Sustainable Heating Options to Warm Your Home This Winter

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

As winter draws closer, those thermometers will continue to drop. In most climates, that means it's time to start heating our homes against the chilly air outside. But how do your methods of home heating affect the environment? Sustainable heating options vary by location, but some home heating methods have a greater impact on the environment than others. Let's do a comparison and discuss ways to reduce your heating needs overall!

Home Heating Basics

According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), household energy usage accounted for approximately 22 percent of total energy consumption in the United States. Considering that commercial and industrial spaces are generally larger and use more energy, that's a pretty big chunk! According to the US Energy Information Administration, Americans mostly use electricity and natural gas for home heating, with about half of households using natural gas. This trend varies from region to region, with southern states using more electricity and the Northeast using more heating oil.

Home furnace

Comparing Traditional and Sustainable Heating Options

How do each of your heating options stack up when it comes to energy usage and environmental impact? Let's take a look.

  • Space heaters: These little guys produce a lot of heat right where you need it. However, the DOE considers them possible fire hazards, so be sure to stay mindful of their safety instructions. Radiant heaters with sealed combustion are generally more efficient than convection heaters.
  • Wood stoves and fireplaces: Oh, the toasty glow of a fire! Like space heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces heat their direct vicinity. The rest of your home may warm up a bit while you tend your fire, but without air circulation, stoves and fireplaces aren't very efficient on a large scale. That being said, wood stoves are much more efficient than fireplaces, as noted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA also notes, however, that these methods of heating can lead to indoor air pollution and associated health issues. To avoid smoke production, the EPA recommends using a gas or pellet stove. Plus, the less wood you burn, the fewer trees you cut down.
  • Furnaces: Furnaces usually use both natural gas to produce heat and electricity to blow heated air into ducts around the house. The DOE reports furnaces have an efficiency between 59 to 98.5 percent, depending on the age of the system.
  • Boilers: Boiler systems heat water and then send it throughout the house in pipes along baseboards. Steam can also be sent throughout the building via ducts to warm the air. Boilers use both gas and electricity and are slightly less efficient than furnaces, with an efficiency between 50 to 90 percent depending on the system's age. Both furnaces and boilers can be retrofitted to be more efficient.
  • Radiant heat: In this system, heated coils inlaid in the floor, walls, or ceiling radiate heat into the building. Coils can be water-filled or electrically heated. Radiant heating varies greatly in application but is reported by the DOE to generally be more efficient than baseboard heating and forced-air systems. You can install this sort of heat in one room at a time and use it as needed.
  • Solar: Residential solar heating systems are becoming increasingly common. According to the DOE, solar installations in the United States have grown 35-fold since 2008, and the average cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 50 percent since 2014. Sciencing reports that switching to solar heating panels can reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by half compared with natural gas furnaces and traditional water heaters. Check out how solar-friendly your state is and how quick the payback would be at Solar Power Rocks.

Ultimately, home heating methods vary by location and structure. No one source wins out over the others in every application, so it's important to evaluate your home's particular needs before choosing a new system.

Reducing Your Heating Needs Overall

It's unlikely that you will be able to convert your home to a greener heating method in the middle of winter. But there are a few ways to more immediately reduce the use of electricity and fossil fuels in your home.

When it's time to reduce energy usage of any kind, it's good to know your baseline first. Check last winter's energy bills and compare them to what's happened so far this calendar year. Then conduct a home energy audit. Your electricity or utility company may provide one as an included service or for a small fee. You can also do an informal audit yourself. While this may sound complicated, it can be quite easy if you follow these simple steps:

  • Inspect your insulation for energy wasters, especially those pesky air leaks.
  • Double-check all lights and swap to LED bulbs as you can.
  • Clean out ice buildup in the freezer and dust off the back of your fridge.
  • Look especially closely at your foundation, windows, and doors. If your windows get icy, that may be a sign of poor insulation.

Once you've done an initial home energy audit, you'll have a new to-do list that may include:

  • Caulking air leaks in your foundation, and along door jambs and windows.
  • Insulating your attic against the elements.
  • Replacing inefficient windows and doors.

ice on window panes with yellow trim

Another way to reduce heating costs and their impact on the environment is to leave blinds and curtains open in south-facing windows. These windows will create a greenhouse effect, passively heating your house with the sun. Next summer, keep these blinds and curtains closed to reduce the need to cool your house.

Lastly, hop on the phone with your utility company and ask about green electrical choices. Tom's of Maine uses 100% wind energy for its 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Sanford, Maine. Your electricity provider may have a similar option for residents.

How do you heat your home? Will you be trying to use more sustainable heating options this winter? Check out more tips on living greener on the Thinking Sustainably board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Home heating makes up a huge part of our carbon footprint. By considering greener heating methods, you'll be doing a lot of good for our planet and your wallet.