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Renew Your Home’s Heat

Posted: April 1, 2016

Ways Pennsylvania homeowners can choose to heat with renewable fuels.

Renew Your Home’s Heat:

With spring making its way across the Keystone State, you may be tempted to forget about winter heating, but this is actually the perfect time to consider whether or not renewable heat should be part of your future. Home heating is a major energy use in colder climates. In Pennsylvania, it accounts for about 50% of a typical household's energy use (not including transportation fuel). Here are three ways you may be able to reduce the amount of fossil fuel heating you use by switching to a renewable alternative.

Switch to a whole home pellet boiler

Whole home pellet boilers are automated devices that can replace a heating oil boiler or a natural gas boiler in the home. Typically, they consist of a large bin of wood pellets that automatically feeds pellets to the boiler when needed. Companies in the region provide regular delivery of pellets, similar to the system used for heating oil delivery. Pellet boilers are a bit on the expensive side, but the pellet fuel is cost effective, the systems are well automated, and the pellets can come from one of Pennsylvania's pellet mills, which produce about 500,000 tons of pellets per year.

Cost to Implement: About $20,000

Annual Expense: Depending on your current heating fuel, you could save a considerable amount on your heating bill. Wood pellets at $220 per ton are equivalent to paying $1.90 per gallon for fuel oil, $1.30 per gallon for propane, 5.7 cents per kwh for electricity or $1.45 per therm for natural gas. If we compare this to recent prices for these fuels, we can estimate annual savings:

Fossil Fuel to Replace Ave Price in PA [1] % Cost Savings When Switching to Pellets $/year Savings for Average PA Household
Natural Gas $1.78/therm 18% $156
Electricity $0.143/kwh 60% $834
Fuel Oil $2.16/gal 12% $90
Propane $2.58/gal 49% $534

We can see that, even with fossil fuel prices at their current low points, operating cost savings are still possible when using a pellet boiler.

Fossil Fuel Reduction: Switching to a home pellet boiler could eliminate all of your fossil fuel use for heating, which for an average household in PA amounts to 51 GJ of energy. In a typical household in Pennsylvania, this corresponds to about 350 gallons of fuel oil, 9,700 kwh of electricity, 480 therms of Natural Gas or 420 gallons of propane.  The reduction in CO2 emissions will depend on the original fuel source, and is estimated to be over 2,800 kg for switching from Natural Gas and over 4,700 kg for switching from fuel oil [2]

Use a pellet stove or woodstove to heat part of your home

Instead of the large investment in a whole home pellet boiler, it is more common for homes to install a standalone pellet stove or wood stove to heat a portion of the home, and use the existing fossil fuel heating system to handle any remaining heating needs. For example, you could use the pellet stove to heat your living spaces during the day, then let it die down at night while the fossil fuel heating system maintains temperature in the bedrooms. Depending on the specifics of your home, this approach can replace a significant portion of your fossil fuel use, without the larger expense of a whole home boiler system.

Cost to Implement: A wood stove or pellet stove can be much less expensive to install, depending on your home’s design and whether or not an existing chimney is available for use. Costs will typically range between $3,000 and $10,000.

Annual Expense: as we mentioned in the previous section, considerable cost savings can be the result of switching to renewable wood heat for your home. The magnitude of the savings will depend on the fraction of the heating bill that is replaced by wood. If we assume that 50% of the heating requirements are served by the stove, savings will be about half of those mentioned in the previous section. Note that cordwood is generally less expensive than pellets, which means that cost savings will be even greater.

Fossil Fuel Reduction: If we assume that 50% of the heating requirements are served by the pellet or wood stove, a typical household in Pennsylvania will reduce its fossil fuel use by about 175 gallons of fuel oil, 4,850 kwh of electricity, 240 therms of Natural Gas or 210 gallons of propane. The corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions is over 1,400 kg for switching from Natural Gas and over 2,350 kg for switching from fuel oil.

Switch your oil boiler to biodiesel heating oil

Like the convenience of your home’s oil boiler, but don’t like using fossil fuels for your home’s heat? It may be possible for you to switch to “bioheat” – biodiesel based heating oil that is made from vegetable oils. In general, most oil boilers should be able to run on bioheat fuel, but you will have to check on the specifics of your home’s system. Older units may have gaskets and fittings that will be prone to leaking when using bioheat fuel, which could be a serious headache. Even more challenging will be locating a supplier in your area with bioheat fuel. While a good option in theory, it is probably only available in select areas.

Cost to Implement: $0 if your fuel tank and boiler are compatible with bioheat fuel (otherwise you’d need a new boiler, which could be expensive)

Annual Expense: The cost of bioheat fuel, relative to petroleum heating fuel, should follow similar trends to those for biodiesel, namely that a 20% bioheat blend will likely cost about 4% more than petroleum fuel, and a 100% bioheat fuel will likely cost about 44% more.

Fossil Fuel Reduction: Switching to a 20% blend of bioheat fuel will reduce fossil fuel use in a typical PA household by about 70 gallons per year (~650 kg of CO2 emissions avoided), whereas switching to 100% bioheat corresponds to a 350 gallon per year reduction (~3,200 kg of CO2 emissions avoided).

[1] Prices are taken from US Energy Information Administration summary of residential energy prices for Sept/Oct/Nov 2015, and compared to a price of $220 per ton for wood pellets.

[2] From “A Carbon Life Cycle Analysis of Wood Pellets” by John Ackerly, Alliance for Green Heat.

Prepared by Daniel Ciolkosz, Penn State Extension

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