on gas and water. We were promised unending hot water, the homeowner said. No one told us it would cost more. One of the readers of this article commented, They just don't get it.

An elderly couple recently contacted a heating contractor about the high cost of heating their house. There were only two of them. Their children no longer live with them, but often visit for several weeks during the summer. The children also visit, alternately, on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

The couple’s home is a truly charming, early twentieth-century farmhouse. There are four large rooms on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second. The kitchen and breakfast area is a long ell that has been added to the basic structure. The foundation of the main house is made of nicely laid up boulders, capped by granite slabs. The floor is dirt with a trench around the perimeter to collect the water that comes through the foundation. The perimeter drain connects to a cellar drain that slopes downhill to daylight.

The end of the drain freezes in the winter causing water to build up as much a 12 inches. The 20-year-old boiler has been raised up on concrete blocks. Domestic hot water comes from a tankless coil in the boiler. There is no foundation under the ell. It was built on posts. The crawl space under the ell is barely 12 inches high and open to the weather around the edges. There was no insulation in the ceiling of the basement or the floor of the kitchen ell. The windows of the farmhouse and the ell are old, but sound. Most of them are of the rope and pulley type. All of the windows have aluminum storm windows.

The couple's fuel usage for last year was 1,190 gallons. Their 1,200 gallon pre-buy this year would be $4,560. They were desperate. Their fixed income simply could not bear the high cost of heating fuel.

The contractor explained that the best way to start was with an energy audit to determine what might be done to the house to make it more energy efficient before they made a decision on a heating system upgrade. No, no, no, said the husband. We don't want to waste money like that. We want a new heating system that will save us money. They just don't get it.

Tightening up the envelope of the house is absolutely necessary if energy (and money) is to be saved. An energy audit by a competent auditor will identify the "low-hanging fruit" that, for a minimum investment, could save 20 to 50 percent in terms of fuel usage.

If your domestic hot water is generated by a tankless coil in the boiler, change it. You are maintaining the temperature of your hot water boiler to provide you with a half of cup of water at the kitchen sink. Check on your summer fuel use. If you filled up in May and again in September, the cost of that fuel oil is what it cost you to make your domestic hot water.

There are less expensive options. You can install the most efficient heating system in the world, but if the house you are heating is not energy efficient, you are simply wasting your money.

Consider what my Vermont grandparents did. They hunkered down during the winter months. They survived and thrived. Before you do anything, however, consult with a competent, efficiency minded heating professional. Determine and then weigh the options.