Thursday, February 12, 2009

House Renovation: Gas vs Electric

By Our New Guest Renovation Blogger, Greg

Gas vs Electric vs Black Silhouette Guy

Choosing the right furnace is difficult. I'm investigating all the options before our furnace kicks the bucket. A quote for 2 conventional gas hot air units to replace what we have now was equal to the price of a mid-sized car. Wow, I really wasn't expecting that. My research shows that's the going rate. It's like parking a new VW in your basement for the next 20 years until you buy a new one. If we are going to spend that much money for a heating system, I want to consider all the options. Here are some alternatives I found:


The Cadillac of heating systems is the FreeWatt. This is as high tech as you can get. It consists of a Honda generator that runs on Natural Gas to make electricity for the house and uses the generators waste heat to heat your house. Nice, but pricey @ $24k.


Hallowell makes a heater/air-conditioner combo called Acadia. This is a Heat Pump. It works like a refrigerator but can also work in reverse and make heat. Normal Heat Pumps can't make heat if it's real cold outside but the Acadia can suck heat out of -30 F air temperatures. Plus, you get heating and air-conditioning in one unit, that is pretty neat if you only have electricity.

Who Wins?

Electric has multiple advantages, installation is easy with no chimney, safety is increased with circuit breakers so the house won't burn down if something goes drastically wrong, less wear and tear reduces maintenance, and it has remarkable efficiency. Unfortunately, electricity is more expensive where we live. Our gas bill says we pay $1.63 for every 100,000 BTU and the equivalent of 24 Kwh is $3.69. That's a big difference. Gas pollutes and is non-renewable and the price can sky rocket from our political environment making electric the better choice. Unfortunately gas wins.

Gas wins :( Why?

To put this into perspective, over the lifetime of any heating system, the heating system cost pales in comparison to the fuel costs. January in Marblehead had an average temp of 20 F, the gas bill was $277, the equivalent in electric is $591. Figure $2000 for electricity per year compared to $1000 for gas. Over 20 years, that can be an Audi or a VW up the chimney.

Passive Heating?

Hmm, this article in the suggests the best heating system is no heating system at all; or at least a very small one. It must be great to have a new construction that was built with all the latest and greatest. I hope homes like
this prove reliable and catch on everywhere soon. I can't imagine they won't. But what do the folks in 250 year old homes do? Teardown? It's hard to net a green teardown. In fact I'd say it's impossible, so I'll just stick with what we've got and first try to FIX IT.


  1. everyone i know that has put in a heat pump has regretted it from the first day. it heats poorly and the bills are blinding. please talk to people in your community before doing this . a heat pump in new england is a disaster and you will be cold and poor. seriously so not make any quick decsions on this . take you time talk to neighbors etc..

  2. Anonymous - you're right, and your funny as hell too! Thanks.

    Katy - "By Our New Guest Renovation Blogger, Greg" - thanks, Who else you got helping you? I'd love to know.

  3. How about a wood stove? $3000 top of the line jotul will last for years.

  4. Hi Greg,

    I would just like to address a couple of points in your post.
    First off - thank you for taking the time to investigate freewatt and I trust that your eventual decision will be what is best for you.

    "Electric...has remarkable efficiency." At point of use only. Taking into account the generation efficiencies of that same electric power and you are looking at an average overall efficiency of about 35%. Add to this the fact that half of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal and you can appreciate the overall pollution "inefficiencies" of electricity. In Mass, electrical generation mix comprises 50% gas which contributes in part to your higher rates. But...and this is a big but...natural gas is our cleanest burning fuel and we still produce about 90% of our domestic use. Frankly, its a shame that our only real option when it comes to building new power plants is natural gas as this is not the most effective use of one of our most valuable natural resources.

    Generating electricity on site with micro combined heat and power results in generation efficiencies of 90% i.e. you are generating the electricity as an adjunct to what you would be doing anyway - heating your home. And by generating your electricity in this fashion you can displace about half of the electricity that you would otherwise purchase from the grid. This also results in significant CO2 savings due to the much increased generation efficiencies.

    As a nation, it is expected that our demand for electricity will increase by 30% by 2030. Many of our current central power plants are nearing the end of their life cycle. To continue at this pace will necessitate the addition of new generating facilities. Coal? A tough sell for numerous reasons. Nuclear? With just 20% of our total generation from nuclear and many of these plants aging it seems unlikely that we can meet the demand - apart from associated issues like cost and waste. Natural gas. You think gas prices are high now...and the cost of electricity is becoming more and more dependent on the cost of the fuel.

    Which leaves renewables. True renewable generation i.e solar and wind - accounts for 2% of our current national production. Hydro is a limited resource. Nothing would make me happier than to see this number increase. Realistically, I do not see it happening in my lifetime (what there is left of it!).

    Heat pumps have been with us for a long time and manufacturers have been successful in increasing their efficiencies over the years. However, their application does add to the burden of an otherwise delicate system - the Grid.

    What is the answer? Boy, if I could answer that one... But fortunately our governmental leaders seem to be moving in the right direction - energy efficiency/using what we already use but use it more effectively. If we can apply this strategy to our total energy use the benefits can be astounding. And we will continue to refine and develop alternative technologies.

    Sorry to have gone on a such length but this is a complex issue and one near to my heart.

    Please do not hesitate to contact me if there is anything that I can add.


  5. Noel - My original post was as long as this comment. I had to trim a lot to keep it short and sweet, more like bitter-sweet. Thanks for your comment, it's a lot to digest.

  6. $3000 dollars for a cast iron box? I think you just figured out how to bail out the auto industry.



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