Warming up to high-tech fossil-fuel heat systems with no chimneys


Call it the fossil-fuel dilemma. If you're renovating, building a new house, or just tired of feeling cold all winter, you may long for an alternative to the ubiquitous heat pump, that clever device that throws out "warm" air that's cooler than your body temperature, and relies on expensive electric-resistance heat for supplement when it's really cold outside.

Traditionally, fossil-fuel systems required a chimney. Fine if you've already got one, but difficult and expensive to retrofit, and an expensive "extra" in a new house.

But you can still use oil or gas to heat your house.

You can install a new high-efficiency oil- or gas-fired furnace or boiler that uses a couple of PVC (plastic) pipes to draw combustion air in and to exhaust combustion gases. No chimney's needed.

The difference in cost between installing a heat pump and an oil or gas system is negligible -- maybe a couple of hundred dollars. The difference in the ability to make this choice is technology. Until a few years ago, the only option in chimney-less designs or houses in rural areas was electricity. But advanced designs mean fossil-fuel equipment can fit in anywhere.

Randy is building a house in the country that will use an oil-fired, 90-percent-efficiency furnace with PVC vents. The system will produce air that feels warm -- that is, it's warmer than your body temperature. The price was comparable to a heat-pump system. Such a system could be fired by either oil or gas. This house, like many built outside city boundaries, is not on a gas line, so oil is the only fuel option.

In some parts of the country, natural gas is so plentiful that it can be piped anywhere -- into barns, for instance. But most of us aren't so lucky in our fuel availability.

Another non-electric option is to use an oil- or gas-fired unit that heats water for baseboard units. (Some people dislike baseboard heating, because it can interfere with the placement of furniture.)

Finally, among the more interesting high-tech options available today is in-floor heating -- a "modern" concept pioneered by the ancient Romans, who installed radiant heat systems in their villas thousands of years ago.

In Rome, the system was hypocausts -- pipes or flues -- under thick stone floors. Today the system uses plastic pipe filled with water heated by an oil- or gas-fired boiler.

One such system is Infloor, a subsidiary of Gyp-crete Corp. of Hamel, Minn.

The main advantage to such a system is that the pipes can be installed in exactly the places they are needed. If the family room is the most-used space in the house, it can be the warmest room. A house, or even an individual room can be "zoned" with more or fewer pipes to control the heat in specific areas. Controls can also be zoned, so heat can be directed to particular areas at designated times.

Installing such a system is not inexpensive. However, proponents say the savings from pinpointing heat use fairly quickly offset higher installation costs. In addition, they say losses from escaped heat can be as much as 25 percent less than with a conventional system.

Randy went to Stringtown, Md., recently to watch an Infloor system being installed by Belt Plumbing, of Glyndon, Md., a local contractor.

The pipes had already been installed to the owner's specifications, and workers were mixing the Gyp-crete in a machine that Randy describes as looking like a stainless-steel cotton-candy machine. While one side mixed, the other side pumped Gyp-crete into the house where a worker in tall spiked shoes directed a hose around the floor. On the first floor the base for the pipes and Gyp-crete was concrete; on the second floor the base was plywood. When the Gyp-crete is set, any type of floor covering can be laid over it.

The main thing is, you don't have to accept a heat system you don't like. There are plenty of options that can make you a lot more comfortable.

(For more information on Infloor systems, call the Belt Co. at (800) 459-3303 or (410) 833-1577.) Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

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