A Legacy of Fossil Fuels at Home

It is officially fall and our thoughts turn to the coming winter. If we look forward to the enjoyable things for that season, most of them involve being warm and well fed. We’ve been working on the well-fed bit with our garden all summer and preservation activities in the fall. When it comes to keeping warm, though, we are not able to provide for ourselves yet. We’re working on a solar water and space-heating system (see here for fuller details). In time, that will be our primary heat source in the winter, but living in rural Wisconsin means we need a back-up form of heat as well. In the future, this will be an efficient wood stove, but unfortunately, until our system is up and running, we’re reliant on our legacy heating unit: a fuel-oil, central-air system.

The tank holding fuel oil was nearly empty and yesterday we had it filled. A tanker truck parked out front and a thick fuel hose snaked over our lawn to the access port for our tank. In a few minutes, hundreds of gallons of fuel oil were emptied into the tank. According to the US Energy Information Agency, fuel oil’s carbon footprint is similar to diesel — 161 lb CO2 per million BTUs. Compare this to 214–229 lb for coal and 117 lb for natural gas. Fuel oil gives 138,500 BTUs/gal. We estimate about 500 gal/yr to heat our older 2100-ft² home conventionally (i.e., as the average person uses it: around 68°F during the day and 62°F at night). That’s about 11,000 lb of CO2 over the course of the winter (and $1000).

The goal is to get the solar heating up and running over the winter in order to use the fuel oil as a back-up system. Until that happens, we’ll be trying to cut our heating use as low as we can: using the furnace to keep the house at 55°F and then zone-heating the rooms we are using. In the main room, this means using a high-efficiency wood stove and a small electric heater in other rooms.

The cost and emissions, though, are spurring us to move to solar heating as quickly as possible. As that happens, we’ll post our progress here on the blog.


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