Zonal Heating for the Home

Wait out Seattle winter in an efficient oasis of warmth.
Maria Dolan  |   December 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
A pellet stove (Avalon Arbor, pictured) offers the coziness of a woodstove–with greater efficiency–to warm up Seattle's damp winters.

Beth Evans-Ramos doesn’t want to ignite your envy. But on winter’s frostiest days, the 2,000-square-foot house in Shoreline where she lives with her husband is as cozy as a thick Irish sweater, and it comes with a heating bill that rarely rises above $55 a month—even in the middle of winter. “It’s like magic,” she says.

The Evans-Ramoses moved to their new house a little more than a year ago from a 1988 mini-mansion in Mill Creek that was so big it cost hundreds of dollars a month to heat.

Their new pad, built by Martha Rose Construction, is not only much smaller, but thickly insulated, draft free, and clad with high-efficiency windows, all building choices that go a long way toward lowering the home’s heating needs. But there’s another trick the builder employed to provide abundant warmth in an eco-friendly package: multiple heat sources, which allow different parts of the house to maintain different temperatures. It’s a technique called zonal heating, and whether employed with a gas stove, baseboard or wall heater, woodstove or other method, it’s a growing trend, both because of improvements in heaters and for the inherent cost-saving practicality of the idea.

“I think it’s a good thing almost always,” says builder Martha Rose. “People are realizing that it’s usually more efficient than central heating. Why do you want to heat an entire house when you’re not occupying the whole house at all times?”

If you are doing a significant remodel or constructing a new home, you might consider forgoing gas or oil central heating and ductwork, and installing multiple heat sources instead. If you aren’t remodeling, one option is to turn the thermostat very low on your central heat and install a second zonal heat source in particularly chilly rooms, or in the spaces where you spend most of your time. For example, you might put a woodstove in the living room, or an electric wall heater in the bathroom. Or, if you already have some zonal heat—for instance, baseboard heaters in your bedrooms—you can look for an upgrade to something more efficient and attractive.

Gas Stoves and Inserts
In the Evans-Ramoses’ house, life centers around the living room, where their extremely efficient Empire Mantis freestanding gas stove ($2,500–$4,500, depending on model and installation requirements) provides radiant heat that also warms surrounding areas, such as the kitchen and hallways.

The American-made Mantis is a condensing gas stove—which means it captures heat that would normally be lost in a regular gas stove. If someone in another room wants additional heat, they use a separate heat source: electric baseboard heaters are installed in each of the three bedrooms. In a house as well sealed as this one, a heat recovery ventilator, which regularly exchanges indoor air for outdoor air, is a must, and that device also helps to circulate the warmed air from the Mantis stove.

Most other new gas stoves or inserts (meaning, inserted in the wall) are more efficient than past models, and natural gas is currently cheaper than electricity. Aside from these virtues, a gas stove or insert gives much of the cozy feeling of a fireplace, without the need to tote wood or clean the chimney.

 
Ductless Heat Pumps
If you’re willing to try something cutting edge—and like the sound of getting a rebate for your upgrade while permanently lowering your heating bills—consider installing one or more ductless heat pumps. An option called a “ductless split” or “mini-split” ($5,000–$12,000) can be installed in one or more individual rooms for a zonal approach. Manufactured by several Japanese companies, including Daikin and Fujitsu, the ductless heat pump is electric and looks a bit like a baseboard heater, but sits high on the wall. (Bonus: Though few people install air conditioning in Seattle, the heat pump is dual purpose and can become a superefficient air conditioner with the flip of a switch.)

Ductless heat pumps are so efficient that Seattle City Light is offering hefty rebates to encourage people to install these as a replacement for less-efficient baseboard heaters. The drawback is that a ductless heat pump is slightly more intrusive than your typical electric wall or baseboard heater: A 3-inch hole must be cut in the wall behind the mini-split unit to connect it to a condenser, which is attached to the outside of the house. Heat pumps can have 200–300 percent efficiency, meaning that for every unit of energy that goes into the machine, two to three units of energy are returned. That’s twice as efficient as a typical furnace.

 

Electric Baseboard AND Wall Heaters
Electric baseboard and wall heaters are considered 100 percent efficient; in other words, for every unit of energy that goes into an electric heater, a unit of energy comes out. A wall heater has the benefit of a fan, which helps distribute heat. One of the best uses of this kind of electric heat is in an extremely well insulated house, where heat isn’t needed except on the coldest days. Another place for such heating is in a guest room or bathroom, where people need heat intermittently. Be sure to get one with a programmable thermostat for optimal zonal usage. The Runtal Omnipanel ($845–$2,915) comes in several colors and sizes, and will heat not only your towels but any bathroom that’s not too cavernous.

 

Woodstoves, Wood Fireplaces and Pellet Stoves
The original zonal heat source was a roaring fire. Unfortunately, the smoke and particulate from a wood fire will make you unpopular with your neighbors. If nothing can substitute for real flames, stick with a high-efficiency woodstove, such as one from Quadra-Fire ($2,500–$4,500, depending on model and installation requirements). This and other high-efficiency woodstoves are built to minimize smoke.

Since the 1980s, when a housing boom created surplus wood and sawdust, pellet stoves have been gaining popularity as an alternative to woodstoves. Pellets, which are poured into a hopper on the stove, can be made from waste wood, such as sawdust, or even from corn or other biomaterials. In our area, a 40-pound bag ranges from $4 to $7. (A good pellet stove burns 1–2 pounds of pellets per hour on low, and can hold 40–120 pounds or more of pellets.) Pellet stoves give off more heat than a woodstove and are more efficient. They also burn cleaner. But pellets cost more than wood, and the stoves do require electricity to work (for the fans), so they won’t work in a power outage.

At Rich’s for the Home, two of the best-selling models are from Travis Industries, a local manufacturer. The Avalon Astoria and the Lopi Pioneer models have similar, rustic black steel frames, and are priced between $2,700 and $3,700, depending on size.

A bit pricier are gorgeous cast iron models, such as the Avalon Arbor ($3,357). Some federal tax credits are available for buying high-efficiency woodstoves or pellet stoves (see Resources).

Whichever heating option you choose, a zonal approach will gain you reduced bills this winter. It’s also a good time to make sure your house is well insulated and weathertight, so you can zone out in full comfort and peace of mind.

 


 

Resources

Gas stoves and woodstoves
Empire Mantis and Quadra-Fire available at Fireside Hearth and Home: firesidehearthandhome.com/index.php

Pellet stoves
Avalon Astoria and Lopi Pioneer available at Rich’s for the Home: richshome.com/stoves2_pellet.asp

Ductless heat pumps
Daikin and Fujitsu models available at Washington Energy Services: washingtonenergy.com

Wall heaters
Runtal Omnipanel available at The Fixture Gallery: thefixturegallery.com/seattle.html

Permits
For wood, coal and other solid-fuel-burning appliances, visit seattle.gov/DPD/Publications/CAM/cam416.pdf

Tax credits and rebates
Up to a $300 federal tax credit for biomass (wood and pellet) stoves if you buy in 2011: energysavers.gov/financial/70010.html

Ductless-heat-pump rebates
seattle.gov/light/conserve/dhp/ and goingductless.com

Energy ratings
For information and ratings for woodstoves and pellet stoves, visit the EPA Burnwise website: epa.gov/burnwise

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