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Hot New Heaters
While millions of videos have been uploaded to YouTube, Norman Goyette may be the only homeowner on the popular website to spend 10 minutes bragging about his heating system. On the video, Goyette takes you on a tour through his house in Tyngsboro, Mass., with a stop at his new Freewatt Warm Air Micro-CHP system that’s quietly running in the background. “It’s exceeded my expectations,” he says. “What I like about the Freewatt is the engineering behind it, because it feels like a good hedge against future technology changes.”
Goyette is like many homeowners who are investing in the next generation of heating equipment to try to combat rising energy costs. Three innovative heating systems in particular — the Freewatt by Climate Energy, the Acadia by Hallowell International and the Tranquility by ClimateMaster — are putting a high-efficiency twist on staying warm and comfortable this winter.
Two for the Price of One
The CHP in Freewatt Micro-CHP stands for combined heat and power, also called cogeneration. That’s a technical way of saying that the fuel used to heat your home also produces electricity. “The typical scenario is that you are currently heating your house with natural gas,” says Karl Mayer of Climate Energy, based in Medfield, Mass. “You switch to Freewatt and will consume about the same amount of natural gas to heat your house, and as a bonus you will produce about half your annual usage of electric power from Freewatt, effectively for free.”
Cogeneration has been in use for commercial buildings for years, but with the creation of the Freewatt Micro-CHP, the technology was scaled down to fit individual homes (that’s why it’s called micro). A high-efficiency furnace made by Climate Energy is paired with a special generator developed by Honda’s motor division (more than 50,000 of the Micro-CHPs made by Honda are in use in Japan). When the system is running, it produces 1,200 watts of electric power. Over the year, a unit can generate from 4,000 to 5,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a typical northern home. According to Climate Energy, that’s enough to supply a home with most of its electric power in the winter and about half of the annual electric requirement.
Goyette notes that while the Freewatt system can cost two to three times more than a standard high-efficiency furnace, it was cheaper than some of the other systems he looked at. “I really like the design of it and the fact that it didn’t require me to tunnel through the walls of the house at all,” he says. “I was able to use the existing ductwork.”
A homeowner who replaces a typical 80-percent-efficiency home heating system with the Freewatt unit can expect to see a 30-percent savings in energy costs, according to Climate Energy. The electric power produced by the system actually displaces electricity that consumers would otherwise purchase from the local electric utility, saving $500 to $1,000 per year. And when the system generates more electricity than is needed, the power can be sold back to the local utility — what’s called net metering (42 states currently have some level of net metering in place).
Since replacing his old furnace with the Freewatt system this past winter, Goyette says he’s had energy savings of up to $200 a month. He’s also been impressed with the microcomputer monitoring system that’s connected through the Internet to his service providers and the installers for maintenance purposes. “I didn’t realize I would be able to interact with the system through a web interface,” says Goyette, who can monitor the status of the system, the amount of electricity it produces, indoor and outdoor temperatures, and his energy savings.
The Freewatt is currently available only in New England, although Climate Energy plans to roll the system out in the northern Midwest soon. In addition, the company is planning to adapt the system to operate on propane, and it’s working on an advanced model that could act as an emergency power generator if the electricity goes out.
The Maine Event
Forty miles east of Goyette in the town of Marblehead, Mass., is Ed Nilsson’s house, where an Acadia heating system from Hallowell International, based in Bangor, Maine, keeps him warm and comfortable in the winter. Nilsson is one of the first to test the air-source heat pump (named after Maine’s Acadia National Park) that was created for use in colder climates. “The neighborhood where I live doesn’t have natural gas,” Nilsson says. “We wanted to take advantage of this new [heat pump] technology, which can [operate at an exterior temperature of] zero degrees.”
The idea behind the Acadia system came in 1995, when David Shaw, a retired refrigeration engineer and compressor designer, received a $400 electric bill that shocked him. While the most common air-source heat pumps can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it uses, they fall short when the temperature drops below freezing, requiring some type of fossil-fuel backup heating or electric-resistant system, such as electric baseboard heaters. Shaw changed that with the Acadia’s innovative “booster” system, called the Opti-Cycle. It has been tested to perform effectively at temperatures as low as 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero — something unheard of before with air-source heat pumps.
“The key to boosted compression is what we call the booster compressor — a second compressor in series with a primary compressor that gives the refrigerant pressure and temperature a boost when the unit is running in low-ambient [low-temperature] conditions,” says Scott Pinyard, Hallowell sales manager. Above 30 degrees, the system uses only the primary compressor. When temperatures fall below 30 degrees, the Acadia’s second compressor kicks in, boosting both heat output and delivery air temperatures.
Russ Johnson, an independent researcher who has tested the Acadia, says it really works. “The Hallowell heat pumps, in my tests, have supplied their homes’ heat requirements down to as low as negative-10 to negative-15 degrees Fahrenheit — the lowest I’ve monitored,” says Johnson. “Its efficiency remains good at those temperatures too.”
In addition to its heating capabilities, Nilsson says he was pleasantly surprised by the system’s cooling properties. “We live out on the shoreline and never had air conditioning because we’re near the water,” he says. “It’s really hot here in the summertime, but we found that this system came with ‘free’ air conditioning.”
Another advantage to the Acadia is it doesn’t require special installation or maintenance when compared to a standard air-source heat pump. “Physically it looks pretty much the same,” says Pinyard. “We actually designed it that way on purpose, because we didn’t want people to say, ‘What is that thing?’”
Like the Freewatt, you will pay a premium for the Acadia. Pinyard says it costs about $3,000 more than a typical new furnace and air conditioner, but he says the payback period can be just two to four years. Acadia has an online calculator (see sidebar) where you can input data about your house, such as square footage and local electric rates, to estimate savings. Nilsson says he’s seen his annual electric bills drop from $2,063 in 2005 to $991 in 2007. While Pinyard says your local HVAC expert can install an Acadia, he recommends contacting Hallowell by phone or through its website to ensure proper installation.
A Grounded Choice
Although geothermal heat pumps have been around since the 1940s, they are still among the most efficient heating systems you can buy (they’re also called geo-exchange or ground-source systems). Forty-thousand units are installed every year in the United States and even more in Canada, where there’s been a growth rate of nearly 100 percent.
ClimateMaster, based in Oklahoma City, has been one of the leaders in the industry for the last 50 years, installing more than two million systems around the world. Its newest product line is the Tranquility series of water-to-air and water-to-water heat pumps featuring a new compressor technology, which can boost water temperatures to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes the Tranquility series one of the best choices for radiant heating and domestic hot water.
“Water-to-air means the equipment circulates fluid within a geothermal loop, which then exchanges that energy through a refrigerant which is compressed, and then given off in the form of cooled or warmed air,” explains Tony Landers, marketing director for ClimateMaster. “A water-to-water system does this similarly but even more efficiently, because it exchanges the thermal energy with water, which is a better conductor.” Landers says ClimateMaster is now switching to EarthPure HFC-410A zero-ozone-depletion refrigerant, which helps make the Tranquility even more environmentally friendly.
What keeps most people from getting a geothermal heat pump is the cost. “Geothermal heat pumps have an initial higher installation cost, with an average installed price of around $2,500 per ton for the equipment,” says Brett Dillon, a building science expert with IBS Advisors, located in Schertz, Texas. “However, they use about 30 to 40 percent less energy than an air-source heat pump and have a 95 percent homeowner satisfaction rate.”
Typically, installation costs have been high because the installer must bore holes vertically into the ground for the geothermal loops (much like digging a well) or dig horizontal trenches (if you have enough land and the right soil conditions). However, new installation equipment that’s easier to use and more cost-effective is helping to reduce installation costs. “There are now better, more compact, more versatile drilling rigs,” says Landers. “I’ve even seen one that was driven into a backyard through a four-foot gate opening and maneuvered easily between landscape features.”
The ClimateMaster requires less maintenance than conventional systems because there’s no outdoor condensing coil and fan. The life expectancy is also longer: indoor equipment can last up to 25 years, and the underground loops have a life expectancy of at least 50 years.
The Devil is In the Details
Whether you decide to go with one of the latest models described in this article or a more conventional high-efficiency model, make sure you do as much homework as necessary to ensure you not only get the right system for your home but also the right HVAC installer. Most manufacturers can recommend local installers who are qualified on their systems. Scott Pinyard of Hallowell International says he gets calls about the Acadia from homeowners who say their HVAC contractors don’t believe the system can work.
With the right high-efficiency heating system combined with correct installation, you may be so happy with the results this winter that you’re the next homeowner to post a YouTube video sharing your enthusiasm (and getting your 15 minutes of fame). Norman Goyette says he’s received a few phone calls and emails from people who recognize him and his daughter from the site, and adds, “The kids get a big kick out of it.”
Jim Hackler is an Atlanta-based journalist specializing in environmental issues. You can find him at www.TheUrbaneEnvironmentalist.com.