Home & Garden Columns

About the House: How to Heat Your Little Home By MATT CANTOR

Friday February 03, 2006

Little houses have their own heating issues and so I’d like to ask those of you who own ranchos grande to bear with me for a few minutes while I focus on the heating needs of the little houses.  

Small houses are often under-heated or minimally heated. It seems to go along with the low economy which these small homes express in so many ways. Many of the small houses I see are heated with either gas floor furnaces or gas wall furnaces or some combination of the two. A few are heated with electric heaters and, believe it or not, some have no heat at all (which some folks, amazingly, prefer). 

Wall furnaces are the most common heating I find in small houses so let’s start with them. If you have a house heated by a single wall furnace, one of the things you may have noticed is that they don’t really transmit much heat beyond the room in which they are located.  

If you close your bedroom door, it’s likely that the heat will be sucked out of those old single-glazed windows faster than the furnace can push it in through the door. If you leave the bedroom door open, this system might work for you. Floor furnaces create the same problem.  

Sometimes there is more than one wall furnace in the house and this may provide enough distribution to pass muster. You may also have noticed that, in order to get the coldest room warm enough, the room where the heater is located has to be baking hot. This raises questions about the efficiency of the system because you know you are wasting heat if you’re overheating any space. Wall furnaces also toss quite a bit of their heat up through the flue into the night sky, and if you’re really heat hungry, you may be helping to put some PG&E exec’s daughter through Stanford. 

If you have a wall furnace in a bedroom, you may be chancing a carbon monoxide poisoning because you are in an enclosed space with the unit for long periods of time and wall furnaces are more apt than other designs to draft noxious flue gases into the living space. The unit is also using up the oxygen in the room, and I don’t know about you, but I really like my oxygen (and I don’t want to share). 

Again, floor furnaces are similar in these respects and if you have either one of these heaters in a bedroom, I strongly suggest finding another way to heat the space. 

If you have a really tiny house and a single wall furnace that you’ve had checked by a good heating expert and you’re warm enough and happy, well, fine. This kind of heater might be all right for you. Nonetheless, most of the houses I see that are being heated this way prove to have those bothersome traits I’ve described. 

Here are a few more issues specific to floor furnaces. First, kids and especially infants get burned on these ancient devices, and fires can also start if flammables are left sitting on them (listen, I don’t always look to see where I tossed the newspaper). 

If you do want to use a gas “point-source” heater (non-central or unducted, like the wall or floor furnace) to heat your bedroom or all purpose (sleep/live) room, a ”direct-vent” model may be a reasonable choice. These are far less likely to introduce noxious wastes like carbon monoxide into the room and don’t use oxygen from the inside, so they’re a much better choice. These still get quite hot if left on for a long time and also don’t heat the next room very well. Again, this is a reasonable choice for a very small living space. 

If you’re using electric heat, consider that, on average, you’re paying at least three times as much for the same unit of heat. These also heat slowly, which has both plusses and minuses. If you’re in a house that has an older electrical system, the use of electric heaters may pose something of a threat and, at very least, a good electrician should check to make sure everything is properly installed. 

I would like to take a minute to discuss freestanding electric heaters. In short, don’t use them if you can possibly avoid it. They cause loads of fires as well as being real energy hogs. If you absolutely must use one, please don’t sleep with it on. Also, don’t use one with an extension cord. This greatly increases the likelihood of a fire. 

So, having covered the field of point-source heating (the main kind I see in small houses), let’s talk a little about what other choices you might explore. Oddly, one of the things I’d look at first is insulation. If you have a lot more insulation, you might not need much heat at all. Take a look at your leaky windows and consider double-glazed ones. A retrofit type might not cost too much. See if you have plenty of well-distributed attic insulation. If not, you may be fighting an uphill battle to keep the heat you’ve bought inside your house. Distribution really matters and the attic entry door should be insulated as well. Weather-strip your main exterior doors. This can save a lot of heat and keep the house cozier. 

Now the big stuff. If you feel like the house is one you’re going to stay in for a while or has the capability to sell for a good price, a central heating system is probably a reasonable economic choice. These come in very small output sizes and are somewhat cheaper when installed in a small house. If you choose a “condensing” type, they are extremely efficient and will pump warm air through all the rooms of the house at the same time. Ooooo, warmth at last. You may end up with this unit in the crawlspace, the attic or a closet in the interior. If you’re adventurous and willing to try something new, consider one of the new small “hydronic” types, that heat the house with warm water running through tubing below the floor or through radiators. There’s even a nice little unit that also heats the water you shower and cook with and the whole thing hangs on outside of the house. Next time, I’ll spend a whole page on this unit. It’s called the Baxi Luna and it’ll really raise your temperature.