Q: We need some help selecting a heating and cooling system for a 3,000-square-foot house we’re going to have built. Our area has lots of cold, sunny winters, and natural gas is not available. We’re primarily considering a heat pump powered by either electricity, propane (we’re worried about high fuel costs) or geothermal (we’re worried about rocky soil). We were also wondering about solar heating. Keep up the great column! –Laurie L.
A: Propane costs can fluctuate up and down in much the same way gasoline prices do, so I don’t see a lot of houses heated solely with propane, especially of the size you’re going to build. Geothermal heat pumps are also pretty rare in areas that have rocky soil — the high cost of the initial installation makes it difficult for the energy savings to pencil out against the initial cost.
Given those options, and since you are looking for a cooling system as well as a heating system, an electric heat pump is probably going to work out best for you. Be aware, though, that in areas where average winter temperatures are relatively cold, the heat pump will still rely on its backup electric strip heaters in much the same way a standard electric furnace does, so the energy savings may not be as dramatic as they would be in a milder climate.
Your HVAC contractor or your utility company can do an energy audit of your plans for you, and give you a pretty accurate estimate of annual fuel costs. Once you know the exact layout of the house and all of the energy-related details, they can work out comparisons for you that will show you how much the house would cost to heat with propane as opposed to electricity. Compare that to the initial cost of the heating system, and you can quickly see how long the energy-savings payback is for any given system.
In a house the size of yours, you might also want to consider some supplemental heat in the rooms you use most often, in order to lessen the use of the heat pump somewhat. Propane or oil works well to fuel freestanding supplemental fireplaces or heaters in specific areas such as the living or family room.
Solar is an excellent way to lessen the load on your heating system in an area with lots of sunny winter days. You can “sun-temper” the house by orienting a large portion of glass to the south and minimizing north exposure (cold in the winter) and west exposure (which adds to your summer cooling load). If possible, use heat-absorbing materials such as brick and tile adjacent to some of the south-facing glass, to absorb as much of that free winter heat as possible.
Q: I have a 5-foot-by-8-foot spa tub, and was wondering what you thought of using ozone instead of chlorine in it. –Charles C.
A: I think the use of ozone for spas and hot tubs is a great idea, but you need to be aware that while ozone will greatly reduce the amount of chlorine you use, it typically will not completely eliminate the need for chemical treatment of the water. I would recommend that you contact the store where you purchased the tub, or whatever local dealer handles that brand. Give them the model and serial number — it should be on a name plate located in the compartment where the equipment is — and see if there is an ozone generator available to fit it. Your dealer can also help you with suggestions on how to test the water and adjust the amount of chlorine you use.
Q: I am very interested in using bamboo flooring in my new house, but my local flooring dealer is not familiar with it. Can you suggest where I might get some additional information? –Joe H.
A: Here are the names of three sources of bamboo building materials that I am familiar with — I’m sure there are others as well. When you contact them, I would suggest that you specifically request information on what products they carry, where their local dealers are located, where their raw materials originate from, and what their harvesting and environmental practices are:
- Bamtex: www.bamtex.com
- California Bamboo Flooring Co. Inc.: www.californiabamboo.com
- Plyboo: (650) 872-1184, www.plyboo.com
Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.