Winter temperatures, particularly in the northern hemisphere, have been plummeting in the last fifteen years. If your heating bills have not raised the alert yet, perhaps you need to start factoring in just how much heating costs impact on your carbon footprint. Whether you take weather predictions to heart or not, finding ways to reduce home heating costs through alternative means, is both good for the planet and your wallet.
Your carbon footprint is a measure of all the greenhouse gases you produce in your day-to-day life through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation for example. Escalating electricity bills and concerns about the contribution of home heating to domestic carbon footprints, especially in colder regions, have led to the search for new (and old) ways to heat our homes.
A home energy audit, conducted by certified technicians, which looks at energy use in the home and identifies areas of energy ‘loss’ and waste, can go a long way in improving energy efficiency in your home. You can also conduct your own energy audit and many online resources, such as the UK Carbon Calculator, can guide you in the right direction. Before installing heating technologies, you have to find ways to insulate your home from the winter chill. New insulation technologies, as well as tried-and-tested insulation materials like wood, wool, and straw are making a comeback.
Deciding upon a particular insulation and/or heating technology for your home can initially appear costly, but bear in mind that initial outlay costs will be recovered through reductions in electricity bills. If you are at the stage of building or renovating your home, this is the best time to not only select and install green insulation and heating technologies, but also to adopt green design principles which can collect and hold sunlight – more on this later.
The starting point in weathering your home for the winter is to look for all the areas in your home where cold gets in – before the onset of the cold season. Begin by insulating your home and, wherever possible, try to do it yourself. Insulate your home by sealing windows and doors, adding weather stripping or even a doorsweep. Always make sure windows are airtight and can close properly, replace locks if necessary. Before you even start thinking about spending on heating technologies, consider all the insulation options available. Today, insulation technologies are fire-resistant, can be installed in ceilings and walls, and are often sourced from recycled plastic, glass and newspapers. Insulation can reduce energy requirements in winter tremendously so it is worth considering before opting for heating technologies.
Now, look at what energy source you are using for heating your home. Some governments require that a percentage of home energy usage be from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. If you are fortunate to have this option, try to buy as much of your energy needs from renewable sources. Don’t be discouraged by the high outlay costs of alternative heating technologies, they can come with government subsidisation, which will reduce your electricity bill by as much as 40-60%, and most importantly will reduce your carbon footprint.
Several alternative home heating options are available and you will have to get advice on the option which is suitable for your budget, location and needs. The efficacy of solar heating for instance depends on where you are living, in sunny South Africa or chilly Canada. Solar heat technology still relies on some electricity to move the heat collected by solar collectors. This technology collects heat from the sun and stores, transfers and distributes energy to the home. This is referred to as active solar energy, but there are also passive ways in which we can harness the sun’s warmth. Sun intake can be maximised through the design and orientation of windows, by using floor and wall materials which absorb heat, and through building designs which collect and hold sunlight such as skylights.
Two other heating technologies which will be considered here are radiant and geothermal heating. In radiant heating technologies, heat is supplied directly to the floor or to panels in the wall or ceiling. In hydronic radiant floor heating, the most popular and earth-friendly radiant heating technology, water is heated from a boiler and then pumped through a tubing pattern which has been laid underneath the floor. Floor coverings with a high heat capacity, such as ceramic tiles, conduct, store and radiate the heat through the floor. Geothermal or ground source heat pumps also rely on a network of underground tubes which are filled with fluid, but instead tap into the warmth of the earth underneath to retrieve the heat needed to warm the underground tubing. Expert help needs to be solicited in assessing which heating technology is most suitable, earth-friendly and cost effective for you. While heating technologies do have high installation costs, they are low maintenance.
In designing or renovating your home, there are several factors which can make a big impact on insulating and heating your home. Position your home to achieve maximum heat absorption from the sun. Locate windows, as well as rooms and doors, to harness the sun’s energy. Incorporate building designs and technologies which collect and hold sunlight such as double-paned glass windows which reduce heat loss.
If you’re starting to worry about the cost of all these home heating technologies, here are some which won’t dent your wallet too much:
• Warm your home with drapes or heavy curtains, selecting fabrics and colours which will absorb the heat of the winter sun and add warmth to your home
• Lay rugs and carpets
• Install and refurbish old fireplaces
• Use a wood-fired stove, many of which use recycled wood chips and pellets for heating
• Be active, dress warmly & sip warm beverages, keeping in mind to boil just the amount of water you need for your cuppa
Have a warm winter!
Dr. Najma Mohamed is an environmental researcher and writer based in South Africa.