Seeing your electric bills spike in the colder months can be enough to make you want to forgo using your heater and just wear a coat indoors. But unless you live in a more moderate climate like California, where average winter temperatures hover around the 40s and 50s, that's not really an option. Luckily, there are many heating systems to choose from these days to help get you more bang for your buck.
According to the Green Energy Efficient Homes website, the most efficient way to heat your home is to make sure your house is as well insulated and air-sealed as possible (to prevent the heat from escaping) and to use as efficient, cheap and low-carbon an energy source as possible. Solar heating is the most efficient and affordable home heating system on the market today. Not only is solar heating cheapest in terms of installation and operation, but it also has no operating costs. The energy is free, except when there's a lack of sunlight or when very cold temperatures require you to supplement some other source of heat.
Sam Syed, owner of Green Energy EPC, a solar energy companyS, says you can heat a house with solar using a solar air heating system or a solar radiant floor heating system, the latter being the more efficient of the two. In a radiant floor heating system, hot air from solar air heating collectors is pumped into the pipe system in the floor to heat the house.
Solar electric systems, also called photovoltaic systems, involve solar panels and produce electricity during the day. They are generally installed on one's roof.
"A sufficiently sized solar photovoltaic system can completely eliminate the electric bill," says Syed. "Keep in mind that even if you put a large solar electric system on the house that will produce all the electricity you need, there will be a minimum electric bill you will receive every month. Think of it as a basic connection charge to the utility grid."
Syed points out that the federal government is currently giving financial tax credits to people who install certain types of solar electric systems. With these benefits, a solar electric system will pay for itself within four to five years.
"After that, people will have a free system and free energy for many, many years."
When it comes to conventional heating options, the cheapest is natural gas, followed by oil and then electric.
Marla Mock, vice president of operations at the heating and air conditioning company Aire Serv, says natural gas is fast-acting -- a gas furnace produces maximum heat as soon as the burners start running -- and is less expensive to operate than electricity.
"If you live in a cold climate and run your heater a lot during the winter, a gas furnace can save you money over the long run," says Mock.
However, Mock notes that gas furnaces' installation is more complicated (due to their venting requirements), so they require a larger upfront investment than electric furnaces. Gas furnaces also have shorter lifespans.
"You can expect a gas furnace to last 10 to 20 years, which is about half as long as an electric unit," Mock said.
A pro of electric furnaces, Mock says, is that they can be installed quickly and just about anywhere, as they don't need to vent to the exterior. But their cons include slower heating -- an electric furnace must spend time powering up the heating element before it can start to warm your home, so you have to wait longer for the effects of turning up the thermostat to kick in -- and an electric furnace has a higher lifetime cost than a gas furnace operating under the same conditions.
"The biggest flaw with electric furnaces is that, while some boast near 100% efficiency, the higher cost of electricity makes electric heat more expensive than gas heat," she says.
Other heating options include eco-efficient geothermal heating systems, which use the same kind of compressor that extracts heat from a refrigerator. Geothermal systems can be a great way to save on heating costs, but their installation costs can be high. Electric space heaters -- which are affordable, starting at around $20 -- work well to heat a single room quickly and are generally quite energy-efficient. And then there's the good old-fashioned wood-burning fireplace, which can be very low-cost, especially if you have access to free or cheap firewood.
Mock suggests you insulate your home by laying rugs or carpets to prevent heat loss through the floor, installing doorjambs to seal the space under your doors or hanging thermal curtains.
Syed recommends using good insulation -- R30 -- in the ceilings and attics and R19 or R11 insulation in the walls. He also recommends installing energy-efficient windows, replacing single-pane windows with double-pane ones, replacing drafty doors and windows and installing dark-color roof material to absorb the sun's heat into the house.
Another cost-effective tip from Mock: Heat your home by using humidifiers with controls to reset the humidity level based on outside air temperature. This combination will keep frost from forming; the requested humidity level will be lowered as outside temperatures fall and be restored to normal during less severe weather. Mock recommends a normal humidity level of 35-45%, but as temperatures dip into the single digits, it should be set closer to 20%.
Another tip: Set your inside temperature to 68 F, "a comfortable temperature if you dress for the season," saving you "about 8% compared to keeping the thermostat at 72 degrees," Mock says.