• The “newer is better, old is embarrassing” view of architecture is almost uniquely American, but that view will change perforce as resources for new construction become scarcer and more expensive. A large proportion of Americans will continue to live in existing residential buildings, designed and constructed by competitive bidders, increasingly “left behind” as technology and public awareness push the energy-efficiency bar upwards toward “total passive” or “grid neutral” standards.
  • In Europe the buildings are, on average, much older than in the US. The available land and resources are less plentiful and more carefully managed, often by government regulation. This report by Windoor indicates that the future of conservation in Europe depends largely upon the improvement of existing residential buildings, which “account for 41% of energy consumption.”
  • Moving to a new(er), more energy-efficient house only passes the problem to the people who buy your old house. No movement endorses, and no responsible experts advocate, the tearing down of existing houses to make way for more efficient structures. The resources aren’t there for most of us, or for our national economy collectively.
  • The same pinch complicates our movement toward renewable energy sources. The resources aren’t present, in our pockets or in the national pocket, to move rapidly away from natural gas, heating oil and electric power as energy sources for comfort in our homes. In another page we explore how to be shrewd consumers of traditional energy sources, but here let’s consider what our options are as retail customers.
  • I am a heating technician. Most of the equipment I install bears a nominal efficiency on the label of 84 to 88 percent gross input over output. Most of the equipment I service in existing homes here in Connecticut operates at a true efficiency of 60 to 75 per cent gross. I see efficiency numbers left on stickers by other technicians, and sometimes I’m skeptical. The conditions under which the tests are taken vary enough to affect the results. I won’t go into boring detail, but the numbers above are my best estimate. Given those numbers, what is the potential for real savings from replacing a heating plant? Pardon a little bit of kitchen table arithmetic, but I think it will be instructive. Assume an average cost of boiler replacement at $4000 (some are less, many are a LOT more) and assume a yearly heating fuel cost of $2000. If the gross gain in efficiency from replacement is 15% average, then the yearly fuel savings will average $300. The number of years after which your $4000 investment is finally recouped is roughly 14. The expected service life of a good cast iron boiler varies from 20 to 30 years. And by the way, how old are you? How long will you live in your present home? And how do you expect energy technology to advance over the next 20 to 30 years, affecting how you feel about your aging boiler or furnace? Replacement is certainly worth doing, if you can afford the cost; but it’s a long time to wait for the savings to turn into a “profit.”
  • If you use natural gas or liquid propane fuel (similar fuels, different sources) for heat and hot water, you may have more attractive options. You can buy equipment with gross efficiencies well over 90%, and if your old equipment was operating as much as 20% lower in efficiency, your payback date will be sooner than for oil users.
  • If your home is heated by electric power, or by an air heat pump, you have very few options. Significant gains have been made in recent years in heat pump technology, and you might profit quickly from a “condenser” replacement (outdoor unit). But if your heat comes from baseboards, you are wedded to your grid, and conservation becomes your only means of reducing costs. One option you should investigate is a possible plurality of local grid retailers. I know, it doesn’t make common sense, but the grid is a complex concept, and I can’t explain it here. You may have competitive power utilities trying to undersell each other, giving you a choice of carriers. If so, you can negotiate with both carriers for their lowest and best offers and choose one. Beware, there will almost certainly be a fee for switching companies.
  • The only real strategies available to traditional energy consumers are: equipment upgrades, and fuel price negotiation. Oil consumers can choose among many competitive companies, although the retail price is driven by many factors besides competition. Gas consumers may or may not have choices about fuel retailers, but should investigate the possibility. Note, please: natural gas consumers may have service options that make one utility more desirable over another. Getting a boiler repaired or restarted late at night is worth something, if maintaining a consumer relationship assures that service. Liquid propane consumers almost always have competitive vendors vying for their business, with price and service being the major factors in a good decision.
  • Expect your energy consumption to remain tied to a traditional source for some time, and expect to move not dramatically but gradually toward becoming a renewable energy consumer. If you save or borrow the funds for a renewable project, you will reduce but not escape your dependence on traditional energy. If you’re inclined to trust in science to provide a solution to our energy needs, you will wait in blessed hope. I wish you well.
  • One hundred years ago most American homes were lit only by fire. Things do change as technology advances.  If you think a stunning discovery of oil or gas reserves will suddenly drive prices down and assure us of a future in traditional sources, I won’t deride your faith. But in the near term I advise you to join the national conversation about energy, whatever your opinions. And maintain a dialogue with your local energy retailers. They need to feel the pressure of their market’s expectations, even if they seem unresponsive. And start a conversation with yourself about improving your energy situation in some progressive way. Try to develop a backup plan in case the grid should fail temporarily. Keep your oil tank above a certain level, in case supplies are interrupted. Maintain your old fireplace, if you can. Try not to be totally dependent upon energy sources outside your house. Even if nothing ever happens, you’ll feel a little better.

links to more info...


helios at home (blog)


natural gas:

oak ridge national laboratory

national fuel

info on gas furnaces

consortium for energy efficiency

lennox furnaces

carrier furnaces

central fireplace


oil heat:

oil heat america

citizens energy oil heat program

home heating oil prices

american council for an energy efficient economy

diy home heating forum





electric heat

radiant electric heat


cost comparison

oikos green building source

energy star