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Energy Efficient Home Heating Systems Compared
With so many options for the modern Irish home heating system, which is the best for you?
Regardless of whether you are looking to build a new home or renovate your existing residence, you need to know a little about how home heating systems work. There are various types of heating systems that we use to keep ourselves warm, from the simple small space heater to the complex types that exchange heat with the outside environment.
There’s also a range of different fuels (gas, coal, wood, electricity) we can use to power the system. And then on top of that, we have different ways to distribute that heat, including forced air, hot water, steam and radiant hot water.
It may seem like an impenetrable subject but all these options have a lot in common.
The Basic Components of a Home Heating System
With very few exceptions, home heating systems operate on the same principle of generating heat and then moving that heat from one object or area to another. The more efficiently these two processes work, the better the system is at saving you money and keeping you and your family comfortably warm during the winter months.
A study from 2015/16 from the Central Statistics Office showed that the average homeowner spends about €1550 every year on heating and electricity. A well-insulated home, with a modern and energy efficient heating system, can cut this monthly bill in half so it’s important to know your options.
The Basic Components of a Home Heating System
A heating system’s primary function is to replace the warmth in a living area lost through thermal leaks in a house’s shell. The amount of heat that you have to generate is based on several factors.
Where You Live: Obviously the colder it is outside the more you will need to heat your home to counterbalance the climate. In Ireland we are lucky that in spite of our northerly location, the north Atlantic drift warms the air giving us reasonably stable temperatures all-year-round.
The House Size: The bigger your house, the more space you need to heat it which means more energy.
The Energy Efficiency of the House: You can improve your house efficiency by sealing thermal leaks in the house envelope and installing insulation and better doors and double glazed windows.
The Energy Efficiency of the Heating System: Upgrading or replacing your home heating system depends on many factors but can offer significant savings over the long term.
The majority of homeowners look to improve the energy efficiency of their homes by improving the level of insulation first.
Attic, Cavity Wall Insulation and Floor Insulation
With the majority of heat lost through poorly insulated walls and attics, a cost effective first step for many is to improve the building seal by adding insulation.
Building Regulation Rating
The BER rating system indicates the overall energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings and is similar to the system used to measure the efficiency of electrical appliances. You are required to have a BER assessment on your property when renting or selling and it’s valid for up to 10 years.
A good BER rating adds equity to your property.
The Different Types Of Heating Systems
There are many different heating systems to choose from and which one is best for you really depends on your situation and habits. A summer holiday home might be best off with an electric space heater for those evenings when the Irish summer doesn’t oblige. The suburban family home might benefit from a house with programmable radiant floor heating.
Here’s a quick rundown of the available options to get your noggin jogging.
Direct Heating Vs Central Heating
Direct heating systems can come in the form of electric space heaters, wood stoves or any other heating that doesn't use air ducts or water pipes to distribute the heat around a building. They are easier and cheaper to install but are not generally energy efficient or economical.
Furnaces are not often found in Irish homes and are more prevalent in North America. They were used for heating large buildings in the past and there are inefficient legacy systems dotted around the country.
The furnace works by blowing heated air into rooms via a duct system. Sometimes called ‘forced warm-air’ and can be run on gas, oil or any biomass sources such as wood and peat.
The simple design of the furnace heating system means that it’s not prone to breaking down often and when it does, it doesn’t require a specialist with a high degree of technical knowledge to fix it.
The Advantages of Furnaces
The Disadvantages of Furnaces
Boilers work in much the same way as the furnace but instead of heating air, a boiler heats water in a piped system.
The hot water can be piped to traditional style radiators or a baseboard heating system. The hot water can also be circulated through an in floor radiant network of tubes in the floor. This heats the floor itself and then the house via conduction.
Boilers are perhaps the most common type of heating system in Ireland and for good reason. They strike a good balance between cost and convenience and whilst they do lack a capacity for cooling during the summer, some would argue that we rarely have the need for cooling.
The rising cost of some fuels may be an issue looking forward as the cost of oil shoot up in the winter of ‘17/’18 add €300 to some seasonal bills.
The Advantages of Boilers
The Disadvantages of Boilers
Irish people have been slow to adopt heat pumps as their main home heating system however that has begun to change. With the introduction of the government sponsored SEAI grant scheme that takes the sting out of the steep installation costs, Ireland has started catching up with our European neighbours with increasing numbers seeing the long term benefits of investing in heat pumps.
Heat pumps come in a variety of types but there are two main configurations.
Air-source heat pumps (ASHP) transfer heat via the principle of vapour compression from outside into your home and they look a lot like the traditional boxy air-con unit we’re all familiar with. Air-source heat pumps are common across the world mainly due to their cost of installation.
Ground-source heat pumps (also called geo-thermal GeoExchange or GX) get their heat from underground using the earth’s natural temperature to heat the system. Geo-thermal heating systems are much more efficient they use a natural passive heat source. However, they are much more expensive to install. When installing a geo-thermal system, you need to dig large trenches or bore deep wells to bury the pipes required for the system to work.
The Advantages of Heat Pumps
The Disadvantages of Heat Pumps
Electric Space Heaters
Portable electric space heaters provide heat by passing an electrical current through a resistor that heats a medium (often oil, sometimes air in bathrooms). These systems use electricity from the plug to power the system and don’t compare with other types of heating economically. The heating bill will quickly overtake the initial cost of the portable electronic space heater itself.
There are some benefits however. The purchase price of these systems is usually low and they can do a great job heating a single room.
The Advantages of Electric Space Heaters
The Disadvantages of Electric Space Heaters
Wood-Burning and Pellet Stoves
Wood burning stoves are a great idea if you live in the countryside or have easy access to wood. They look great and in Ireland, the cost of wood can be cheaper than oil or gas depending on your supplier and if you are willing to cut, stack and season your wood, the savings can be worth it.
Whilst newer wood / bio-mass stoves burn quite cleanly, any burning of fossil fuel does create a problem for the atmosphere, introducing a large number of harmful pollutants. Many cities now have strict regulations governing burning fossil fuels. They can also be messy to clean and lower the indoor air quality.
The Advantages of Wood-Burning and Pellet Stoves
The Disadvantages of Wood-Burning and Pellet Stoves
Fireplaces were the traditional centre of a room, providing a natural focus for furniture and décor orientation, but these much loved centrepieces are not energy efficient. The open fire can lose up to 70% of the heat generated up the chimney due to the warm air draw.
There have been moves recently to add a glass door and outside air source that significantly improves the fireplace efficiency but many think that the main benefit of an open fire is lost when it’s placed behind a glass panel.
Lastly, if you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint, then a fireplace is not going to help. You are burning fossil fuels and might run into problems with local authorities.
The Advantages of Fireplaces
The Disadvantages of Fireplaces
Radiant Floor Heat
Radiant underfloor floor heating is more commonly referred to as under-floor heating in Ireland and circulates hot water through pipes in the floor. As the floor heats so too does the room, creating a comfortable indoor environment that is very efficient and easily controlled. But the down side is that it is expensive to install and requires and experienced systems engineer to plan and oversee the build.
Old houses are not really suitable for retrofitting as it can get very expensive to install a radiant floor heating system that doesn’t affect the structural integrity of the building. Even on new houses, the cost of installation is enough to make buyers think twice.
The Advantages of Radiant Floor Heat
The Disadvantages of Radiant Floor Heat
So all these different options, be sure to make the right choice for you and your family.
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