Heating and Insulation Options

Sharon August 12th, 2008

Ok, what if you aren’t already living without heat?  What if you are planning, and want to know what to do when your current, fossil fueled option becomes untenable, either because of reduced availability for fuels, because of limitations on carbon outputs, or because (and most likely) you can’t afford to pay the bills.

This is something that I recommend people begin to address *QUICKLY* if you can.  Various lenders are freezing home equity loans even to people with plenty of equity and money - Ilargi in his commentary on today’s Debt Rattle at The Automatic Earth I think puts his finger on things - if you are going to need to borrow money to do this, the opportunity is rapidly disappearing. Now only you can tell if you should be borrowing in the first place - but if most of us have to do our adaptation with the cash we have on hand or with the subsidies the government is likely to grant, we have a very, very short window indeed.  So plan now, and begin adapting. 

In addition, since nearly everyone else is seeing the writing on the wall, accept that you are going to be making your adaptation plan with everyone on the planet - the waiting list for wood and pellet stoves is already getting long in some places.  Insulation companies are busy - if you can afford to do this, do what you can now!! We don’t know whether this will be a cold winter or not - but we can be pretty sure that there will be some cold ones in the future, despite global warming. 

Let’s talk about the problems with the way you may heat now - here are the choices, and the pros and cons.

Oil: Mostly in the Northeast US, a comparatively small percentage of US heating as a whole (about 8%), but heavily concentrated in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont - some of the coldest places in the US.

Pro: Used to be cheaper than gas, can be used where there are no gas lines, bigger tanks than propane mean fewer deliveries in snowy, icy, cold places, cleaner than coal fired electric.

Con: Crazy expensive now, not getting cheaper, minimum deliveries mean untenable for many, dirtier than natural gas, because it is a minority heating option gets less attention than the others.

Gas: The primary method of heating in the US

Pro: Cleanest fossil fuel option, no running out, great in urban areas where minimizing pollutants is important.

Con: Getting more expensive, caps set to expire in many areas quite soon, if Canadians get pissed enough that they have to sell it south, massive supply constraints, North American gas past peak, or nearly so.


Pro: Good if you’ve got wind, hydro, etc…, can reduce you to one major utility bill, may be cheaper in some places than natural gas or oil at this point.

Con: Can mean you only have one big bill and inability to pay means you freeze as well as sit in the dark, inefficient way to generate heat, most comes from coal which is distrous for the climate, rising rapidly in price, caps coming off, prohibitions against winter shut-offs due to be renegotiated, privatized energy companies have sky is the limit prices.

All of these potentially come with rapid, prohibitive price rises in the coming years (and are already prohibitive for some people).  All of them are vulnerable to supply disruptions in the coming years.  Oil is potentially the most vulnerable, but gas and electricity, depending on what you think is likely, are also subject to supply constraints and systemic problems - potentially quite serious ones.

So what options do you have?  Basically, they come in two varieties - you can need less (or in some places, no) heat, by increasing your insulation, or you can use some other mechanism of heating yourself, your immediate area and part of your house.  Again, I emphasize that most of should not be thinking in terms of heating a whole, American super-sized house, but instead living in smaller spaces, with less heat - period.  

First, there’s the insulation problem. The Community Solution and the Affordable Comfort Institute have been working together to find solutions for retrofitting American homes along the Passivehaus lines - but the data they have come up with is incomplete, and at last check, the costs extremely high.  The least expensive version of their solution looks to be adding rigid board insulation to existing inside walls, but they are still putting their materials together, but this is a job to be worked on carefully, as ventilation, outgassing and mold issues are concerns. 

So what can you do in the interim - well Robert Waldrop has done amazing things with his house in Oklahoma City - this is a great model to work with, particularly if you have some money - but it is worth noting that at last check he had spent 23K, over some years.  And since Bob lives in a fairly moderate climate, this might need some adaptation for places like the North.

There are some useful books out there - among them the books  _Insulate and Weatherize_ and _The Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings_.  They have a lot of tips for do-it yourself solutions.  And, of course, if you can afford it, you can have a professional reinsulation done.  For many people in the southern half of the US, that should pretty much eliminate the need for heating, and if you can afford to duplicate the Passivehaus designs, you probably could need minimal heat even in the North.  But while I definitely think that this is where to put your cash if you have it.

But a lot of people don’t have it - without outright grants for weatherization for the poor and lower middle class on a huge scale, most people won’t make major retrofits, simply because the cost of the retrofit is utterly prohibitive - coming up with 4K to heat your house is simply more feasible than 10K to retrofit it for most people who are not quite wealthy.  And for those without either, well, on to the next options.

Heating with something else - or heating less with something similar: Here are the choice as I see them, the pros and the cons:

1. Electric space heaters: Newer ones are much, much more efficient than older ones - don’t waste money on an old used one if you’ve got a choice.

Pro: Cheap to buy, can provide localized heat when the furnace doesn’t work, widely available used, most places don’t permit electric shutoffs in the coldest months.

Con: Vulnerable to grid failure, won’t help you during intermittent power outages, mandatory no-shut offs may be overturned, can bring about grid failure if enough people add them to winter electric loads, expensive, you may end up without power all summer if you can’t pay your bill, dangerous - can cause fires.

2. Propane heaters: MAKE SURE THESE ARE PROPERLY INSTALLED - every year people die of CO poisoning using these improperly in a power outage.

Pro: Cheap, can be installed through walls, propane is cheaper than oil, can be used during electrical failures.

Con: Not much cheaper than oil, vulnerable to supply constraints, delivery issues,  dangerous if not properly installed, must be used carefully.

3. Kerosene heaters: Note: There are two kinds of these - cooking stoves, often used by the Amish as summer stoves, and heating stoves - both will create ambient heat, the heaters are more efficient, but one you can cook on has advantages.

Pro: Cheaper than oil, don’t have electric ignition so can be used during power outages, not terribly popular so not hard to find, can cook on some of them.

Con: Not a terribly clean fuel, dangerous if not properly installed, smelly, ventilation must be good.

4. Geothermal Heat Pumps: These are good choices for a lot of areas, particularly if you have a lot of local geothermal energy.  The technology seems to be improving rapidly, too, so do your research.

 Pros: Uses a cheap source to both heat and cool, uses much less energy than heating and cooling with electricity directly, low carbon.

Cons: Requires electricity to operate, some use more power than others, may not regulate temperatures as much as you like.

5. Wood Stoves - note, I am *only* talking here of fairly new, airtight stoves.  Don’t use anything but a newer UL stove - period, unless you are desperately poor and have absolute no other choice.  The pollutants and the efficiency issues are so great that you simply shouldn’t use it if you have a very old stove, unless the choice is to freeze or use it.  Don’t buy old stoves.  Buy the tightest, most efficient stove you can buy, and the smallest one appropriate to your space, and burn only seasoned hard wood if possible.  We’ll talk about cooking later this week, but if you are going to buy a stove and need to heat and cook, a cook stove is a lot more versatile, and only slightly less efficient.

Pro: Technically carbon neutral (I’m going to do a post on wood heating ASAP, so we’ll debate the details of this at a later date), depending on how you get it, abundant, renewable fuel in most very cold places, output (ashes) can be used to fertilize garden and keep soil healthy, extremely cheap fuel if you have a woodlot, can cut wood in national forests, use waste wood, or downed trees, many with baskets and adaptors can burn multiple fuels including corn, pellets and coal giving you the greatest possible adaptability.

Con: Pricey if you have to buy it, legal issues in some areas,  a lot less carbon neutral if it has to be moved around, can lead to deforestation, has particulate emissions issues that can cause health problems, expensive if you rely on purchased wood, you have to have a place to put it.

6. Corn Stoves: I gather that these and pellet stoves are experiencing a big boom in sales, and are backordered in many areas - just fyi.

Pro: Uses something that some low-forest areas of the midwest have a lot of, at least it doesn’t make ethanol, fuel can be cheap, possibility of growing your own and being even cheaper, low emissions, legal in many cities, cheaper than comparable woodstoves, with a dramatic reduction in feedlot meat consumption and ethanol (ie, the corn goes to heating and human food instead of cars and cows)  might be sustainable… but would require massive changes in agricultural practice.

Con: Most corn is grown with artificial nitrogen so heavy global warming impact, increasingly expensive, uses human food for fuel, on a large scale would increase food prices dramatically, added to ethanol and heavy meat consumption could be an absolute disaster, require electricity.

7. Pellet Stoves: See above

Pro: Uses a waste product of the construction industry, can be stored, low emission, possibilities for cities, no stovepipe.

Con: Backorders, pellets use a glue that may be toxic when breathed, pellet supply issues already exist, construction industry in the toilet so its by products will rise in price and decrease availability, requires electricity to run, relies on delivery from distant places.

8. Coal Stoves: Ok, using these will be freakin’ apocalyptic for the planet if we do it on any scale.  My worst nightmare is that the northeast responds to freezing temperatures by looking for the cheapest option and discovering coal stoves - the air pollution, global warming and quality of life will suck.  That said, however, I mention them, because if you are poor and have no choice, this may be your best option.  I do recommend people who get them consider trying to get ones that can burn both coal and wood, so that you can convert to the somewhat better, renewable option later.  And may G-d have mercy on my soul for mentioning this.

Pro: Cheap.  Cheaper than any of the above options.  While coal is rising in price, it still may remain cheap for some time, particularly in coal producing areas.  The stoves are cheap too.

Con: Are you kidding?  This is the single worst way to create heat ever.

9. Natural gas stoves - These are also comparatively inexpensive and more available than corn or pellet stoves.

Pro: Cheap, use less natural gas than a furnace, easy to install, comparatively clean burning?

Con: Subject to all the disadvantages of natural gas

10. Wood Masonry Stove: These are amazing - everyone should have one.  Except, of course, that they cost a million dollars and can collapse your floors ;-) .

Pro: Use minimal wood, produce gradual heat, very clean burning, beautiful, can be made with bread ovens and warm benches - probably the ideal solution to all our problems, if only we could afford it.

Con: Heating even a small house costs 10K plus - bigger ones in the range of 20K.  Prohibitive for many - require floor reinforcements if added to an existing house in some cases.

11. Rocket Mass Heaters:  These deserve much, much more attention: http://www.dirtcheapbuilder.com/rostforcobbu.html

Pro: Cheap, with all the advantages of the above.  These are probably the best option we’ve got.

Con: A major DIY project, Big.

12. Passive Solar heaters - Pat Murphy at the Community Solution is rather dismissive (and based on extensive research) of most passive solar designs or retrofits, saying that most don’t actually do what they say.  Still these are worth exploring.  I’m not going to list pros and cons, because the options are so varied and each project has its own issues - do your research before you do this: http://www.dirtcheapbuilder.com/rostforcobbu.html.  I’ve heard mixed things from various plans.

So what’s the best choice?  The best choice is to change your thinking, get used to winter, deal with the cold, adapt your house and yourself as best you can, and use the absolute minimum amount of heat from the cleanest source you possibly can.  There is no perfect option - and we’re not going to get to one without a massive commitment in the US to retrofitting our dwellings.  Sometimes people will have to do the best they can - but most of us can do rather better than we do at minimizing our heat use and expectations, and thinking about our neighbors and the future as well as ourselves when we make our choices.  We need to plan now for a long term with less energy - and as difficult as that is, we need to do so carefully and wisely.


36 Responses to “Heating and Insulation Options”

  1. Matriarchy says:

    I’d like to know more about masonry stoves. Do you have links to sources? I know you said they are expensive, but I have a split level house with a basement slab. Thinking about replacing the gas furnace with a masonry stove for baking and heating a space for bathing and laundry, under bedrooms.

    I was thinking of looking into mason labor in the form of vo-tech school students that would be interested in an experimental project.

  2. Ani says:

    re: heating with coal- the newspaper in my state (VT) just had a frontpage article yesterday on…yes…the resurgence of heating with coal! A large farming/greenhouse operation has even decided they will start heating some of their greenhouses with it, climate change be dammed, as they can’t afford to heat with other fuels and stay competitive price wise they say…….

    Of course this does once again point out to me the fallacy of some of the “eat local” campaigns in terms of carbon footprint- the average customer will not be able to distinguish between the carbon footprint of a local farm that heats with coal versus my low-carbon model or a grower who is using wood or recycled vegie oil to heat their greenhouses…..

    re: masonry stoves- for Matriarchy-
    my friends had one made and it has had problems all along-best advice I can give is to shop carefully for an experienced mason, get refs and check them and be sure it works well when finished.

  3. Rosa says:

    Friends of ours have a pretty sweet setup; a little cookstove (woodburning) that is set into a sort of island of unmortared bricks in the middle of their house; the bricks act as thermal mass (so does the furnace chimney, also brick, that is near it) but were cheap & light to install, compared to a masonry stove. It doesn’t impact the cook stove installation, it just soaks up heat around it to carry through the night.

    They’ve been running it for years, with no furnace use except in January-February.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I live in WV, in an area where quite a few people still have coal stoves, and I just wanted to add that they also smell really unpleasant. Instead of that nice woodburning smell you get outdoors in the fall, imagine everyone is seasoning a new cast-iron skillet in their ovens at the same time.
    I know it’s not a big consideration, just wanted to throw it out there.

  5. Stephen B says:


    Here’s the address for The Masonry Heater Association of North America: http://mha-net.org/ That site explains quite a bit.

    I have a Tulikivi masonry heater. It worked for me because we have a slab on grade house so it basically was built in front of our old sheet metal, zero clearance fireplace. It was about $15K installed back in 2005.

    Stephen B.
    suburban MA

  6. Sarah Flood says:

    Remember that insulation keeps your house cooler in summer too. It is probably the best investment you can make in terms of money saved for money spent. I am amazed at how little we spend on heat now we live in a well insulated house.

  7. Paula says:


    Do you know anything about forced convection solar panels?? I ran into a link on Crunchy Chicken’s site advertising the SolarSheat. Cansolair is a similar concept, different patent.

    We are looking into a solar panel(s) as a way to supplement our main winter heat source. We live in northern WI. The winters get very cold here, and long.

    Any insight by anyone would be much appreciated.



  8. Cathy says:

    I’ve been studying the heating issue (currently using $$$ propane) and have decided to tear out the propane gas log sealed fireplace unit and replace with a wood pellet stove that is a fireplace insert with a battery back-up for power outages. (See Lennox’s website for the Winslow stoves)

    I’m extimating that my propane bill this coming year would be close to $3000 — and for less than ($2700) that I can have the stove/insert installed. Burning the stove from November 1 to March 31, I estimate that I’ll use around 2 tons of pellets. At $200 ton that’s only $400.00. I do get some significant passive solar heating as well from southern windows.

    I chose the pellet -type system because one load of pellets should last almost two days. I’m away from the house nearly 12 hours each day, so the system should take care of itself while I’m gone.

    Yes, it’s an investment, but I think it will pay off in the future when propane becomes more expensive yet.

  9. Bob Waldrop says:

    I’d like to breakdown my expenditures a bit and show how they work together.

    First, the superinsulation project. This involved insulating the attic to R-50, and the walls to R-33. That required increasing the thickness of the walls to 9 inches. First we insulated the existing wall cavities, then we built a new frame, 5.5 inches inside of the existing exterior walls, covered it with drywall and insulated that. the price of that job was $3,150, with most of the labor being done by Sean and I, maybe $250 of that was some labor we hired to help. This was the material cost — insulation and dry wall mostly, as the frame was primarily constructed of wood we salvaged when we tore down an exterior un-attached garage.

    The next job was the solar sunspace. This involved tearing off the south wall of the house and turning it into windows. The price of that was about $2,800, for materials and skilled labor (we had to hire an expert designer/carpenter to re-do the wall as windows so the roof wouldn’t collapse. We provided grunt labor.

    Then we did windows. Windows are expensive, they were $4,630, for double pane, argon filled, low-e coated windows. That labor was all done by the window company.

    Doors (4 exterior) were $1,028. We did the labor.

    Reline chimney — $2,700, contractor labor.

    Then we also rewired the house (we had antique 1929 wiring), finished replacing the roof (about 1/4 had yet to be done). So that’s how we got to $27K and change.

    The most important thing we did was the insulation, the next most important job was the solar sun space. If I had this to do again, and was more limited on money, instead of replacing the windows I would have spent $800 or so for material and made interior insulated window shutters, R-20, for the windows. We have been experimenting with this for 9 years, and finally settled on a design last year, and I am finishing the shutters one or two at a time as I get the time, with the goal of completing them by the first freeze this year. Interior shutters, at R-20 or more, are more important than new windows, and give a lot more bang for the energy conservation buck.

    In colder climates, the main difference would be “thicker insulation”. in Sweden, new house walls are 19″ thick with insulation.

    We used cellulose insulation, which is made from recycled paper, and it is very easy for amateurs to install. We had never installed cellulose insulation before, it took us about a day to figure it out, but once we had made a few mistakes, it went quickly, albeit it is messy, but that is why someone invented brooms and dust pans.

    So for considerably less than $27K, people can get most of the energy conservation benefit of what we have done. Mileage varies, of course, based on the size of the house. Ours was 1548 sq ft.

  10. Bob Waldrop says:

    PS. We bought insulation at a Home Despot store. They were advertising “free blower” if you bought so many bales of insulation. We found that their free blower worked fine in the attic, but it didn’t have enough power to fill the walls. So we went to a rental store and found one there with a lot more power and it worked great.

  11. Greenpa says:

    Oh, Sharon! Naughty, naughty! ;-)

    You left out “earth shelter”- which is really my top favorite of all.

    Requires planning, yes, and work, and expertise. But once built- it’s so close to zero input, and zero impact, it’s incredible. And it provides air conditioning in summer, as well as heat in winter.

    Which is why I’m in the process of building an earth-sheltered structure - even for my POULTRY. Yes, it’s at least 10 times as much work (though actually less cash out) as any conventional chicken house.

    But it’s going to function so much better- and last so much longer- it’s easily worth it.

    It ought to be on everyone’s list of options- regardless of where you are. I was just re-reading Thoreau, Walden; and came upon the reference to the typical first dwelling for New England pioneer settlers. They’d dig a cellar first. Roof it- and live in the cellar for several years, while building a nice “respectable” house. Which they then had to buy fuel to heat, but we don’t need to get into that.

    Usually those cellars were dismally dark and badly ventilated, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. Did into the side of a hill- and you can have all the light you want, without sacrificing the advantages.

    Over the centuries- many people have frozen to death- sitting on ground they could have dug into- and lived.

  12. JudithN says:

    Rocket stoves are very cool! If anyone wants to see a video of them, check out:


  13. Greenpa says:

    JudithN- I watched the video, and found it pretty scary. Any long horizontal run of flue pipe is going to collect creosote- which some day will catch fire. I know- it’s supposed to burn so clean there’s “almost no” creosote- but “almost” is not the same as 0.

    And the construction has no way to get in there to clean it.

    I’d be much happier if somebody could show me one like that which had been operating without trouble for 10 years. Are there any? Anybody know? I’d be delighted to be mistaken.

  14. Sharon says:

    Bob, thank you for the info about your retrofit and its costs - that’s very good to know!

    And Greenpa - I did leave it off, simply because I left off all things that involve building new structures - this is an Adapting In Place class, and the assumptions are that people are going to live in the houses they have now, with no more expenditures than they can afford (ie, without borrowing money). I personally love earth sheltered homes, am a huge Mike Oehler fan, and think they are underused (although actually the very first shelters built in New England were definitely not earth sheltered - Thoreau may be referring to later construction) in the US. But I can’t really include that in this class, because it falls outside the parameters of what we’re doing.


  15. Hausfrau says:

    Re: Geothermal. Cons- I would add expensive. We had one put in, and it works as advertised, we have reduced our bills and our energy usage by quite a bit. However the initial expense was a lot more than the other super high-efficiency regular natural gas models. It will take us a while to make our money back.

    Also Cons - Very messy to install. They must drill down about 200 feet to put in the pipes and it makes a big mess that must then be re-landscaped.

  16. river says:

    Greenpa, I’d like to learn more about earth shelters. Can you recommend some resources, printed or online?

  17. Katherine says:

    We have an oil furnace with only one zone for the system, so always had to heat the whole house. We got our oil usage down from 900 gals /yr to less than 500 by turning down tyhe temp, insulating and new windows. Nevertheless, we were pretty much always cold even with sweaters and wool socks and hats. There is only so far we can go with that as our son has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair all the time so is more likely to get too cold. This summer we finally got a wood burning fireplace insert installed with which we can keep the part of the house we actually hang out in warm. My concern now is that we recently had an article in our local paper that firewood in Maine is well over $300/cord (we just paid $180) because they have cut down most of their hardwood trees and have only pine left and are now bringing in hardwood from here (CT). I hope this is false, because if it’s not then Maine is the first domino to fall as the rest of the areas succumb to using all their hard wood trees.

  18. Rebecca says:

    Down here it’s fairly easy to keep your house warm enough to tolerate and avoid freezing pipes with any kind of heating if you have even rudiementary insulation. I keep my thermostat sat at 60 in the winter and only one time in the winter in the 3+ years I’ve been here has my utility bill (lights + water + trash + sewage + taxes) exceeded $100. Usually I have one or two $100-120 bills in the summer but not the winter.

    Greenpa, there’s one very important thing you’re forgetting about earth-sheltered homes that make them impractical in some locations: radon. Here radon problems in the soil are common and I for one don’t want to live in a home surrounded by radon!

  19. Steve in Colorado says:

    A few thoughts Sharon…

    I’m not sure what you mean by older electric heaters are inefficient. Most all electric heaters are 100% efficient, in that all the electric fuel they use ends up as heat. This is true of old as well as new ones. The old ones tend to be less fancy, and less safe (get hotter and can cause fires if tipped over) but they should be just as efficient as the newer ones. In any case, not sure I would recommend them except as emergency or occassional use.

    You didn’t mention heat pumps, which give a 3x efficiency improvement (+/-) over plain resistive electric heat. For many this may be the least polluting and cheapest fuel option.

    I think it is important to separate how we think about insulation from fuel. Although the two are certainly related (more insulation less fuel and visa versa), they are in separate categories. Insulation is a one time expense. You put it in and it keeps reducing your fuel needs forever. That is very different than your fuel costs which keep re-appearing (and increasing) every year.

    I think we all know this, but it is important to keep it in mind with these discussions. If you can do something to cut your heating energy needs to 1/2 or 1/4 of their current levels, FOREVER, what is that worth. Insulate, insulate, insulate. You can’t have too much (Keep in mind that the amounts of recommended insulation are based upon energy costs. The recommended amounts these days are much higher then they were 10 years ago, and will no doubt be much higher in another ten years. May as well get ahead of the curve while you can.)

    Also my views/experience with passive solar is different than the one you present. It has worked extremely well for me here in Colorado, and worked well (but not as well) 30 years ago in upstate NY. Certainly if you are in a sunny area it will be easier to use solar (of any type), but alot can be done in most any climate. Best of all, like insulation, after a passive solar project is installed, it’s savings are free, no fuel costs.

  20. teresa from hershey says:

    My DH insulated our attic and it has saved us thousands of dollars in heating. BUT, insulation has to be done right to get any benefit! You should NOT just throw bats around. Every crack and gap should be sealed first with low expanding foam or caulk and then the insulation placed in snugly between the joists. The second layer goes crosswise / perpendicular to the first to keep down any gaps. The library has many good books on how to insulate. It isn’t difficult but you should be very picky about how you do it.

    You should also weatherstrip and caulk everywhere. If you can see daylight in your doorframe, you are losing heat (or air conditioning). We caulk every single place where two planes meet: ceiling to wall, walls to walls, walls to floor, door and window trim to walls and it all adds up. Weatherstripping doors is the easiest cheapest thing to do and it should be done first. Don’t forget to line your outlets with those foam gaskets too.

    Window treatments should be layered as well. We use window quilts (which I made), room darkening shades (purchased), sheer lace curtains for privacy during the day (which I made) and lined drapes with a valance (which I made). They make a huge difference and were ever so much cheaper than replacing the windows.

  21. Stephen B says:

    I have to chime in on the benefits of insulation, and especially insulating *first*, before reworking whatever heat source one is planning on using.

    Even though our house was only 7 years old at the time that we decided to get off the gas furnace, the first thing we did was insulate. Even in such a contemporary building, we found lots of places lacking for insulation. Our attic had a very poorly laid down 9 inches of fiberglass batts. We added 12 additional inches crosswise to the first layer (careful, don’t use vapor barriers on additional insulation) for a total of 22. That brought the attic up to R-70. Then we went after previously uninsulated “knee wall” areas of our dormer, 2nd floor. We even had to cut our way into one of these areas through the drywall as the builder hadn’t left an access door. We found heating ducts running through this unconditioned space and buried them under 2 feet of cellulose as well as putting more fiberglass batts on the underside of the roof in there (with “Raftermate” breather panels installed too.) Even though we weren’t going to use the heating system much anymore, we had to heavily insulate these ducts because otherwise they would have acted as heat exchangers, giving up heat to the unconditioned space as warm room air drifted into the ductwork (which I have found happens no matter how tightly one closes off ceiling registers.) Insulating these hidden areas had the additional benefit of stopping several previously troublesome cold drafts coming out of “can” lights in the kitchen ceiling too. It seemed that, even though said lights were on an interior ceiling with the 2nd floor above, cold air had been traveling a considerable distance horizontally between the floor joists after gaining entry in these knee wall, dormer areas. Problem solved.

    Additionally, we got double cellular shades with tight-fitting side tracks for all the windows. I think interior window shutters would have been a bit cheaper, but my carpentry skills aren’t all that great and the rest of the family wouldn’t have allowed some crummy, home-cooked solution on the windows. For living areas on the north, the cellular shades allow some light transmission through them too, allowing us to keep them drawn during the day, something probably not possible with interior insulating shutters as I don’t think the rest of the family would have tolerated the cave-like darkness. Therefore, the shades get to insulate even during the day.

    Storm doors on 2 exterior doors and insulating an unheated store room upstairs rounded out the insulation project. When we were done, I measured an approximate 45 to 50% reduction in heating load (done by carefully measuring furnace burner duty cycles, accounting for furnace BTU output, and accounting for outdoor, indoor temperature differentials at the time.) Basically we cut the heating load of a new house *in half*. The reason that this was important to do was that our masonry heater only had a design output of about 22k BTU per hour, averaged over 24 hours, and it simply wouldn’t have done the job during our coldest winter design temperature otherwise. The heater now should keep us about 50 degrees above outdoor ambient, which after some cooking, bathroom and human body heat, will keep our house okay even on the coldest days, which never last more than a day or so anyhow. (On the other hand, the furnace had been grossly oversized at 92K BTU/hr output even by the builder. After our insulation project, it became even more so. In theory, it should now be capable of so much of a temperature difference with the outside that is should keep the house at 65 degrees down to an outdoor air temperature of -102F!) Super insulation should also cut our firewood consumption. I’d like to save even more by cutting our indoor temperature, but some other family members are of the age that anything below 60 wouldn’t be allowed except when forced into it by emergency situations.

    We’d have loved to increase the solar gain of the house, but sadly, our house is actually joined on one wall with our neighbor’s (we’re actually a condo development of houses joined in pairs) and their house sits to the south, blocking winter sun to all but 3 windows.

    Nevertheless the lesson is clear. When preparing to live better “in place”, one starts changing the heating situation by insulating first.

  22. Stephany says:

    We live in a half-raised, walkout ranch which is about 1900
    square ft and we can heat the whole house with a fairly small woodstove. This is partly because we winterize like mad and partly because we have the woodstove is placed in the family room in the basement.
    Since the heat warms the basement and then rises, we have eliminated the problem of having to close off rooms that don’t get heat.
    We have a fireplace in an upstairs room, also but we lose a lot of heat up our chimney when we start it. The only reason we do is because I use it for cooking and sometimes just for fun.

    Do you have any suggestions about getting the heat from a fireplace to circulate better?

  23. Sharon says:

    I appreciate all the great and well thought out comments - the reason I put insulation in with heating is that for many people, the issue isn’t “what gets me the best possible results” but “which one-time expense can I afford.” And the blunt truth is that if you have no or minimal heating, living in a drafty house with some source of heat, if you live in the far north, is better than living in a well insulated house with no heating.

    My concern is that with credit drying up quite rapidly, home equity gone and few grants and straight out subsidies, millions of people are going to have to make one investment - and while insulation would be by far the better choice if we were talking about a long term heating energy reduction plan, insulation is a tough choice for those who may never be able to put money into the system again.

    Now not everyone, maybe not even most people, fall into that category. But I do think it is important to sit down and figure out what’s most urgent - and IMHO, if you are poor and expect to get more so, and have to choose between a heating source that operates without fossil fuels and more insulation, I’d vote for the heating source. It really depends on how you come at this. Ideally, I’d vote for both. And if I thought there was a chance of secondary expenditure later on, definitely both. But not everyone may have that option.

    Again, the commentary here has been *GREAT* - I really appreciate the clarifications, corrections and information. I’m going to do a longer series on winter heating in September, since I have to move on in the AIP class, and there are still so many things I haven’t covered. I’ll seperate out insulation and do seperate posts on fossil and non-fossil strategies, and one I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, on the long term issues of wood. Now I have to move on to cooling, cooking and laundry, though ;-) .



  24. Brian says:


    Although it wasn’t shown in the video, there is indeed a way to clean out the flue running through the bench. There are two access holes, one at the start of the flue, the second at the end of the bench, where one can get in with a vaccuum hose or brush to clean out the pipe. This needn’t be done very often because the creosote buildup is very low.

    There may be some rocket stoves out there that have been operating for that long… The person to talk to is Ianto Evans of the Cob Cottage Company. Give him a call and he’ll tell you anything you want to know: http://www.cobcottage.com

  25. linda says:

    I see no reason to not place a masonry stove in a basement. We were just looking at buying farmhouses in the midwest and the old ones had the huge wood burning fireplaces in their cellars. The question would then be is this worth heating the cellar first? Heat travels up after all. For us, this would be the more feasible option as husband is an experienced masonry contractor so the work itself isn’t an issue.

  26. Rosa says:

    Linda, if your cellar is at all livable, it’s worth heating. It’s more energy efficient than the rest of the house, especially an old house.

    Before we replaced our furnace, our cellar was very warm. My partner put his office there when he worked from home, and I did a lot of early-spring seed starting. Now we have an energy-efficient furnace that heats the upstairs instead, so we don’t use the space except for storage and laundry.

  27. gpurdum says:

    We replace an old oil furnace with a ground-loop geothermal heat pump and have been very pleased with it. Complete cost-benefit analysis, pictures and details are posted on our web site. We’re saving thousands of dollars each year compared to heating oil. The up-front cost was considerable but the payback period was only about 7 years. If you have the land, use a ground loop (a 5′ trench where the pipes are buried) rather than drilling a well and save some excavation costs.

  28. Bill in NC says:

    There are also low-temperature air-source heat pumps (down to -15F) now available.

    More expensive than a run-of-the-mill air-source heat pump, but cheaper than geothermal heat pumps.

  29. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at http://couponredeemer.com/federalgrants/

  30. Survival Cooking and Heating 101 « Wildflower says:

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  31. Katy Steele says:

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