As lazy autumn days fade into chilly winter nights, one can almost hear the clicking of thermostats around the Bay. Last winter’s dearth of electricity and skyrocketing gas prices sent many consumers into shock when they opened their utility bills to find that their bills may have doubled, or even tripled.
With winter coming, there is a temptation to use a seemingly cheaper source of heat that many homes have available – the fireplace.
Burning wood may appear cheaper at first glance – wood can be gathered from a variety of sources, and provides a great deal of radiant heat for an evening.
But there are a number of other costs associated with burning wood you may not know about.
The process of combustion requires air. The air used by wood burning in a fireplace comes from inside your home – air that has already been heated, also known as “conditioned” air.
The fire in a fireplace gives off radiant heat, so objects near the flames grow warm.
Unfortunately, most of the energy in the form of heat goes straight up the chimney, taking with it heat from the rest of the house. This creates uncomfortable drafts from cracks around windows, under doors and even from electrical outlets.
Once drafts start cooling down the rest of the house, the furnace’s thermostat will kick in to compensate.
The net effect of using a fireplace is a loss for the user, as more fuel is used to warm the rest of the house. But there is greater environmental cost to burning wood for home heat.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (www.BAAQMD.gov) provides information on air quality in the Bay Area. According to their research, wintertime air pollution consists of carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter. Primary sources are, “…automobile exhaust, wood stoves and conventional fireplaces.
Fine particulate matter can be suspended in the air for weeks at a time, and if inhaled can become embedded in lung tissue causing decreased breathing function as well as other systemic impairment over time.”
The particulates and CO are most concentrated, and therefore most dangerous in early morning and late evening, when the region’s foggy climate often experiences a marine inversion, which keeps the pollutants concentrated near
These are winter commute hours, and early evening is the most tempting time for lighting a fire in winter.
So, how can you heat your home and still be both economical and environmentally responsible? Start with getting rid of places where drafts can occur – heat losses from infiltration are the easiest to fix, with weather-stripping under doors, at outlets, and around windows.
Insulate your roof, walls, and crawlspaces. According to studies done by the U.S. Department of the Interior, “Each year the amount of energy lost through uninsulated homes in the United States is equivalent to the amount of fuel delivered through the Alaskan Pipeline.”
That’s heat bought and paid for, lost to the atmosphere.
Where possible replace any dry-rotted double hung single pane windows with insulated double pane windows, preferably wooden ones, which have a higher insulating value than vinyl or metal frames.
Metal windows conduct heat out of your house in winter, and into your house in the summer, so they are not good for a lot of reasons.
Rebates are available for high-performance windows. These steps will cut down on drafts and make your home more comfortable.
Evaluate your heating system.
Replace filters, insulated ductwork, and repair leaks.
Insulate your hot water heater, and pipes, including the first five feet of the cold water pipe. The more insulation your home has, the less fuel you will use. Turn your thermostat down to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
These small steps will save considerable energy.
And don’t forget to close the fireplace damper, or better still, permanently block the flue to stop the cold and drafts from coming in through the chimney.
For personal comfort, wear layers of clothes, and maybe even use a hot water bottle for pre-warming the bed or those cold feet.
Water has 3,000 times the heat-holding capacity as air. Visit the city’s Energy Office Web site at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ENERGY for more hints on energy conservation.
Alice La Pierre is an energy analyst for the city. Her column appears on the first and third Tuesday of the month as a public service.