Better Electric? Not For Heating

A bit more than 20 years ago we bought our first home in Evanston – a condo with electric heat. After we got our first winter electric bill I knew we were in trouble. The cost of heating our 2 bedroom, 1 bath condo was so outrageous that I thought something was wrong with the system. I swore never again to own a place with electric heat.

That’s why I was shocked to discover that a luxury building, built in Chicago in 2005 and under consideration by two different buyer clients, has electric heat. Well, it was under consideration until we found out about the heat. Just to give you an idea…the December 2008 electric bill for a bit over 2100 square feet was $950! If it had had gas heat I bet it would have been under $300. Both of my clients said essentially the same thing to me: “What the hell was the developer thinking?”

When you have electric heat you might as well be running a bunch of space heaters because they use the same basic technology – resistive coils. Electricity runs through high resistance metal coils and, in the process, generates heat. You see, there is a fundamental inefficiency in turning electricity into heat because at the beginning of the whole chain is a power plant where they generate heat to create kinetic energy (a spinning turbine) which creates electric power. Then the electric power has to be reconverted back to heat at the other end. Of course, at each step of the process there are losses, including transmission losses along the way. So the whole thing is very inefficient.

And while I’m on the subject…eventually they are going to figure out that plugging a car into the electric grid suffers from the same basic flaw because you will be reconverting the electricity back into the kinetic energy that was spinning that turbine at the start of the process. And electricity is not cleaner if 50% of it is produced by burning coal. What’s next? Turning food into auto fuel?

But I digress.

Gary Lucido

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3 Comments
Dan Cullen

Your comments regarding electric resistance heat are right on the money. I’ve been warning clients for years to be prepared for huge bills if they buy a home with an electric furnace. On the other hand, the newest generation of super efficient air source heat pumps are quite good at turning electrical energy into heat and may be a good choice for some homes. In our climate you will still need some back-up heat in the form of electric resistance or gas when the weather turns really cold.

Gary Lucido

Yeah, I was debating about discussing heat pumps. I had one in Richmond and it wasn’t too expensive but when there is little heat outside to pump inside they don’t work to well, do they? Then you are back to resistance heat. I’ve never seen them in Chicago and assume this is the reason.

Alex Tompsidis

Heat Pump + condensing gas furnace will actually save you approximately 25% in overall heating bills.

A heat pump will only work down to about 40 degrees outdoor air temperature, that is why they are not very popular north of Georgia or Arizona. However couple them with a decent heat source for temps below 40 degrees and you have a fine set up. That is, a heat pump is MORE efficient than a gas furnace for temps between 40 and say 65 degrees outdoor.

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