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Originally published November 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 29, 2005 at 12:04 PM

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"Greener" heat sources cost money, save energy

Seven years ago, Jeremy Smithson decided it would be neat to heat and light his home with solar power. Then he did the math. His 1908 Craftsman on...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seven years ago, Jeremy Smithson decided it would be neat to heat and light his home with solar power.

Then he did the math.

His 1908 Craftsman on the western slope of Phinney Ridge would need a roof four times bigger just to hold enough solar panels to meet his energy needs.

Now Smithson has a house so tightly insulated "that a BTU can't wiggle out of it." Efficient fluorescent bulbs poke out of the light sockets. Solar panels and tubes line his home's south-facing roof and wall.

"What we discovered is that if you super-insulate, then you reduce your heat requirement to the point where you can solar heat," Smithson said.

Over the year, the home will need roughly 2,000 kilowatt-hours of power from outside sources, down from around 18,500, he said.

Smithson's house demonstrates that with enough determination and careful planning, it's possible to find more renewable, environmentally friendly ways to meet at least part of your heating needs.

But it also shows that it's not simply a matter of throwing up some solar panels and turning on the thermostat.

In a region that fancies itself green, people are trying a variety of ways to stay warm while taking less of a toll on the planet.

Some fuel their oil furnaces with a mixture of vegetable oil and regular petroleum. Some hook their ducts to a super-efficient system that sucks heat from the ground or the air. Some heat water with solar tubes. Others design rooms to soak up as much sunlight as possible.

Those are some of the chief home-heating alternatives available, local energy experts say. But those experts caution that just because those energy sources are cleaner doesn't mean they make economic sense.

Solar options

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"If dollars be damned, there are lots of things," said Tom Eckman, manager of conservation resources for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an intergovernmental agency that studies the region's power needs. "If dollars are precious, there are a lot fewer options."

Take solar heat, for example.

Homes can be built to absorb more heat from sunlight during the winter with large, south-facing windows, part of a strategy known as "passive solar."

While that often makes sense, using solar panels or solar tubes to run a heating system is more problematic, said Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, part of Washington State University's Energy Program.

"Passive solar pencils out the quickest," Nelson said. "If you're adding flat plate and evacuated tubes [that use sunlight to heat water] you better approach that with a pretty sharp pencil, and you better have a good designer."

Running a heat system on photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight to electricity is far less efficient than using that electricity to turn on lights or appliances, Nelson said.

"[It's] a lot like burning violins in a woodstove," he said. "You can do it. It will keep you warm. It will cost you a fortune."

Smithson, who now runs a business installing solar systems, heats his home partly by running hot water through red hoses that snake beneath his floorboards.

Some days in the winter, the sun comes out enough to warm a tiny fraction of the water with solar tubes mounted on the outside of the house. But he relies primarily on an electric water heater.

He hopes to expand the number of tubes to meet roughly 15 percent of the home's heating needs.

But Smithson bristles at comparing a solar system with more conventional ones based solely on dollars and cents.

"I'm not trying to sell this stuff to anybody that's only interested in the cost side of the equation because they're not going to buy it," he said.

"Greener" heating oil

Not looking to overhaul the entire heating system?

For people with oil furnaces, at least two area companies offer heating oil mixed with biodiesel, a fuel made with oil from soybeans, canola or other plants.

Tom Marier's Laurelhurst Oil in Seattle started selling biodiesel to heat homes this year, after a customer sent him an article about it. Another Seattle company, Genesee Fuel and Heating, sells a similar product.

It costs a bit more: A mixture of 30 percent biodiesel and 70 percent petroleum can cost roughly 10 cents a gallon more than conventional heating oil, Marier said.

But as many as 20 percent of his customers have placed orders for it, he said. It appeals to people worried about the country's dependence on foreign oil and those looking to cut down on their carbon-dioxide emissions, which are linked to climate change.

"We're pretty excited about it," Marier said. "It gives the individual the opportunity to do something instead of just wring his hands."

Efficient heat pumps

An electric-powered option is a heat pump that draws warmth out of the environment and uses it to heat a home. The system relies on piping that runs through water, the ground or the air, absorbing traces of heat, condensing it and funneling it into a furnace.

The systems are very efficient, Eckman said, but they are also very expensive. An air-source heat pump, the cheapest, costs $7,000 to $8,000, he said. By comparison, a forced-air furnace run on natural gas would cost around $2,500, he said.

But over the long term, the heat pump could be cheaper. That's because it's far more energy-efficient.

"It's that initial cost, which is the problem of all green and efficient stuff," Eckman said. "It costs more the first time and less over time."

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

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