PALO ALTO, Cal. – Almost everyone has heard of the hybrid vehicles that use two energy sources, usually gasoline and electricity, to increase fuel efficiency in their cars, but with the cost of natural gas reaching an all-time high, many homeowners are turning to the same technology to heat and cool their homes.
Like hybrid vehicles, hybrid heating systems use a combination of fossil fuels and electricity to increase the efficiency of the system and save fuel. Until recently, few people were interested in paying a little more up front for a hybrid vehicle. After all, gas was cheap and abundant. But record gas prices have consumers snapping up hybrid vehicles off dealer lots as fast as they can be built. The sudden rise in the cost of natural gas has homeowners clamoring for ways to save more on their heating bills.
While the concept of hybrid heating isn’t new, electronic technology, increased efficiency and the cost of fuel is now making hybrid heating systems affordable for the average homeowner.
Hybrid heating systems use electric heat pump technology when the weather is chilly and gas furnace technology when it gets really cold. This makes the home far more comfortable than any single system alone. When it is chilly, people prefer heat pumps over furnaces. The heat pump delivers a consistent “mellow” heat, while a gas furnace delivers intermittent blasts of hot air during mild weather.
Of course, when it gets really cold, people prefer furnaces. They enjoy the “toasty” feeling of the higher temperature air a furnace provides. Because heat pumps deliver lower temperature air than furnaces, heat pumps can feel drafty during colder weather. If it gets too cold, heat pumps cannot keep up with the loss of heat through windows, poorly insulated walls and doors. Usually a supplemental heat strip is required to maintain a comfortable temperature and that can be very expensive to operate for extended periods.
Hybrid systems take advantage of both heating technologies and automatically switch to the one most efficient for the temperature. When it is chilly, the system operates off electricity, providing the heat pump’s steady, mellow heat. But when it turns cold, the hybrid system automatically switches to the gas furnace and its warmer, toasty air. The result is the ultimate in comfort. Even better, hybrid systems cost less to operate.
When it is really cold outside, believe it or not, there is still heat in the air. Everyone can agree that 20 degrees above zero feels warmer than 20 degrees below zero. The difference is the free heat that is still in the air. All you have to do is collect it and transfer it inside. That’s exactly what an electric heat pump does. It literally pumps free heat from outdoors into your home. The heat may be free, but you still have the cost of the mechanical energy needed to pump it inside. That’s a relatively small price during moderate weather and that’s why heat pumps are more economical to operate than furnaces.
But, as the temperature drops, a point is reached where the heat pump can no longer keep up with the heating demand. At this “balance point,” it becomes more economical to use a gas furnace for heating. This eliminates the need for the expensive supplemental heat strip. A hybrid system usually switches from heat pump to furnace at a comfort balance point, which is a few degrees above the economic balance point.
Actual savings can vary based on the efficiencies of hybrid units, the utility rate at any given month, how you use your system, and, of course, the weather. With today’s skyrocketing energy prices, a hybrid system, could save you as much as 40% over last year’s bill and that is nothing to sneeze at.
The advantages are clear. Not only do you get the energy savings and environmental benefits, but those are really only bonuses compared to the comfort. Hybrid systems are way-way more comfortable. Simply spend a cold January with a hybrid system, and you will never return to a conventional heating system.
Costs can vary, but as with the automobile, so can the quality and efficiency of the equipment. On average, hybrid automobiles add about $2000 to $3000 to the sticker price. On the other hand, hybrid heating systems average only about $1000 more than their equivalent conventional counterparts. That seems a small price when weighing the energy savings and comfort factor.
If your heating system is over seven years old, it could be wasting as much as 30% of your heating dollar directly up the chimney. That’s a pretty big incentive to upgrade your working system to one that squeezes as much as 96 cents of heat out of every heating dollar.
It seems ironic that at a time when natural gas bills are slated to rise to as much as 70% over last year’s bills, that Congress has finally given a financial incentive to switch from your old inefficient heating systems to the newer high-efficient ones available. Plus as of January 26, 2006, all heat pumps and air conditioners rated at 12 SEER and below will be considered obsolete and can no longer be made.
In short, a hybrid heating system offers homeowners a new, more efficient way of heating and cooling their homes. When taking into consideration rising energy costs, the increases in efficiency, the comfort factor, the environmental benefits, and the tax incentive savings, it is a wonder that everyone isn’t wanting a hybrid heating system for their family.
In fact, after writing this article, I want one!