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By Steve & Kathy in Belfair, WA on 12/31/2009


Hi all,

I just saw the post about the geothermal heat pump.  We're in the planning stages for our house.  It will be a stick-built, about 2,300 sq. ft. one-level home in Yakima County.  We live in Belfair now.  On Tuesday, we visited a heating/cooling 'store' in Port Orchard.  They advertised they would help do-it-yourself types on doing your own install.  We went in thinking we wanted the typical heat pump with a direct-vent gas fireplace for backup heat. 

They described to us the ideal, most heat-efficient situation for a new home.  That being a furnace, electric or propane, inside the house, with all the ductwork behind a drop ceiling, and of course the living space of the house totally insulated.  Then, even though they are in the business of selling furnaces, heat pumps and a/c, told us the most efficient heat is a wood stove!  Also that the design of your house has a lot to do with how efficient your heat source will be!

They also stated that when your ductwork is in the crawlspace or attic, your heat pump or furnace is only about 60% efficient.

Any input is welcomed!!

Kathy


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By David in Port Orchard, WA on 1/1/2010


I am building my new house in Port Orchard. About 50% done. Can you tell me the name of the Port Orchard store that offers to help DIY'ers with their heating system?

At this point I'm leaning toward either a: 1) Polaris high-efficiency HW heater (Model PG10 34-100-2PV), or 2) Weil McLain (Model Ultra 80) boiler in an open hydronic system. No forced air--fans or ducts. Kitsap County approves open systems. I've seen them in successful operation with both of these products.

Best price I've been able to get from "boiler in a box" companies is about $11,000, with me laying all the oxygen-barrier PEX-one level in a concrete slab and two floors in between the TJIs. What kind of prices are you getting for your system?


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By Mike in Mill Creek, WA on 1/2/2010


Kathy,


I just finished a house up on Camano Island that is our second home and I can share my thoughts on heating systems.

From my perspective, the first and most important part of a heating system is having a very tight and well-insulated house.  In building my house I used a housewrap that I made sure was completely taped and sealed, used good-quality windows that were also well sealed when installed, ensured that all penetrations in my ceiling drywall (can lights, etc.) were sealed on the attic side, and had R-21 insulation in the walls and R-60 blown in in the attic.  I was also able to use a number of large windows on the SW side of my house that provide great passive solar heating.  When it was in the 20's a couple of weeks ago, with the sunny days, my house stayed at 65 degrees from about 10 in the morning to about an hour after the sun went down without my heater coming on once.

The second most important thing in your heating system is a well-designed and very well-sealed and insulated duct system if you are using a forced-air type of furnace.  Your duct system needs to take into account the heat loss in each room being served, and then the duct sizing needs to be appropriate to allow the furnace to efficiently deliver the heated air to each room.  If the ducts are not sized correctly, the furnace will work harder then it should to heat the house, which drives down the overall efficiency of your heating system.

If you are using a heating contractor make sure they explain to you how they determined the size and duct layout for your house. If they look confused, move on to another contractor. After appropriately-sized ducts, the next most important thing is to make sure that all the duct work is 100% sealed at all of the joints and that all of the duct work is well insulated (R-13) and all of the joints in the insulation are well taped.  You want to make sure all the heated air from your furnace gets to each room in your house, and doesn't go to heating your attic or crawlspace.

As for a furnace, I went with a heat pump and an electric furnace.  Since I'm currently only using my house on weekends, I haven't installed a heat pump yet, but prewired my house and have the coil unit installed with my furnace so that it will be a quick and easy installation when I move out there full time.  I chose an electric furnace over propane for a couple of reasons, the first of which was the electric furnace allowed me a lot of flexibility on where I installed the furnace, since I didn't have to worry about the exhaust vent that you have to deal with with a gas furnace. The second reason was that when I was selecting a furnace it was when gas prices where about $4 a gallon and propane had followed gas prices and were very high.

What you want to look at is the cost to deliver a Btu of heated air into your house, so I considered the cost of propane vs. electricity, the efficiency of the furnace, and the cost of the furnace. Since propane seems to follow gas prices and electricity is regulated, I figured that in the future I stood a better chance of electricity being more stable price-wise then propane.  An electric furnace is 99% efficient and are very cheap compared to a propane furnace that at best is only 95% efficient.  There are propane furnaces about as cheap as an electric furnace, but they are only about 80% efficient.  So when you take into account the efficiency of the furnace, 5% to 20% of the money you would spend on propane doesn't go to heating your house where almost 100% of it does with an electric furnace.

One last comment on selecting a force air furnace; while the Btu output is what is mostly looked at and is important (don't buy too big a furnace, one sized just to what you need is always best), the blower in the furnace is just about as important to get sized correctly.  I am an engineer by trade and was able to size, lay out, and install my heating system myself, but I would recommend getting some help at a minimum to at least design a layout and determine the appropriate furnace Btu and blower sizing.  If you were interested in trying to figure this out yourself there is a book titled HVAC Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning, Third Edition, by S. Don Swenson. Chapter 18 gives details on doing load calculations to determine the size of your furnace and Chapter 20 gives a good description on the steps to go through in designing a good forced-air duct system.

I hope some of my comments were helpful and good luck with your project.

Mike

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By Steve & Kathy in Belfair, WA on 1/2/2010


Wow!

Thanks you guys for all the input.  I'm sure Steve will want to read this. 

Kathy

 


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By Mark in Seattle, WA on 1/2/2010


A company called Slant/Fin (makers of hydronic baseboard heaters) used to have a free heat-loss calculator available on CD.  You might contact them.  You input the wall height, glazing area, exterior exposure and R-values for each room and it provides a heat-load calculation based on how warm you want to keep the room at what exterior temperature.  Because they sell baseboard hydronics, it's a room-by-room calculation, but it's very informative, and does give a whole-house number.  I need 33,000 BTU/hr to keep warm when it's 27 degrees out.  Nice to know.  I purchased my wood stove based on this information (in case the power is out).  I was always amazed that I got my copy free (and maybe that has stopped, but I'd still check with Slant/Fin).

I'm building in Dewatto.  Those of you in Belfair and Port Orchard may know where it is.  Just passed my  electrical and now I am waiting for the PUD to connect me so that I can start heating (hydronic slab-on-grade using a demand electric HW heater).  Even without heat, our four days of below-freezing temps only got my interior temp down to 40 degrees.  Two neighbors had frozen pipes.  Looks like I won't have to worry about that.

Heat calculations are good to know.  Plus, whether it's the county inspector or a heating contractor, if you can talk BTUs, glazing area, etc., you get better service.

Mark


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By Lynn in Kirkland, WA on 1/2/2010


Wow, very informative! I'll definitely get the book. Thanks so much!

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By Lynn in Kirkland, WA on 1/4/2010


Hi Mike,

Since you are an expert in HVAC,  would you mind if I have a few questions?

During the weekends, we have been to various luxury custom-home open houses. Some of these homes use high-efficiency gas furnaces instead of heat pumps. I Googled and some source says that high-efficiency ones cost $500-$1,000 more in material costs. One subcontractor friend said that a heat pump has higher maintenance costs. He is not in WA state, though. What do you think of heat pump vs. high-efficiency gas furnace?

Also I noticed in some of these custom homes registers are installed on the wall (about one foot off on the wall) instead of in the floor. The house we are living in right now has registers in the floor. Any pros and cons to put them on the wall?

Thanks so much!

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By Mark in Seattle, WA on 1/5/2010


I don't have personal experience with a heat heat pump in my own residence, but from what I've seen, I'm a little leery of heat pumps.  Our neighbor in Seattle put in a heat pump in preparation for selling the home several years ago.  When the new owners moved in, they ran the heat pump a few times (on hot summer nights for cooling).  It was located between our house and theirs, right under our bedroom window, which we open to cool off at night.  It was noisy and not within the minimum lot line setback.  I called the city to ask about the install.  It wasn't permitted.  I said I'd talk with the neighbor.  He said "nope", it's a violation regardless of what I work out with the neighbor.  It was red-tagged the next day. 

There is only one expensive brand of heat pump that meets the Seattle sound ordinance, and only then if it can be placed quite far from all neighboring residences.  Not enough room in our neighborhood and, although the local install company knew this, they did it anyway.  The inspector told me that he thought that a lot of Seattle installs might not meet code, but owners and neighbors don't know any better and put up with the noise.  But there are class action lawsuits from consumers who have bought heat pumps only to find out that they can't meet local codes.

It's less of a problem if you live on a large lot where it doesn't bother neighbors.  The neighbors at our rural home put in a heat pump as part of new construction.  He designed the home, and not knowing any better, placed it under their second-story master bedroom. While getting a tour of their new house, it came on.  It was raining and it shot a cloud of spray up past the window when it boomed into operation.  It actually scared me.  They've gotten used to it, except when they use their huge wraparound deck with a 180-degree view of the Sound and the Olympics.  I've been there for a BBQ.  Nice and peaceful until the heat pumps whirs.  Because they have south and west-facing windows (and no AC), the heat pump runs all day on nice days when you want to use the deck.  If it were me, I'd use it as a mooring anchor.

I know that there are furnaces and AC units that are quiet and can be placed in areas where they are virtually unnoticed.  I haven't yet seen a heat pump that doesn't remind me of a junked appliance sitting in the yard.  There may be ways to avoid the noise problem, or it might not be a problem for those who always have a TV blaring.  I'm leery. 

Mark

My two cents.


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By Lynn in Kirkland, WA on 1/5/2010


Mark, really appreciate your input! I have been following up your rural home at Hood Canal from your blog. What a beautiful house! Looks like you did spray foam yourself. Can you talk a little more about that? I have been reading about DIY, but some post said his house got burned down when a contractor was doing spray foam. That really scared me.

We hadn't worked with heat pumps before, so we didn't know they were noisy. :P

We are probably gonna build on a small lot, although we are still looking at land/property to buy. Just a clarification, in my previous post I meant to say that high-efficiency gas furnaces costs $500-$1,000 more in material costs than regular gas furnaces. I guess heat pumps are still more expensive than high-efficiency gas furnaces.


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By Mike in Mill Creek, WA on 1/5/2010


Hi Lynn,


While I'm no expert, I'll share my thoughts on the questions you asked. With respect to your question about a heat pump vs. a high-efficiency gas furnace, it really depends on several factors.  There are two types of heat pumps, air source or geothermal, both of which are much more efficient then even a high-efficiency gas furnace with the geothermal heat pump being about the most efficient method of heating your home; but also the most expensive system you could install.

I don't know if you know the difference between a heat pump and a conventional gas or electric furnace, but with a conventional furnace the energy you pay for each month is what gets converted to heat, so that is why the efficiency is such an important factor, but you'll never get more then 96% for a gas furnace and about 98-99% for an electric furnace of the energy you pay for converted to heat in your house.  With a heat pump, the energy you pay for each month doesn't go to make heat, but it goes into operating a system that removes heat from the outside air (air-source heat pump) or from the ground (geothermal heat pump) and transfers that heat to your home.

So when compared to a conventional gas or electric furnace, the money you spend on power each month to "move" the heat from the outside into you home is very little compared to what it would take to "make" that heat with a conventional furnace, so you end up getting much more heat per dollar spent each month, which over time can add up to considerable savings.  So why doesn't everyone install a heat pump? As someone else already responded, an air-source heat pump can be noisy, so its placement on the outside of a house needs a lot of thought so you don't end up with noise being a problem for yourself or your neighbors.  Noise isn't an issue with a geothermal heat pump, but the issue there is you need a considerable amount of land or must sink several bore holes to bury coils that are used to extract the heat from the ground.

Another factor with heat pumps is that they produce heat a little at a time, so you never get that warm blast of air you get from a conventional furnace when you turn up the thermostat; it's a slow steady heat.  Also, with an air-source heat pump, they are less effective when the outside air temperature gets very cold, so you have to have some source of backup heat to get you through very cold days.  Up here in the NW we actually have temperatures that work very well with an air-source heat pump system.  An added benefit of a heat-pump system is that they can also work to pull heat out of your house in the summer and work as an air conditioner all with the same hardware.

In the end it really depends on what is important to you.  If you are building a big home that you plan on being in for a long time and you have a concern about future energy costs, then it would pay to invest in a heat-pump system.  If you're on a budget or may not be in the house for an extended period, then it might be more beneficial to buy a good conventional furnace and spend more of your budget on better quality windows and more insulation.

With respect to maintenance costs, a lot of the time it's more due to poorly matched equipment or a poor installation then the actual hardware itself. An air-source heat pump outside unit needs to have good air flow around the unit, so if they get installed too close to a house or bushes grow around the unit, it can affect its operation and lead to early failures.

With respect to your question on vents being close to the floor, this may be just due to the house being built on a slab and that happened to be the best location to install the duct.

I hope some of this was helpful.

Mike

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By Mark in Seattle, WA on 1/6/2010


Lynn,

I did my own spray foam on the shop with a studio above that I built first.  I paid $3,600 for the foam and learned how messy it is to apply.  Took me over a week of stop and start.  For the house, I paid a contractor $5,000, they showed up with a crew of four, sprayed and cleaned up in one day.  I now think that DIY foam only pencils out for the small areas. 
 
The product is exothermic and produces heat as it kicks off.  1/8th inch is sprayed on, which expands to several inches within a few seconds.  The installer lets that area cool while spraying an adjacent area.  After about 10-20 seconds, another coat is applied and the process is continued until the desired thickness results.  That was 7.5 inches in my rafter bays and 10-12 inches in my little attic area.
 
If the product is applied 10-15 inches in one pass, several things happen.  First, the rapid expansion can cause the product to drop off in gobs.  Second, you'll get "burn out" where the heat produced causes large voids, uneven expansion and poor setting.  Because the product I used has water as the blowing agent, steam is produced, though not enough to cause any problems.  If the installer hasn't noticed the telltale signs of improper application, it is possible, though difficult, to cause a fire.  My research was that fires were an extremely rare occurrence that required a completely inept installer.  I always have a big fire extinguisher on hand anyway (so should every construction site), so I didn't think much about it.  I was very impressed with the installers.
 
Spray foam for unvented attics requires a variance in Washington (although it's supposed to be allowed in the 2010 code).  Getting a variance required several meetings and caused a three-month delay, although I think that it was worth it.
 
One of the reasons I went with hydronic heat was because it is quiet.  A couple of small circulation pumps running and an electric on-demand HW heater (which actually buzzes when operating).  We stayed at our property in a solar-powered yurt for several years and got used to hearing the gulls cry during the day and the seals snort at night. The idea of a noisy home just doesn't appeal.  Now that I'm getting ready to cover the interior walls, I'm buying insulation, doubling drywall, and applying "green glue" just for soundproofing the bathrooms and mechanicals.  I've been spoiled by quiet.
 
Mark


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By Dwight in Vaughn, WA on 4/30/2010


Hi Steve and Kathy:

My wife and I are building our new house on Key Peninsula not very far from Belfair. We are building with Perform Wall ICF walls, and are very happy with this product. Our official heat source for code purposes will be LP-based hot-water heat in part of the basement floor, and a 1 1/2" thick concrete floor on the main floor. We will have a wood burning stove near the center of the house as our main heat source. With R-30 exterior walls, we should have good temperature control. If you are interested in looking at a Perform Wall house project, we will be glad to show you what we have done and how it works. P.M. me.

Dwight


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By Dwight in Vaughn, WA on 5/1/2010


Hello David:

My wife and I are building a Perform Wall house on Key Peninsula. We are using LP-fueled hot-water heat in the slab, but haven't purchased our boiler yet. We will also have a wood-burning stove that will actually provide most of the heat. We have the roof installed and are moving on to window installation. 

We would enjoy seeing your project, and would like to show what we are doing.

Thanks, Dwight


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