Keeping Warm this Winter

With high oil and gas prices, Vineyarders are searching for ways to lower their heating bills. To respond, businesses on-Island are offering new technologies, which tend to be greener too.

These days there’s a lot of talk, and some action, about prices at the pump, especially on the Vineyard where the cost of gasoline is consistently above the national average. Auto manufacturers are scaling back production of larger, inefficient sports utility vehicles, and hybrid cars have become more commonplace. But there’s a lot less talk about furnaces.

“Most of us are much more conscious of what we drive than about how we heat our houses,” says Sharon Strimling Florio, owner of Vineyard Alternative Heating, which sells wood pellet as well as conventional wood stoves in Vineyard Haven. “Let’s face it, we have more intimate relationships with our cars than with our furnaces, driving around in them all the time. And we’re forced to think about fuel costs every time we pull up to a pump and empty our wallets.”

By contrast, a typical furnace dwells alone in the basement, practically out of sight and out of mind, and the fuel bill is something that comes in the mail every now and then, seeming more like an unpleasantly inevitable fact of life than the outcome of a conscious daily decision.

“One of the reasons I started this business two years ago was because I wanted to help Vineyarders to think more about their use of fossil fuels, especially when it comes to heating their homes and businesses,” Sharon says. “Heating uses one-third of all the energy consumed in the United States.”

Not too long ago, the main heating decision facing people on Martha’s Vineyard was how much wood to cut and stack for the upcoming winter. But people have more options for heating their homes today than ever before, and the stakes for choosing wisely have never been higher – for reasons ranging from as close as the wallet to the distant reaches of the earth’s atmos-phere.

The cost of natural gas and home heating oil has been on the rise on the Island, in the state, and across the country. And there’s every reason to expect prices to keep going up. According to a report released this summer by the University of Massachusetts, residents of the state using oil and natural gas to heat their homes this winter can expect to spend 30 percent more than last year, a steep increase for anyone struggling to stay warm and pay their heating bill.

Some Island heating fuel suppliers, such as Island Propane Inc. in Vineyard Haven and AmeriGas in Edgartown provide pre-buy programs, so homeowners can pre-purchase in the summer months the amount of fuel they think they’ll need to get through the winter. If the price of fuel actually goes down in the winter, then pre-buy customers can loose out a little. “But I haven’t seen that happen in the last seven years,” says Martha’s Vineyard AmeriGas manager Russ Woollacott. In addition, Island Propane offers a 10 percent discount to members of Our Island Club, a discount program for year-round residents. R.M. Packer and Company in Vineyard Haven also offers members a discount – on oil burners, oil boilers, warm air furnaces and, in some cases, furnace cleanings.

Looking beyond fuel costs, the potential consequences of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmos- phere are also of particular concern to island dwellers – on the Vineyard, as around the world. The prospect of storms of higher magnitude and of rising sea levels due to global warming – as a result of activities including burning fossil fuels and wood to heat our homes – pose a threat to the Island’s shoreline ecology, fisheries, tourism, and coastal infrastructure such as low-lying roads, docks, and ferry terminals.

Oil and gas furnaces have been the main heating choice for Island homeowners over the past several decades, with wood stoves and electric heaters serving as backup or auxiliary sources in many homes.

“Central heating using a gas or oil furnace is pretty much the current building standard here these days,” says Erik Lowe, owner of Lowe Energy Design, a West Tisbury company that installs furnaces, radiant flooring, and geothermal heating and cooling systems. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Today’s furnaces are considerably more technologically advanced and fuel efficient than what we had a generation ago.”

The net operating costs and environmental consequences of our furnaces, Erik explains, is not just a function of the systems themselves but of other choices we make: the size of the home we’re heating, the temperature we set the thermostat at, how well we maintain our heating equipment, and the condition of our doors, windows, and insulation.

“I guess I’m more partial to gas rather than oil furnaces,” Erik says. “They burn a little cleaner, and they need less maintenance than oil units, which require an annual cleaning and tune-up. Today’s oil furnaces are advancing in terms of efficiency too, but if you’re burning oil, you really have to have that annual maintenance done to keep the unit working properly.”

At Vineyard Alternative Heating, Sharon touts wood pellet stoves as an affordable and ecologically friendly alternative to conventional oil and gas furnaces as well as to wood stoves. “I sell regular wood stoves too, but the pellets burn cleaner than wood, especially if a wood stove isn’t operated properly – like if the wood being used isn’t dry enough. Many of my customers come in to save money on their heating bills, but I always pitch the environmental angle to them too. I think that’s an important message.”

The fuel for pellet stoves is made of highly compressed sawdust that is mostly recovered from businesses such as lumber and furniture manufacturers, with no glues or additives – a recycling process that diverts tons of waste from landfills across the country each year. According to the non-profit Pellet Fuels Institute, there are approximately 800,000 pellet stoves in use in the United States and more than one million worldwide. Vineyard Alternative Heating has installed about two hundred on the Vineyard in the last two years.

“By heating with pellet stoves, people are using a renewable resource that has lower carbon emissions than regular wood – and that doesn’t have to be imported from the Middle East,” Sharon says. “I’m not saying that everybody in the country should be heating with biomass fuels, but increasing the number of pellet stoves in use would help reduce the amount of fossil fuel we’re burning.”

Vineyard landscape designer Barbara Lampson recently bought and renovated a 2,200-square-foot house that was built in 1743 in Vineyard Haven. During the process, she decided to install a large pellet stove in the living room.

“The home had a two-year-old oil furnace, but I was terrified of what the heating bill would be like in a drafty, old place like this,” Barbara says. “I was looking to save money. I wanted to be warm, to use an ecologically green heat source, and to have something that was more single-mom friendly than splitting a lot of wood.”

Barbara inserted old-fashioned registers into the floors to allow heat to rise up to the second-story rooms and put small door fans downstairs to draw the heat into other rooms.

“I closed off some unneeded space in the winter, so I was probably heating only around 1,700 square feet,” she says. “The pellet stove was a good choice. It’s pretty easy to use, and I’ve definitely saved money.”

But some people swear by their wood stoves. Humans have been burning things for heat, light, and cooking fuel since the dawn of civilization, an activity that likely helped to set us apart from other animals, helped make us distinctly human – as well as contribute to the accelerating rate of species extinction and increases in atmospheric carbon. (Sources of fuel on Martha’s Vineyard over the past few centuries have included whales, seals, shorebirds, and other living things – including trees.)

Despite the ecological consequences of cutting and burning trees, wood stoves remain an attractive alternative to the modern furnace, or at least a trusty backup – fuel costs being high and power outages not uncommon. Wood stoves require no electricity and are extremely reliable as they employ relatively simple technology. And the efficiency of wood stoves has come a long way.

“Today’s modern wood stoves are much cleaner burning than the old ones,” says Patricia Giumarra, owner of Vineyard Hearth, Patio and Spa in Vineyard Haven, which sells and installs a wide variety of wood, gas, and pellet stoves as well as fireplace inserts. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in wood stoves this year from people looking to lower their costs and gain a little independence.”

The Vineyard Haven showroom is filled with attractive, high-quality stoves made by companies such as Hearthstone, Vermont Castings, Avalon, and Jotul, with the ornate soapstone stoves made by Hearthstone perhaps the most visually appealing of all, decorating a room like a fine piece of furniture. The thick lining in Hearthstone’s fireboxes as well as the polished stone on the stove’s exterior ensure a slowly radiating heat that is more comfortable than most wood stoves and that continues to warm a room even after the fire goes out.

“Some people want the pellet stoves for convenience and ease of use,” Patricia says. “But a lot of our customers want to be able to gather their own wood and be a little more self-reliant. People also like the communal family-hearth aspect of having a stove in their living room, something warm to gather around in the winter with a glass door to view the flames. That’s the way people heated their homes for a long time, instead of heating every inch of every room all at the same temperature.”

But traditional open-flame, wood-burning fireplaces are an inefficient way to heat a home, even if the flame is attractive, Patricia says. For people interested in a large flame view, Vineyard Hearth, Patio and Spa offers fuel-efficient fireplace inserts that use either wood or gas and have flame-proof glass covers. These can be inserted into an existing fireplace or installed in a wall.

A little further up the technology ladder than wood stoves is the work of companies such as Lowe Energy Design and others on-Island that install geothermal heating systems. The ground below the frost level remains at a fairly constant temperature between 50 and 55 degrees, and geothermal systems use that constant temperature to heat, and sometimes to cool, a home by pumping the ground’s heat upward and transferring it to the home via air ducts, radiators, or water-filled tubes under the flooring.

“Geothermal systems cost more than a conventional furnace to design and install,” Erik Lowe says. “You get the best cost return if you use them for cooling as well as heating – and if your heating is done through radiant floors, which operate effectively at lower temperatures than air ducts or baseboard radiators.”

Geothermal systems require electricity to transfer heat from the ground to the house. Erik says, “If you want a really green geothermal system, you’re best off coupling it with a windmill or with solar power.”

Before purchasing her pellet stove, Barbara Lampson considered installing a geothermal heating system in the Vineyard Haven house that she restored, but decided that the start-up cost was too high for her. The long-term reduction of heating bills and the potential green aspect of the technology are what sway others. Of course, people choose their heating systems for different reasons and priorities – finances, ecological considerations, and the desire for independence.

Money-Saving Tips

For homeowners with properly functioning heating systems already in place, Erik Lowe of Lowe Energy Design recommends adding a programmable timer, which can turn the thermostat down while people are sleeping or away at work, and then turn it back up shortly before they wake up or come home. He also installs outdoor reset control systems, which adjust a furnace’s performance to match the actual varying temperatures outside on any given day.

“Basically, our furnaces are programmed to always think that it’s the coldest day of the year, and we can increase fuel efficiency by telling it otherwise,” says Erik, who also recommends conservation
and insulation as some of the most effective measures for saving homeowners money.

“Replace old windows. Check the insulation in your attic and the weatherstripping around your doors. And maybe it sounds a little old-fashioned, but you can always turn the heat down a little and wear sweaters in the winter.” With heating costs projected to rise 30 percent this year alone, that might be some good advice.

Passive solar heating techniques (basically, taking advantage of the heat of the sun) can also reduce your bills. According to the Vineyard Energy Project in West Tisbury, as much as half of a well-insulated home’s heat can be sourced from the sun. Installing large, south-facing windows is ideal, but even opening shades on existing windows on bright, sunny days can make a difference. But, of course, be sure to close the shades at night to keep the heat in, and cold out.