Warming Ourselves, Warming the World

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the pounding knock knock knock of our steam radiator’s discontent. After two hours of youtube, random DIY websites, and twisting knobs and pulling levers, I figured out how to clean the water level sight glass (ew) and drain/flush the boiler (also ew). All in the pursuit of warmth.

Daylight is scarce, snow and ice cover the grass, and my wife is perpetually wrapped in blankets; it must be that time of year when I’ve started obsessing again over the windows, doors, the attic, and any other areas where hot air is escaping and cold air creeping in. Part of this is to avoid the kind of shocking triple-digit heating bills that pain my bank account so terribly, but just as important is a matter of climate change.

In case you missed it, the Arctic has been screaming this winter with temperatures up to 60 degrees above average. Sea ice in the Arctic, as a result, is way below the historic average extent.


I already posted about climate change and the contribution that the transportation sector makes to greenhouse gas emissions. However, when combined together, heating and electricity are actually the two largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley.


I thought I would take the opportunity of plunging temperatures to look at how we heat our homes in the region, mostly because I was curious, but also as a way to think about how we can transition away from fossil fuels. All of the below maps are taken from the 2015 five-year American Community Survey. 

The History of Heating

My home was built around 1922, and demonstrates the history of using fossil fuels to heat buildings. When it was first built, there was a coal furnace. I know, because I can still see bits of anthracite coal scattered around the side of the house. At some point, it was converted to oil heat – again, I only know this because there were two holes in the side of the house where intake pipes used to be. Finally, the heating oil system was replaced with a natural gas furnace.

I was pretty surprised to find that gas is the most popular heating fuel category for Hampden County – a little under half of all households heat their homes using natural gas.


Looking at the town-level map, it looks like natural gas is a primarily urban amenity. I guess that makes sense, because you need to have the pipe infrastructure delivering the natural gas into people’s houses, and that’s a lot easier when houses are closer together.


Going back a step in time for my house, there are still a lot of homes heated by oil. There are a bunch of reasons why heating oil isn’t very good:

  1. You have to truck the fuel around, making the environmental impact that much worse.
  2. A lot of the heating oil tanks were installed underground and ended up leaking and contaminating the soil, creating brownfields.
  3. On a personal note, the one time I had heating oil I was a broke 20-something living with a bunch of other broke 20-somethings. We would always run out of fuel on a Friday afternoon and were too cheap to pay the extra $20 bucks for a weekend delivery, meaning that we would just be freezing until Monday morning.


Shockingly, there are also a handful of homes still heated using “coal or coke” according to the Census Bureau – talk about old school! The question becomes, where do they even get coal?


The Future of Heating

As we transition away from fossil fuels (because we will, we must), the future of heating must be mostly electric, with geothermal almost certainly mixed in. Holyoke is a great example of what the future of home heating should look like, since 95% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources (hydroelectric and solar primarily).

Surprisingly, electric heat is not that that common in the region – no town exceeds about a quarter of households using electric (except Sunderland which is almost 40%!). This could be partly the inertia of past heating systems, or the fear of losing heat in the event of a power outage, or a little bit of both.


In the future, I’m hoping that we can leverage more solar power for passive heating. My house has a giant tree on the south side that substantially diminishes the ability to install solar panels, but that’s not true for a lot of homes. You can see in the map below that very few homes right now have solar heating, but, surprisingly, Holyoke is leading the way!


A Path Forward

Unfortunately, converting heating systems to more efficient or planet-friendly fuel sources can be very costly. Even though a homeowner might save a bunch of money in the long run, the lumpy expense of replacing the heating system can be prohibitive. And unlike the vehicle fleet which, eventually, turns over cars from old dirty ones to newer cleaner ones, houses (and their heating technology) tend to stick around for decades or centuries.

We’ve started looking at converting to more efficient steam heating systems, and I’m also getting interested in a geothermal exchange system. I would also like to convert from natural gas to an electric system and take advantage of all that green electricity Holyoke produces. These are all big expenses, though programs like Mass Save could help.

In the end, any serious climate action must include getting rid of all heating oil-fueled houses and, eventually, natural gas heated homes as well. Even though the federal government is unlikely to do anything about climate change (other than deny it) over the next four years, the future of the planet literally depends on small things like furnace upgrade programs. In the meantime, I’ll look to state governments to lead the way.



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