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Down the Road

Heating the home and hearth
By Milton M. Gross
Feb 24, 2013 - 12:23:47 AM

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We're enjoying our new electric heat pump, which works to when its down into the teens outdoors. When it's windy, it doesn't keep the house as warm.

For this winter, we occasionally use the oil burner-baseboard system as backup heat. We also use plug-in electric heaters to top off the heat in hard-for-heat-pump-air-to-reach rooms in the far corners of our ranch house.

Lying on the sofa during this day I'm taking off, I got to thinking about heating the house. Then versus now.

As a kid several hundred years ago, my parents had two coal boilers in their basement, a big one to heat the radiators and a small one about three feet tall for domestic hot water.

I remember my father going down there and shoveling coal in every so often from two wooden coal bins that took up about twelve feet along one wall. The coal delivery truck would aim a chute down an open window and let 'er rip, or slide into the basement bins.

Then along came the oil boiler, which heated both the radiators and the domestic hot water. This was the modern way of heating.

Now it's the dinosaur method.

In houses we've owned or leased, we've had oil, propane, wood, and electric baseboard. And now the mini-split heat pump.

I keep meeting more and more people who are familiar with or are using these heat pumps.

But that's now. I'm now writing about then.

A house we leased had a couple of really efficient wood heaters, one in the living room and one in the basement with a grill above allowing heat up into the rest of the house. It also had a combination oil and wood boiler, which would get coated on the top of the inside with black that I had to clean.

Buying fuel for both was an economic challenge. We started with wood, and I recall my parents and brother visiting us as we prepared the wood for winter. We had to split it, stack it, and then I had to get it indoors to actually heat the house with a maximum of work and some splinters.

Which was okay until we ran out of wood in March and switched to oil. The oil boiler seemed to use a good bit of oil, and the oil company told me the landlady had refused to spend enough to buy an oil boiler big enough for the house.

We made it through a winter and then found another house.

One house we heated via a propane stove that sat in the living room, looked like a fireplace, and heated the ceiling hot enough to worry me that sometime it would catch fire. The ceiling never caught fire, and by some accident of the house's creators, the house was always the same temperature throughout, front room and back bathroom as well as the entire second floor.

We had to keep a window or two cracked all the time, as propane needs fresh air in the house to keep it from, well, blowing up, in case there was a propane leak or the pilot light that burned even when the stove wasn't working should go out.

Every so often we needed to have a technician service the stove so the pilot would continue burning and the flame itself would be the right color. If it wasn't the right color it not only didn't heat well, but was unsafe.

We sold that house.

In another house we rented, I grew weary of working with wood and watching the splinters grow out from under my fingernails. There was a time I thought those splinters were part of my fingery anatomy. A time after we stopped burning wood, the splinters disappeared. Aha, so they weren't part of me after all.

I found an old coal stove to replace the wood stove. The coal stove was warmer, only took a little coal at a time, and created a nice warming flame. That worked well, until it developed some leaks and then didn't work so well.

That house also had electric baseboard heat. I would come home from work, find the electric heat on and the coal stove cold.

"It just went out," my first wife would explain.

Okay, just went out and the stove was stone cold. I didn't pursue the matter.

A brand new ranch house was a modular, a really nice, tight, and easy to keep-clean structure. It came with electric baseboard, which worked well but didn't heat the basement. No matter, we moved the washer and dryer up to a spare room to be handier, and no plumbing in the basement ever froze.

We had electric heat also in an apartment. In both the house and apartment, thermostats were in each room. I used a thermometer temporarily at each thermostat until I had adjusted the thermostats so they all produced the same amount of heat they read.

I liked electric heat. No oil or propane truck backed up to the door and left a mind-boggling bill between the storm door and door frame. With the new modular house, Central Maine Power gave us a reduced rate for having an all-electric house.

Now we have our mini-split heat pump, and Bangor Hydro has reduced our kilowatt-hour rate, given us a rebate for installing it, and are friendly enough to make us feel nice and warm on even cold windy days and nights.

Our 20-year-old oil boiler is wearing out, which would mean an expensive -- more expensive than that even -- replacement. Scrap that idea. The heat pump cost $3,500, a fraction of what a new oil boiler would cost. So after this winter, when the current half-tank of oil that's been in the tank since early November is partly gone -- we use it for backup on really cold, windy days -- we won't be using oil at all.

Besides, oil causes pollution, which we don't want to cause. Should we ever need one, we can buy an electric fan-type heater for the basement, set it about 50 degrees, and to buy and install it will cost less than one delivery of oil.

Besides oil is the most expensive heat going with propane clinging to it at second. Any type electric heat is less expensive.*

I suggested to our oil dealer that he think about selling and installing heat pumps. He smiled over the phone -- maybe a knowing chuckle also -- and said to call him when we need oil.

We haven't called and don't plan to.

We think oil heat is going out of style as did the dinosaur's of old that disappeared when a bunch of volcanoes polluted the atmosphere and a meteor or something larger crashed into the earth and finished off the atmospheric living conditions and did in the remaining dinosaurs. (I read that in the paper or heard it on public radio. I wasn't there, so I'm not certain.)

Remember when the horse and carriage went out of style and all those horse-and-carriage guys started selling autos? I don't either, but I think that's approximately what happened.

I hope our oil dealer switches and doesn't become extinct.

Whichever he does, we're enjoying our mini-split heat pump.

Without splinters under my fingernails.

* I have checked this with University of Maine experts and found electric heat to be less expensive. When I looked online for comparisons, I found electric heat listed at three times the price per kilowatt hour that we pay at Electricity Maine. Some of those electric prices are either old prices or are simply inaccurate. A couple were from oil or wood-heating sellers.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2013

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