Home & Garden Columns

Heating Your House in the Space Age, By: Matt Cantor

Friday February 10, 2006

It has often occurred to me how primitive our houses are for a people who can look to the edges of the universe and plumb the living paths of bozons and muons. They’re not exactly mud huts but they are so simple that you’d think we were still fighting wars with guns and killing each other with bombs. Oh wait. Sorry. Anyway, if you look at the way in which our houses are built, you might think that we’d missed the U-boat altogether. 

First, they’re built from plant matter, literally somebody’s dinner. Things that grow out of the ground that seem hard enough to make a floor out of. We puncture them with little rods of metal, holding them together in a manner that’s not unlike sewing a sack together. 

Then we put more of these vegetable planks down to make floors and ceilings and cover them over with something we wove from the hair of a sheep. 

Windows are actually pretty advanced but they’re still an igneous rock remelted into a flat sheet. Roofs are made from tar, dug out of the ground or boiled down from oil left behind by some compressed rain forest and we finish the insides with sheets of soft rock called gypsum carved out of a hillside.  

I’ll stop, but the point is that there isn’t that much technology in all of this beyond those methods developed to make it cheaper for large companies to get it to you and put it together at a low price. There are lots of ways to do these things better but they haven’t figured out how to get you to pay enough for them. 

Heating is a great example of how we have started with technologies that are as simple as we could get away with and advanced toward safer and more efficient systems. Houses were first heated with wood fireplaces that reflected little of the heat inward and required huge amounts of raw material to burn. 

Mining of coal produced a more efficient system but puts workers at risk and also produces large amounts of carbon monoxide that kill the end user (so to speak). We still have coal burners in many of our early 20th century houses and occasionally I pick up coal from a crawlspace or basement where it remains from the last shipment in nineteen twenty-something. It’s very fun to find and be reminded of how recently these changes arrived. 

Gas became widely available just after the turn of the 20th century and we started blowing things up right away for lack of an ability to smell the stuff. Then gas companies began to add an acrid and pungent smell to the gas so that we’d know when it was on and things got a lot safer. For lack of this one notion, I suspect they’d have given up on gas. Gas heaters at this time were no more sophisticated than your cooktop burners and if you left them on, once again, they could blow you up. Then came the pilot which used up lots of extra gas by being on all the time but is well worth it if you don’t have anything better. 

Eventually the pilot safety device arrived. This made sure that gas wasn’t released into a burner unless a pilot was lit. This was a very big advance and we’re still using them today in very much the same form, although electronic ignitions are slowly taking over. 

The thing in all these advancements that was largely ignored for the last 80 years or so was efficiency. Gas was pretty cheap for a long time and the overall cost to the economy was manageable. Also, we weren’t chopping wood and everyone was pretty happy. Recently we’ve begun to realize that burning anything is pretty bad for the planet and is likely altering the climate and transparency of our atmosphere to carcinogenic radiation. 

Also, the population of this planet is becoming a pretty serious problem and there are great doubts about our ability to sustain ourselves while burning up the fuel sources that we can chop down or pump out of the ground. It’s time to take a much more serious assessment of our methods and our needs. Although I’m not happy to pay the utility bill as it soars into the ozone (sorry), I am happy that this has created a tangible impetus for people to make real changes in how they buy and use heat. 

As an inspector who meets new homeowners daily, it has always been something of a struggle to induce the buyer (who’s going into hock over their eyeballs) that a new more efficient heating system is in their best interest (and that of the home planet) but with utility prices skyrocketing this year, it’s been much easier. I’ve actually seen many of these folks decide then and there to dump the old water heater for an on-demand type or agree to toss the mid-efficiency furnace for a new high-efficiency condensing type in the first weeks of ownership. 

So I think it’s time to up the ante a bit by telling you about the latest and greatest thing I’ve seen in home heating. For the last few years I’ve been hearing about combined water heating and house heating systems but it’s been mostly talk. Somewhere a rich guy was having a team of technicians assemble a very expensive system from rarely seen components. This wasn’t practical for me to talk about since there were few examples to point to and very high initial costs.  

Recently, two technologies have taken off to the point where each have become a practical discussion point: the on-demand water heater, which I’m now seeing taking an actual market share and the hydronic (or hot water) heating system, which is far less common but still growing in popularity. 

Now we have the Baxi Luna. This is what I’ve been waiting for and the first time I saw one, which was just months ago, I almost flipped. Part of my reaction was that it was as though someone just skipped three stages and went right to the 22nd century model. 

This single unit employs so many of the latest concepts that it’s a bit dizzying. First, it’s very small and looks much like the more common on-demand water heater. It’s about the size of a suitcase and hangs on a wall in the upright direction. Inside is an on-demand water heater that only heats water when and as you need it but it also heats water in a closed loop that can run under your floor or through radiators in your house to provide very mild and extremely efficient heat. 

Warm floor heating is widely considered the best way to heat, in part, because it lacks the drying effect of forced air combined with the noise and blowing about of dust. 

If you’ve just bought a house with a problem water heater and furnace please consider this amazing option. If you’re living in a house that needs both or if your heating bill is making you consider asking your children to move out, take a look at a Baxi Luna. It’s penny-wise and planet-perceptive.