Navigating the world of home heating and cooling systems is not always easy, and can be confusing. There are many different ways to provide for your home heating and cooling needs, and the availability (and feasibility) of these options vary depending on where you live and what policies your specific area has in place.
In West Chester, you might have a variety of options on the table, and once you start comparing all of your heating and cooling options— their upfront costs, their maintenance costs, their installation requirements, their contract terms and savings structures— it gets overwhelming quickly. The time it takes to properly inform yourself in making the best decision for your needs can feel like a full-time commitment. While such a decision is important and should be carefully considered, it need not be over complicated. The West Chester Area Clean Energy Future is here to help! Let’s start with the basics.
Principle Heat Source
When you are thinking about installing a new heating and cooling system, the first factor to consider is the principle energy source— that is the primary means of heat generation (or for cooling, heat dispersal). Each principle heat source has its own method for providing the energy needed to create and/or disperse heat. For example, in geothermal systems, the Earth serves both functions: its heat warms your house in the winter, and cools it by accepting excess heat in the summer. Natural gas furnaces, on the other hand, generate heat by means of combustion. Active solar systems use sunlight to heat chambers of liquid that are piped into your home. Understanding the principle energy source is critical in understanding how a heating/cooling system works and is important for choosing which system to purchase to fit your family’s needs. Not all principle energy sources function the same way: some are much better at sustained heat delivery than others (geothermal systems), whereas some are easier to turn on and off with a switch (natural gas furnaces).
Another key element to understand about home heating and cooling is how the energy is moved around your home. Some systems use water as a conduit of heat— where water is heated up and then moved around the house, dispersing heat as it is circulated. Other systems use air instead, by means of a duct system, forcing hot air into the house through vents. With regard to cooling, some systems work by introducing cold air into the house through those same ducts (electrically powered central air conditioning systems), whereas other systems also focus on removing heat from the house (geothermal cooling via heat pump). Methods of energy dispersal also play into the efficiency of the system.
Measuring the efficiency of heating and cooling systems is a little different than other energy systems (electric cars for example). First, it is important to think of heat as a form of energy that can be measured (commonly in Btu’s or British Thermal Energy Units). These units give us a quantitative way to talk about energy and efficiency. For energy efficiency of heating and cooling systems, the amount of energy (heat) the system moves (into or out of a house) is compared to the amount of energy (fuel or electricity) that the system uses to do so. Take the following example: a heating system moves 4 units of energy (heat) from the earth into your house, while consuming 1 unit of energy (electricity) to do so. There is a net of 3 units of energy. This is an example of an efficient system. If the number were flipped, this would be a very inefficient system.
The efficiency of a system affects the system’s operating costs, that is how much it costs to run the system on a day to day basis. Efficient systems, like ground or air based heat pumps, tend to have comparable (commonly even lower) day to day costs to natural gas systems. The results of this comparison can change depending on the specifics of your system, climate or on the price of natural gas, and so the exact comparison may vary per household and location.
The volunteers for West Chester Clean Energy Future have been working to assemble an array of tools that can work out the details of different heating systems. For example, you can use the Efficiency Maine calculator to input specific information on the energy costs and energy efficiencies for our area, and use this data to compare annual home energy costs.
Another factor to consider is the environmental footprint (or impact) of your home energy system. Intuitively, different home heating and cooling options will have different associated environmental footprints. For example, a natural gas furnace will (through combustion) will release air pollution. In addition, the delivery of gas to your home offers the potential for leaks, which are serious risks to human and ecological health (In other words, natural gas heating and cooling systems pose both localized and diffuse environmental risks). At the same time, geothermal systems also have an environmental footprint, namely in their construction (drilling and materials) and (potentially) in the electricity used to run them. This highlights a key dimension of environmental footprint: acute vs. chronic. For the most part, the environmental footprint of a geothermal system is acute (meaning it occurs with the construction: at an instance in time), whereas the environmental footprint of a natural gas furnace is chronic (meaning it impacts the environment with use over time). There are many reasons why the environmental footprint is an important factor to consider when choosing a home energy system. The environmental footprint of a system has implications on the human health, economic stability, and environmental quality at both the individual and community levels, so taking this into consideration when choosing a home heating and cooling system is critical.
Overall, thinking about the efficiency, method of energy dispersal (deliverance), and environmental footprint of your home energy system is a good starting point towards making an informed and environmentally and socially conscious decision.
It is very important that our community moves towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuels in the coming years. This means choosing renewable options for home heating and cooling when it comes time to replace your home's furnace. Specific energy needs will vary per home, but West Chester residents have a variety of renewable energy options available to them: air to air electric heat pumps, ground (geothermal) to air heat pumps, active solar, electrical resistance heating, and electric baseboard heating among them. Some of these options have high upfront costs that are mitigated by long lifespans and low maintenance costs, while others are cheaper upfront but cost more to run on the day to day.
Ultimately, the technologies involved in renewable heating and cooling systems have improved in the past few decades and are now on par with (or better than) most non-renewable heating systems. Even if it's not yet the time to replace your home’s furnace, rest assured that renewable heating and cooling systems are trending towards further legislative and public support, further improvement and lower costs.
Article written by Eric West, Undergraduate at Cornell University
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