Heating Costs For Your Tiny Home – Is Coal The Answer
Heating costs for a home can be a big part of your winter living expenses. This post will explore the cost and practicality of a range of energy sources.
Heating costs for a home of any size can be a big part of your winter living expenses. In the previous post, I shared my experiences of heating an old, large farmhouse with wood. Buying ready to use wood is a more expensive option than other systems. Cutting and preparing all your own wood requires a much lower cash outlay but takes a lot of time. This post will explore the cost and practicality of a range of energy sources.
Alternative Energy Sources to Reduce Heating Costs
- Electricity from the grid
- Solar generated electricity
- Wind-generated electricity
- Hydro generated electricity
- Diesel, gas or other fuel powered generator
- Geo Thermal
- Fuel oil
- Natural gas
- Propane or LNG
- Anthracite Coal
- Brown Coal
A few of these are not practical for tiny homes, others not suitable for tiny homes on wheels (THOWs). Wood was covered in the previous post. Coal is dirty to handle inside a home and is not considered environmentally friendly. It is almost impossible to find a source of bagged coal in Canada. It is available in some USA states but is now generally considered unsuitable for domestic heating. Hydroelectric generation is only possible in mountainous areas with permanent water flow.
Charcoal, although a more efficient source of heat than wood, uses energy in its production. It is dirty to store in bulk and difficult to handle inside a home.
Geo Thermal heating and cooling using a heat pump system requires a considerable initial investment in equipment. The requirement to create a permanent underground loop means that it is not practical for a THOW. The long amortization period required for a system to be cost-effective makes it an expensive option for a single tiny home. However, it could be an ideal solution for a cluster of permanent tiny homes in a community. Here is a link to an article on the various types of geothermal systems.
The practicality and cost of using electricity to heat your home are determined by three factors:
- Ability to generate electricity by solar, wind, hydro or biomass
- Installation and operating costs of utility-supplied electricity
Your location will determine your sunlight hours, temperature range and the number of days you will need to heat your home. It will also affect the potential for solar, wind or hydroelectricity generation and the cost of connecting to the grid.
Existing alternate generating and storage capacity will make the use of electricity as a heating source more attractive.
The cost of connecting to the grid is affected by the distance of your home from the local grid. In remote areas, this can be prohibitively expensive. Electricity costs per kW hour vary from region to region and from one utility to the next.
One method of generating electricity that is often overlooked is by using an older type diesel engine powered alternator running on recycled cooking oil. The used oil can be obtained from restaurants at no or little cost and filtered cheaply. Another is using methane from biomass or septic tank digestion to power an alternator with a gasoline engine. Be warned, these fuels may not be suitable for modern diesel engines. Gasoline engines need to be modified to run on methane gas – it can be done. During fuel rationing in Rhodesia in the 1970s, I ran a 1952 Series 1 Landrover on methane produced from a homemade digester. Manure slurry from our dairy cows was the raw material. For more information on using natural or biomass produced gas as fuel for internal combustion engines visit OMAFRA.
Natural Gas, Propane, Fuel Oil
Piped natural gas can provide the lowest heating costs of all energy sources. However, it is not available in many areas. Even though our farm is only 12 km (7 miles) from a small city in Ontario, our house is not connected to the gas lines. So this alternative is dependent on location.
Propane is a good alternative in areas where there is no natural gas supply. Propane can be delivered by tanker and stored in a bulk tank near your house. Where tanker deliveries are not possible due to distance from a distributor or bad roads, smaller cylinders can be transported in a pickup truck.
In some parts of the world, propane cylinders are carried to remote sites on the backs of donkeys, so no matter where you live, it should be possible to use propane for heating your tiny home.
Biomass as an energy source to reduce heating costs
Energy produced from biomass is generally converted to electricity via a generator or alternator powered by an internal combustion engine. It is not a practical alternative for a tiny home. A single, regular-sized home is unlikely to produce enough waste to generate enough energy to replace a significant share of its energy requirements. This article on Wikipedia shows that the manure from one cow will produce 3 kW hours of electricity, a little more than enough to power one 100 watt light bulb for a day.
Biomass digesters also require heat, their efficiency is reduced in cold climates and during winter when more heating is needed. Biomass should not be completely discounted. It could be viable for tiny home communities in warmer areas or close to dairy farms, beef feedlots, large scale pig or poultry farms or where large volumes of green waste material are available.
Comparison of heating costs for different fuels
In the previous post on the cost of wood as an energy source for home heating, I calculated that a 1000sq. ft. home with normal insulation would need 57600 BTU or 16.9kW to maintain an inside temperature 20C (F) above the outside temperature. The analysis below shows the cost of 5 different fuels or energy sources to do that.
The comparative costs for your home will be different, the table above shows the theoretical costs based on prices in April 2019 for delivered fuels and electricity in Woodstock Ontario. Our electricity costs are high compared to many other regions in North America. Prices of Natural Gas, Propane and Fuel Oil vary considerably. In many areas, heating with electricity can be cheaper than with fuel oil or propane. However, natural gas is generally the cheapest and easiest source of energy for heating, along with wood if you cut it yourself and do not count the cost of your time.
In calculating the electricity consumption for heating, no allowance has been made for heat given off by other appliances, the human and pet occupants or the effect of radiant heat from sunlight.
Unconventional Alternatives for Reducing Heating Costs
Recycled cooking oil used as a fuel in older type diesel engine powered generators is used successfully by many people living off the grid. It is also a useful back up in areas where there are frequent utility power interruptions. It can generally be obtained and filtered cheaply, but it is messy and can produce an odd smell.
In the early part of the 20th century, many small mines in Africa were powered by generators driven by slow running motors using wood smoke as a fuel. During shortages of petrol (gasoline) during wartime in Europe, cars and trucks were modified to run on wood smoke from a burner on the front, back or side of the vehicle.
A wood smoke powered generator may not be practical for most people, but in areas too remote from the grid or gas supplies, it could be a useful back up for solar and wind systems.
- Natural gas when available is generally the cheapest and most convenient heat source.
- Solar and wind-generated electricity is only practical as the sole sources of energy for heating if sufficient generating and storage capacity is installed.
- Combinations of heating systems may be the best solution.
- Unconventional sources and systems may have advantages.
- Wood is not always cheap.
- Coal is not the answer
Let us know your suggestions for reducing tiny home heating costs, leave a comment here or on our Facebook page.