People find ways to stay green while staying warm
Environmentally friendly alternatives are available to meet homeowners' heating needs.
By Warren Cornwall
SEATTLE — Seven years ago, Jeremy Smithson decided it would be neat to heat and light his home with solar power.
His 1908 Craftsman on the western slope of Phinney Ridge would need a roof four times bigger just to hold enough solar panels to meet his energy needs.
Some fuel their oil furnaces with a mixture of vegetable oil and regular petroleum. Some hook their ducts to a super-efficient system that sucks heat from the ground or the air. Some heat water with solar tubes. Others design rooms to soak up as much sunlight as possible.
Those are some of the chief home-heating alternatives available, energy experts say. But those experts caution that just because those energy sources are cleaner doesn't mean they make economic sense.
"If dollars be damned, there are lots of things," said Tom Eckman, manager of conservation resources for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an intergovernmental agency that studies the region's power needs. "If dollars are precious, there are a lot fewer options."
Take solar heat, for example.
Homes can be built to absorb more heat from sunlight during the winter with large, south-facing windows, part of a strategy known as "passive solar."
While that often makes sense, using solar panels or solar tubes to run a heating system is more problematic, said Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, part of Washington State University's Energy Program.
"Passive solar pencils out the quickest," Nelson said. "If you're adding flat plate and evacuated tubes (that use sunlight to heat water) you better approach that with a pretty sharp pencil, and you better have a good designer."
Smithson, who now runs a business installing solar systems, heats his home partly by running hot water through red hoses that snake beneath his floorboards.
Some days in the winter, the sun comes out enough to warm a tiny fraction of the water with solar tubes mounted on the outside of the house. But he relies primarily on an electric water heater.
He hopes to expand the number of tubes to meet roughly 15 percent of the home's heating needs.