Q: I am contemplating converting my summer home on the New Jersey shore into a year-round home. Right now, the house has only have electric heating, and I'm afraid that this could be quite costly in the winter. I thought of solar heat. My home is on the bay side, with no large buildings or trees to block the roof top solar panels. Would this be a good option? What other heating alternatives do I have? — Rae

A: Richard Trethewey replies: A solar collector on your roof can provide only a limited amount of energy per square foot. For that reason, a home would need an unbelievable number of panels to heat it. Add to this the solar fraction — the typical percentage of daylight hours with cloudless sky — in the Northeast, which is about 50 percent. If I were installing solar heating, I would use it in places like the American southwest, where they have 300 days a year of cloudless sky and a solar fraction above 80 percent, and I would combine it with a radiant heat delivery system, which only needs mild water temperature to heat. In the Northeast, solar can do a very good job heating water for faucets and some minor heat contribution. But you would still need a backup heating system. You might want to consider a geothermal system, which collects energy from the earth's core (originally from the sun) through well pipes installed below or beside your home. It pulls heat from the ground to warm your house or pushes it back to cool it. For more information, contact the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium in Washington, D.C. at 202-508-5500. Depending on the size of the house and how long you will be living there, you may want to go with a heating boiler or furnace. Speak to local heating professionals about your options. The fact that your house was insulated for electric heat means that your heat loss should be low. These types of houses are generally insulated very well.
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