Monday, January 26, 2009

Heating Oil Vent

I live in the relatively small part of the US where most homes are heated with oil. This makes the relevance of the whole peak oil situation quite obvious to us. When the price of a barrel of oil fluctuates, we're very aware of it. Other people might be able to heat with sustainable electricity, but we're looking down a dead-end street as far as our heating system is concerned. With the rather severe winter weather we've been having lately, we're down to a quarter tank of heating oil. Which means it's time to order a refill of our 275-gallon capacity tank. It's going to cost us about $440 if we pay cash. We spent almost that much for a smaller amount back in October when oil began its descent from the painfully high summertime prices.

This really ticks me off. Despite my frugality streak, it's not so much the expense that gets to me. We can handle the cost, at least for now - and I am very mindful that we're fortunate to be in such a position. It's just a mounting feeling of helplessness and dependence that unnerves me and then makes me angry. You see, we pull out all the stops to conserve our heating oil and try to minimize our carbon footprint in an admittedly carbon-heavy set up. We heat only two rooms of our home, and the daytime thermostat setting is never above 64 F (less than 18 C). Overnight it gets set down to 52 F (~11 C). I wear multiple layers, fingerless gloves, and a fleece hat indoors all winter long. I play with the shades to let sunlight in when it's available, and close them when there's none to be had. We close off little used rooms and on some days rely on several warm cups of tea to feel comfortable. Living this way looks extreme to many people. We've gotten used to it and don't mind. I feel we're doing what we can and should be doing to save money and conserve resources. And yet, with the days and nights of sub-freezing temperatures we've had this month, we've gone through more than 50 gallons of heating oil in three weeks.

Just at the beginning of this month, Julie over at Towards Sustainability posted an update on her Riot for Austerity efforts for this year. This was the first article that made me really stop and think about what it would mean for us to consume only our fair share of the earth's remaining resources. Turns out if we did that, we'd have to find a way to heat with just 75 gallons of heating oil per year. That didn't seem even remotely possible, but it prodded me to at least record the level of our oil tank on January 5th. And now, three weeks later, I see that even with all our "extreme" efforts we've already blown through more than two thirds of our annual fair share of heating oil. We're really trying here, and we're not even coming close.

I don't know what we're going to do about this. But my anger is really motivating me at the moment to look into alternatives - again. I've looked at this before for our home, and there aren't many viable options. We don't have the space for a geothermal system. Zoning codes make an outdoor wood furnace highly impractical. We're not in a great part of the country for solar, and topography is against us for wind power. Ugh! It's so frustrating to have no good options.


Anonymous said...

How efficient is the furnace?
Why does heat loss occur - lack of insulation, drafts?
Amount of time for temp to drop from 64 to 52?
What effect if thermostat set 64 during day and 60 at night?
How much oil burned to raise temp from 52 to 64?

Jessica said...

Hi Kate, do you know if your oil heater could take biodiesel? If there's a greasy sort of restaurant around where you could get the cooking oil, I think it emits less and must be cheaper.

kateS said...

Hi Kate--

Check out the Toyotomi Laser 73 stove. That's what we use, and it's great. It burns less than a gal a day, even when it's really cold and runs all day. We set it at about 65 during the day, 53 at night. It keeps 4 rooms comfortable -- close to 70 in the room with the stove, 60's in the adjoining rooms, and prob. 50's in the bedroom which is one room more removed. And we live in an old mobile home with lousy windows, not great insulation, drafty doors, etc. Yes I know I really need to work on these... but anyways, we love the Toyo! And BTW, I really do enjoy all the interesting things you write about!

el said...

Hi Kate. We're in home heating oil here too. We're in the Midwest and it's not terribly common; in fact, two supply companies have closed up or stopped selling oil since we moved here 4 years ago. We keep our house as cool as yours, but don't tinker much with the thermostat and just keep it at 60* all the time. What has helped is we've had our boiler done, redone, and done again to improve its efficiency, and it's worked. We can get through the winter on one 250 gal tank...and ours is an average-sized old farm house (2200sf). That said, we're going to rig up a wood cookstove, a small one, in the kitchen as I am still tired of relying on oil. We figure we can turn the thermostat way down when the cookstove is running. The one we're looking into is tiny (as is our kitchen) but can run for 8 hours and heat about 900 s.f. It's called the Baker's Oven, it's Australian. Anyway the reason I mention any of this is that, with the principles of sustainability, there's this notion that anything you do should have stacked uses: don't invest in anything unless it has more than one purpose, and yes, the cookstove would qualify as it'd help us maintain our woodlot, it would keep us warm, and I would cook on it and bake in it. Trouble is it's tough to shell out $3k (once I include the labor for the stovepipe and chopping through 2 ceilings and a roof).

SoapBoxTech said...

How far are you from agricultural areas? A large brush compost pile can produce quite a large amount of natural gas using the Jean Pain method (fermentation chamber in the centre of the pile) of underbrush and other lumber or manure composting. Some farmer might trade the land footprint for the resulting compost and perhaps for the hot water which the pile can also produce if water pipes run through the pile.

Google Taranaki Farms for a couple of videos if you are interested. It's not a simple or fast solution, but it seems to be a very productive one. I hope to give it a try on my parent's farm this or next summer.

Kate said...

Thanks to all of you for your suggestions and comments. We are looking into all possibilities right now. We've just had some solar power people come and evaluate our home site for a possible solar-thermal, and solar PV installation. We'll have to wait and see what the potential is, as well as the cost estimate.

You've each given me other avenues for exploration, and I thank you all for the suggestions.


Carl said...

Are there ways to improve your home's insulation?

There are some very cheap things that you can do, like putting a layer of plastic over windows, and as suggested by Anonymous, plugging leaks.

Also some ideas at

Carl said...

Also several heat-related ideas at

- Duct sealing
- Electric mattress pad heaters instead of a furnace
- Venting the clothes dryer inside, for those who use a dryer...