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Home heating options

My home is heated with a 20-year-old propane furnace. My mother’s house uses electric baseboards and wall heaters. Time for us to upgrade?—Ryan

A good first step, before making major changes to a heating system, is to look at the area being heated. The amount of heated space and the efficiency of that space determine how large of a heating system you’ll need. If air leaks and inadequate insulation are a major cause of high bills, correcting these problems might enable you to install a smaller heating system. An energy audit will provide the answers you need; contact your local electric cooperative for help.

Let’s talk about heating systems. Propane furnaces are expected to last 15 to 25 years, but if yours has been well-maintained, you may get more mileage out of it. But even if your furnace is still running well and has some life left in it, it may not be efficient. A new, high-efficiency furnace can reduce your propane heating bill by 15 to 20 percent—after you deal with poorly insulated pipes and furnace ducts.  

Instead of replacing your old propane furnace with a new one, you have two additional options. You could install an air source heat pump, which would use your existing ductwork, or a mini-split heat pump, which can heat up to four rooms. In the past decade, the efficiency of heat pumps has greatly improved, even in colder climates.

Resistance is futile

It’s not surprising that your mother’s electric bill is high. This is common for inefficient homes without ductwork that rely on resistance heat using wall heaters, portable heaters or baseboard heaters.  

Recommendation: Get a quote on a ductless mini-split heat pump. They are efficient for heating and cooling, so if your mother uses a window A/C unit (or two), she can save even more money. Mini-splits usually are installed to heat and cool the largest, most-used area of a home. Your mother can continue to use baseboard heaters in the rooms she doesn’t use as often, and since mini-splits might not provide enough heat in a prolonged, extreme cold snap, it’s a good idea to leave a few baseboard heaters connected. 

PAT KEEGAN and BRAD THIESSEN write on energy efficiency for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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