If you live or work in a building that was constructed at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century, there might be a big octopus in your basement.
Not a venomous, ink-spitting, eight-tentacled sea creature, but a type of furnace – a gravity furnace – that people took to calling an octopus because of the many ducts that protrude from it. Gravity furnaces, which were much larger than modern furnaces, relied on the fact that warm air rises. A combustion chamber would be filled with fuel – coal at first, and then other fossil fuels – that would burn and warm the air around the chamber. That warm air would then rise naturally up the many oversized ducts and out grates placed strategically throughout the building.
Octopus furnaces were abandoned in the middle of the 20th century for many reasons – for example, it took a long time to heat up a building after the fuel was lit, combustion chamber leaks could fill a building with carbon dioxide and many of them were insulated with asbestos – but a big driver was cost. Octopus furnaces were only about 50 percent efficient, which translated into buying twice the fuel that you needed for heat.
Thankfully, heating systems have come a long way since then.
Heating efficiency: Get what you pay for
HVAC systems have come a long way since those days of 50 percent efficiency. A standard, modern gas furnace today is required by law to have a 78 percent or better annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE), but already you can find furnaces with an AFUE north of 95 percent.
It has taken time, but the overall effects of technological advancements are easy to see. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 53.1 percent of an average home’s energy use went toward heating the home in 1993; by 2009, only 41.5 percent of energy consumption was used to warm rooms.
Where did the savings come from? Furnaces have certainly become more energy-efficient, but just as important is that homes are being constructed to better maintain their internal temperatures. Double-paned windows, advances in insulation and electronic gadgets – like programmable thermostats – have made it easier for home owners to make the most of each heating dollar they spend.
Supplemental heating has also help cut into expenditures. By turning down the big furnace and using supplemental heat to warm only the spaces one needs, energy (and therefore money) is saved. And the decreased load helps furnaces last longer, too.
The future of home heating
Technological advances will continue, but advances in home heating will be greatly influenced by other changes. The future of home heating is inextricably linked with the future of energy production. Renewable energy sources are slowly filling a larger and larger place in overall energy consumption. Solar, wind and water energy, however, won’t produce oil or coal or propane or natural gas – it will produce electricity.
Home heating solutions, then, will veer toward electric solutions – such as electric fireplaces – and away from fossil fuels. Already, more new homes are being built with electrical heating than with gas furnaces. The gap between the two is small now (44 percent electric to 43 percent gas in 2012), but it will only widen as the world tries to wean itself from fossil fuels and move to renewable energy sources.
The future of heating YOUR home
But that shift will happen over decades. Your home-heating future is more immediate – winter, after all, comes every year. You need to put some of these technological advances to work now. But where do you start?
You start here with "The Cure for the Common Cold Room: A Safe & Smart Home Heating Guide," our free home-heating ebook. Download it now and learn how to find your home’s heat and keep it in so you can have a warm and safe winter, regardless of the weather.