September 9, 2010

The HVAC Unit Is In, But I Have Mixed Feelings

We finally made a decision about our HVAC system. Or rather, we finally found someone who showed up for the appointment, would work with us regarding our insulating the ductwork ourselves, would sell us what we actually wanted, and wasn't charging us an arm and a leg.

I confess I have mixed feelings about this.

Originally, we thought we would heat only with wood. After all, we tore down the old fireplace, bought the king of woodstoves, and built that fantastic alcove for it. Even so, we froze our behinds off last winter. There were several reasons for this. For one, there are insulation issues in this old house (which are gradually being addressed). For another, the woodstove is located in the living room at the front of the house, meaning the kitchen and back part didn't get sufficient heat (even using fans to circulate it.). There's a floor plan of our house here, if you'd like a visual of that.

When we made the decision to supplement this, I did a lot of research, and shared what I learned in these posts:

Evaluating heating and cooling
Research on systems

Like everyone else with a goal of self-sufficiency, the first things we researched were sustainable energy systems, namely solar and wind. We quickly ran into the brick wall of reality however. On a local, practical level, the bottom line is that we don't get enough of either. Where we live, solar or wind power aren't feasible for anything other than occasional auxiliary systems. We went for months without sun last winter, and we can go for months with little or no wind during the summer.

The other problem is cost. Sun and wind are touted as the perfect alternatives to oil dependence and the energy crisis, yet only the rich can afford them. Unless that is, one is willing to go into debt, which we aren't. Debt is the opposite of self-sufficiency. "Help" is offered in the form of tax credits, but let's face it, these are nothing but partial reimbursements. If one doesn't have the money to pay for it up front, a tax credit is no incentive at all. My question is, if the energy and oil crises are as bad as we're told, why aren't those in power trying to help us common folk afford the alternatives? We've all heard, "if it's important enough, you should be willing to make the sacrifice." To which I say, why does the sacrifice always have to fall on the consumer? If it's really that important, why aren't government and big business making the sacrifice? As consumers, we can only choose from what's offered to us. Why restrict our choices and then try to make us feel guilty about it?

The one realistic system (for us, or so I thought), was geothermal. We had a geothermal contractor come out and quote us $18,000 to put in a system. Well, it may as well have been 18 million. Then I ran across a site where we could purchase a geothermal system to install ourselves. We could purchase the unit and installation kit for about the same price that we were being quoted to have an air source heat pump installed. More research. One helpful site (if you're considering this as your own DIY project) is Rick's Geothermal Website. He isn't selling anything, so we felt we could take his information with fewer grains of salt. Still, one thing he said, and which we read on several consumer reviews of geothermal, is that electricity usage goes up in the winter, and that many (all?) of these systems require a supplementary heat source during the coldest months. That negates the very reasons we were considering geothermal in the first place. What was the point then? Just to say we had one?

In the end we settled for the simplest packaged air source heat pump (with auxiliary heat strips) we could find. Of course, most contractors wanted to sell us the high end units with all the bells and whistles. We researched brands that are available locally, and then looked at consumer reviews on these. A good source for this is FurnaceCompare. What we learned there, was that units less than five years old, regardless of brand, all stink. Reliable quality truly seems to be a thing of the past. Units with the highest consumer ratings (again, regardless of brand), were all older units. Folks had heat pumps 10, 15, 20+ years old still running well with routine maintenance, having needed very few repairs over the years. Those with newer models (often sold with no labor warranty) were frustrated with repeated parts failures and repairs. Price range didn't seem to matter.  High end models with more gadgets had more to go wrong with them.

So the unit is in, with a little savings still left to invest in insulating at least one of our problem areas. After that, all home and farm improvements will be on a do-as-we-have-the-money basis. There is still a little more ductwork that needs to be installed, and then we can fire the thing up for the first time. Now that the sweltering heat and humidity are nearly over!

In the meantime, Dan is working on this winter's wood supply. We traded eggs for the newest lot of wood in the foreground...

We aren't like some folks, in that we turn the heat up to 80°F (26.6°C) in winter, and the AC down to 60°F (15.5°C) in the summer. I set the thermostat high and use fans for summer cooling, and we set it low in winter and use wood. When we finally get to remodeling the kitchen, I hope, hope, hope I can find a wood cookstove in good condition, as that will help tremendously in keeping the back of the house warmer and dryer. A huge benefit of an HVAC system, will be in keeping humidity in the house down. I found mildew growing on some books and cabinetry this summer, and that's no good.

This is a huge project under our belts. It didn't turn out as we would have wanted, but we accept that and will look to alternative energy for smaller, dedicated uses, such as a solar attic vent fan (installed June 2016). As you can imagine, we are very ready to focus on something else.


Theresa said...

Well congrats on the HVAc system. Having it is important as we go into the winter. Once you get your insulation issues done, you will have a much cheaper house to heat & cool.
Mold growing on books and cabinets. Obviously I have forgotten just how humid it can get. I've been running a humidifier day and night to keep our house bearable
and my sinuses somewhat comfortable.
Wow, that 18k for geothermal is less than we were quoted ten years ago, but man it IS high. The government sadly has to reimbursement due to folks taking the money up front and NOT having the work done. You wouldn't, I wouldn't and a lot of other people wouldn't, but a fair amount would. As to what we would like to do using alternative domestic hot water, solar motion lights on the barn and Gene wants to do a hot tub that is solar heated. I suggested a pool! ;)
I would seriously consider a diesel car too, but Subaru doesn't make one and all the others just aren't suitable for our snow conditions in the winter.

Renee Nefe said...

Congrats on your HVAC system. I hope it gives you just what you need without breaking the budget.

Have you considered alternative energy?
What was your conclusion?
How could you make it work for you?

We honestly have not considered alternative energy for this house because our HOA doesn't allow it. However, alternatives are being considered and tried out at my husband's job. One section of buildings is currently being set up for geothermal and DH isn't impressed. He doesn't think that the system will ever get a chance to pay for itself. Solar has been very effective for them though and will probably continue to be installed there. Many places in our area are able to sell back electricity from their solar systems.

I noticed that on the picture of your house the skirting is still down. You are going to get that back up soon...right?

Renee Nefe said...

oh wait, I see the skirting now.

Anonymous said...

What a great post concerning alternate energy. Dh and I go round and round with this. We have plenty of sun, both summer & winter and plenty of space for solar panels, but what the talking heads don't tell you is how wimpy these panels are. One hurricane or some strong spring winds and several of the glass portions would break. They have a life expectancy of 3 years, then you have to replace. This doesn't even cover the batteries needed to run your house on solar. It actually cracks me up how the talking heads fail to mention the batteries and what exactly you are supposed to do with them when they die.

Our biggest energy hog is the a/c. Living in SW Louisiana, I'm not going to do without. If the zombie apocalypse happens, well then, I'm without a/c, but until something dire occurs, I'm not giving it up. There's no way, short of a field of solar panels, that we could cool our home using solar

Dh and I were talking about hybrid cars. Now they even have hybrid TAhoe's and larger SUVs, but of course they cost an arm and a leg. Funny how the people who are driving cars like this are the people with money. If it was really about saving energy and moving forward in a green manner, the hybrid cars would be so much more affordable that even the poor/middle class people could afford them. It's all just a bunch of nonsense!

FWIW, self sufficiency types seem to use much less energy than your average "greenie", IMO

Leigh said...

Theresa, what kind of dehumidifier do you have? I tried running ours but it puts out so much heat that it negates any comfort less humidity might offer.

I'd like to think that geothermal units are coming down in price, but of course prices are rising so maybe not. A lot seems to depend on the area one lives in and the trench/hole that has to be dug. I understand that both Canada and the UK offer grants for installing them. I wonder how that works.

Your ideas for solar power are excellent. We definitely need to put in a solar water heater, and now you've got me wondering if we could use solar to replace the "street" lamp that we rent from the electric company. Something to look in to.

Renee, I can't believe your HOA has such backward thinking on that! Interesting too, about the geothermal being put in at your DH's work.

The most common method of installing solar or wind is to tie it in to the grid which is used as backup. Like you say, excess energy can be sold back. From what I read though, if the grid goes down, so does the home's solar or wind!

Yes, the skirting is pretty dark on that side of the house. It's the brick foundation actually. Something must have happened at one time with that old oil burner, because that's where the bricks are darkened.

Paula, excellent point about the batteries and life expectancy of the solar panels. Between that and the initial cost, solar really doesn't seem feasible for the modern western lifestyle.

I agree with you about the green movement and energy. I think these are used more as a marketing tool than as a solution. It's about profit and not the earth or the environment. Sad, because it makes one begin to wonder if the problem is really as serious as they say it is.

Theresa said...

The humidifier is a Lasko, here is the link.

Works pretty well but it's rather loud. It doesn't de-humidify since our humidity usually sits around 15-20% during the summer, what moisture could you possibly wring from those low levels! :)

Renee Nefe said...

the HOA doesn't allow anything that might be considered an eyesore (although tons of cars blocking views aren't considered an I guess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!) We're allowed satellite dishes but no antennas. No solar, no windmills and no extra storage sheds w/o approval.

Woolly Bits said...

Leigh, I think this probablem is the same everywhere:(( instead of helping people to get more self-sufficient with their energy, they put stones in your way, where tye can:(( we probably could have quite a lot of energy from wind, but the cost to build your own turbine is enormous. sun is no go most of the time, but if solar panels where a bit cheaper we could install one to save on energy where possible. a combination would be good - but we'd pay off the debt for that until our last days:(( we do try to use wood for heating where possible, but there's not enough to do it all year round (and buying it is not a feasible option - living in nearly "timber-free" ireland:(() the only thing (as usual) to do is compromise and try to use your very own best way....
ps. mildew is a problem here too, and we have one dehumidifier - which doesn't warm up much, but does use a lot of electricity too:((

Vicki said...

Hi Leigh, Only people replacing old inefficient heating systems are eligible for the Geothermal grant here in Canada. A co-worker put in a new system for about what it would cost to put in a basic HVAC unit taking advantage of these incentives. Unfortunately, for people who are building, there are no incentives whatsoever and we would be looking at approx. 25,000 to install one new, which is way too much money. We are going to install a normal high efficiency propane unit but supplement as much as possible with wood. My way of looking at it is, do what you can to "walk lightly on the environment" (our local recycling facility's motto lol) but not to get too caught up in being 100% perfect...or self sufficient. I believe that if everyone put in as much effort as you are for example, to decrease your footprint then the world will change for the better by leaps and bounds. We are hoping to supplement with wood as well and maybe down the road have a wind and perhaps a solar unit because our land gets lots of both but I doubt we would ever be completely self sufficient for heating and electricity here in the Ottawa Valley. Don't have mixed happy about your nice new HVAC unit. :) You might be amazed at how little you have to use it this year. Thanks again for your amazing blog.

Tami said...

Thoughtful, well considered post.

Try not to beat yourself up though. I mean, Einstein did create electricity because he got sick and tired of freezing his (***) off every night. No? He didn't?

Anyone who's ever considered alternative energy (lifestyle) choices runs into these frustrating roadblocks. We've also kicked around the solar idea and unless you're made of $$ it ain't happening for us little guys.

So do the best you can with what you've got.

Your reasons for your lifestyle choices are sincere. You've commited to making these kinds of changes for reasons that are COMPLETELY different from the other guys who do it for public approval /power/good guy pat on the back.

Frustrating though, isn't it?

Leigh said...

Thanks Theresa! Ours is a Whirlpool, also loud. To find one that didn't generate heat would be useful indeed. I noticed lots of user reviews at the link, so I'll have to read through them to see what folks say.

Renee, on the one hand I can understand their position. Still, in this day and age, I would think they'd be addressing workarounds for homeowners. I agree that aesthetics are important, but so are other things.

Bettina, that's a shame isn't it. Is the Irish government trying to harness that wind power? In my research, I noticed a lot of our government money going to research wind power for use by the power companies. Nothing on an individual basis. I think money is the bottom line anyway, i.e. ever increasing profits, so it's better to keep people as consumers. Self-sufficiency doesn't fit in to that.

I agree that even some alternative energy would be a benefit. But it isn't worth the debt, is it?

Vicki,I appreciate your comments. Interesting to know that about Canadian geothermal. I whole heartedly agree that stewardship for the earth is everyone's responsibility. It just irks me that it all falls on the individual consumer. We can only choose from what's offered us and what we can afford.

I confess though, that the motive for our self-sufficiency is not solely a noble sacrifice for the earth. That's a side benefit I think to the agrarian lifestyle. For us, the bottom line is that the system is just too complicated, too stifling, too enslaving. We just want to escape the spider web before the spider sucks us dry.

Woolly Bits said...

Leigh, the government only supports larger companies to harness wind power - there are a lot of turbines, esp. in the west. but to install one in your garden, you'd have to have quite a piece of land - apart from the money. of course the whole technique and setup would become cheaper if more people installed it - but then others come and complain about the looks! funnily enough mobile phone towers don't seem to count (don't see where they are more attractive?)and no, ending up in debt for the next 20 or 30 years isn't my idea of fun:(( I am rather glad that we don't have a mortgage to pay back!

Leigh said...

Bettina, it sounds like it's the same here as there. I do understand that governments are responsible for the needs of entire countries. It puzzles me though, to have them stress the importance of an issue, according to them the life or death of the planet, and then not enable us to do something about it. How can folks not help but wonder what the truth really is?

I envy that you have no mortgage!

Julie said...

Sounds like a good system! As I've told you before we heat with several pellet stoves!

Ozarkhomesteader said...

First, your soapstone stove is wonderful. We'd like to have a similar one. Like you, we keep the house hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

For now, we are increasing the efficiency of the home we have by doing things like replacing energy-sucking doors with energy-saving ones. Next on the list is a solar-powered attic vent fan. Over time we'll increase our self-sufficiency, but we're doing it in baby steps, as we can afford it. You give me great inspiration.

Madness, Trouble, Squish and Milkbone said...

When I was a kid growing up in South Africa we did not have electric power. We had a diesel generator which we only ran for a few hours in the evening to watch TV and for lights until we went to bed. We had a gas (propane) stove and geysers and a kerosene refrigerator. We also had a huge open fireplace and best of all a large wood cooker stove. Of course our temperatures don't go down much below freezing. The wood cooker was great at warming the kitchen area.
Now of course my parents have regular electricity, although we kept the gas stove. They still don't have any kind of electric heating or cooling though. Our houses are all brick and very well insulated and built with weather in mind, so they are orientated in such a way that sun comes in the windows in winter, but not in summer, etc.
So, I'm no help at all, but your post made me think of my childhood. :-)

Leigh said...

Julie, we felt like we needed to put in something. Even though this is our forever home, unforeseen circumstances may necessitate our having to sell it. In that case, we knew we'd need a conventional heating system and AC. This seemed like the best option.

OzarkHomesteader, you all sound just like us. Actually, we consider the HVAC as supplemental to the woodstove and electric fans, rather than the other way around. By getting a simpler, cheaper model, we have enough left over to focus on energy efficiency for our home. We have a new energy star front door, just waiting to be installed! And a solar attic fan is on our priority list. So nice to have a fellow blogger who thinks the same way.

BM&T, what wisdom to build the house correctly in the first place! So unlike the US. Interesting about the geysers. Something else rarely found here.

Woody said...

We've considered a solar hot water system. What I've seen looks fairly cost friendly considering the ever inflating cost of propane. The system I was looking at, Apricus Solar, is easily expandable. We have wanted to add on the house and a radiant system would be the most cost effective for us.

Sharon said...

We added air to our system four years ago when Ian got heat exhaustion the first time. We heat with wood in the winter, but I'm telling you, I don't know what we would have done this summer when he got heat exhaustion again if we hadn't had it in place. I think it's about finding that place of balance.

Leigh said...

Woody, the rising costs of fossil fuels is one reason we didn't choose natural gas or propane. Thanks for letting me know about apicus solar. Solar water heating certainly does seem the most practical and economical use of solar energy.

Sharon, yeah, that heat can be devastating. When it comes to health, safe is always better than sorry. I imagine you have some really high temps out there.

Lee said...

Wow, I'm really impressed at how much research and thought and effort went into this decision. It sounds like you've truly considered all the options and done what was best for your family at this time. As others have said, no reason for mixed feelings!

The reality is that most of the "green" systems are really only options for the super-rich building sprawling eco-edifices. Insulation is one of the only routes to energy efficiency that is also cost effective. Mindful energy consumption, which is also part of your plan, is another.

It's too bad to hear that heat pumps have gone down in quality just like refrigerators. The concepts are so similar, I guess I'm not surprised.

I've always been a huge fan of small scale solar electric and wind power, but both are still ridiculously expensive to set up (and wind power can be costly to maintain too). I don't plan to use either at our current site. The reality is that renewable energy systems are more cost effective when built at extremely large scale. Other than hydro .. how many such large systems exist in the U.S.? It does not depend upon us, the average citizen, to go into great debt for something which should be driven from the top down.

Sometimes a revision of one's goals is necessary. I moved into our current house with the hope that we could eventually be both food and energy self-sufficiency. At this point, I've decided that it isn't necessary to live the life of an ascetic while grocery stores and the power grid are still working just fine. I'll settle for "the potential to be self-sufficient". Our house *can* be heated only by the wood stove, but that won't preclude us from using electric heat at times.

motherhen68 - Solar panels really do last 30 years or more at locations which don't involve flying 2x4s. Being made of glass, I'm not surprised that they aren't hurricane rated. Regarding hybrids, I have a very hard time taking them seriously too. Compare the Toyota Prius to the Yaris. Similarly sized cars, similar fuel economy, but big difference in price. The hybrid has far more parts to break and requires batteries that will need to be replaced and cannot be recycled.

Leigh said...

Lee, I have to admit that even after all that research, we feel like we just settled for the most logical choice rather than the best choice. Except now we're pretty certain their is no actual "best" choice as all systems seem to have their drawbacks.

Speaking of green, several years ago I ran across an issue of a small business owners magazine. The theme of the issue was "green." I read it carefully from cover to cover and was struck by the fact that every (and I do mean every) article, comment, Q&A, and letter to the editor focused only on the profitability "green." Nowhere was there any mention of environmental responsibility. Advice and discussion revolved solely around keeping costs down and profit margins up. The green "movement" was basically treated like another consumer fad. If that's the mindset of the business world, no wonder only the rich can afford these things.

Like you, we figure we'll use what's available, with the goal of needing those things less and less. These days, I tend to think in terms of how we would meet our (and our animal's) needs, in case of a widespread emergency. In exploring homesteading sites, I have discovered an amazing number of folks who truly believe our system is going to crash and burn. Whether from peak oil, the collapse of industrialism, a failed global food supply, or our government selling us out to the highest bidder, folks from both sides of the political spectrum are preparing for the worst. While none of those things are emotional motivators for us, they do remind us that a simpler life with less dependency on the system, is the wisest way to live.