Heating and Cooling Our House: Needs and Wants
This need for proper climate puts us all in a precarious situation. It doesn't presently ring many bells for most of us, but if a sudden disruption in oil occurred similar to Hurricane Katrina except on a larger scale (e.g. Saudi Arabia exports are shut down by terrorists), we'd all be affected, whether we used natural gas or heating oil for our main heating source. If you are limited financially in what you can do, I'd make sure, more than anything else, you can keep warm when it gets cold.
As we would put our survival first, I think the way a major shortfall in oil and/or natural gas would play out is that people would pay whatever it took to heat the house and worry about the consequences later. This would squeeze many people financially, but any human being would choose higher debt or even bankruptcy to dying from freezing.
A similar issue arises in health care, namely what are we willing to spend for life extension? In the case of health care, the problem is rather open-ended, and it makes it rather difficult to conceive of a health care policy that is prudent, for there is nothing that seems prudent about dying when the technology exists to let you live a little longer. But, I digress.
Maybe to keep the heat on the only requirement is to have a large woodpile for the fireplace. That gets you through one cold winter, but if the peak-oilers are even remotely right, it won't get you through many more. In his second book on peak-oil, Beyond Oil, Ken Deffeyes mentioned that one of his colleagues purchased an acre of land to insure a continuous supply. If the Middle East shuts down, as the North American natural gas production falls off (it is beyond peak production already), it seems deforestation becomes a possibility here. It seems unlikely now, but wood is presently the backup fuel of choice. As one precaution, I've been taking down the evergreens on our property and am replacing them with hardwoods, namely oak and maple indigenous to the area. This is simple enough to do, but we don't have an acre of land, and I definitely do not want to have wood replacing heating oil as the primary source of heating. Also, it's going to take 10-15 years before the home-grown supply will be useful to us. Let's call this tree selection as our insurance on our insurance.
What about cooling? Do we need cooling? That's easy. From a survival standpoint, almost certainly not, even in the tropical climates. With respect to cooling, especially in the higher latitudes, cooling is more a want than a need.
Back to heating. What do we need? In truth, just a small well-insulated seal-off room with a fireplace and a stack of wood. But it isn't really about what we need. It is more about what we want, and what we want is a stable, secure, low-maintenance climate system for our entire house. Wood is getting rejected because it is high-maintenance, and we don't have to long-term supply secured (i.e. we don't own an acre of forest). I'm rejecting our present use of heating oil, because of future supply reasons--even with a newer efficient boiler. Natural gas was not available to us at our house, and after looking into the future of natural gas, I'm glad about that. It gives me the excuse not to go that way. Propane is available, and we presently use it for cooking, but its supply also is subject to all the issues that natural gas is. The so-called green technologies are all that remain. Solar heating is an option, but we also want efficient cooling, and solar needs backup for those cloudy wintry days, and so we went with a geothermal heat-pump.
Heat pumps have come a long way, and the ground-loop ones are an excellent green technology. They aren't all that cheap to install, and (as we are finding) the electricity needed to run them is a factor one has to consider. In short, the ground-loop heat pump is giving us what we need and virtually everything we want.
The next couple of posts will describe how they work, what we purchased, and describe their installation and our initial experience with them. I'd have to say, overall, it has worked great.