Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Heating Systems

Having lived in a variety of houses in my lifetime, I've experienced quite a number of heating systems. Some were efficient, some provided more than the required heat to be comfortable, and some not enough, but each one seems to have had its own distinctive traits.

My grandparents little house was heated by a huge furnace which sat in the living room and was fed by kerosene that flowed through a small tube through the wall from a metal barrel. I remember being warned to stay back from the monster machine, so I imagine it was hot to the touch, though I don't recall. My other grandmother's house had a large wood/coal stove for cooking and heating in the kitchen. Above it was a small iron grate with a pretty swirl pattern. The grate protected the whole in the ceiling, which allowed the heat to access the second floor bedroom areas. I was awfully young, but I remember that stove. We moved from East Hampton when I was four years old, and returned when I was seven, and during that time central heat was installed.

The house I spent my teen years in had a floor furnace. That was a horror. This rig was hung on the basement ceiling, with a hole in the floor above it which was covered by a grate. In our case, the grate was approximately 2 1/2 feet wide by 3 1/2 feet long, and it was located in the small hall area in front of our bathroom door. I don't think that was the best location, but I personally wouldn't have had such a dangerous thing in my house if the choice was my own. When it was on, it blew hot air and heated the home. But, it also caused the metal grate to get so hot that it would burn grid marks into the soles of our slippers, so we quickly learned to wiggle our way around the edges, without stepping on the metal. If we were really cold, we'd do our best to straddle it, allowing the hot air to penetrate our bodies until we were warm. The trouble with that was that the minute we walked away from the blowing hot air, we were cold again. Another problem with the floor furnace and grate was that things were always being dropped through the gridwork, and it sometimes wasn't obvious until there was the odor of a burning plastic toy. My parents later put in and oil fired furnace and hot water baseboard heat.

After I was married, we spent our first year in an apartment which had old steam radiators. They worked fine, but were noisy, with water banging and hissing and bubbling through the pipes. There were covers over a few of the iron units for safety reasons, as they would get awfully hot.

When we built our first house, it had an oil-fired furnace in the basement with a blower that sent hot air through ductwork in each room. At the age of twenty, what did we know about heating systems? We built our second house two years later, and being not much wiser about machinery, ended up with the same type of system in that residence. After living there awhile, we discovered that it wasn't as efficient as we'd like. It blew warm air when it was heated, but it blew cool air while it was 'revving up'. It was dusty, and it blew dust with the air. The small grates in the floor were intriguing to children, who liked to deposit coins or other small things through the slots. It was a constant job to clean those grates and keep them free of baseball cards or the like.

At some point, we attached a large, cast iron, custom made enclosure to our wood burning fireplace. It was very efficient in its provision of heat, but it was very dry and very dangerous with five small children in the house. Also, we discovered that it actually burned so hot that the brickwork on the exterior of the fireplace (but inside the iron box) had actually cracked. I think we used that system only rarely after one winter.

We lived in a log cabin when our kids were teens. There was a rectangular, iron woodstove set in the open room used as our living room and dining area. We used the stove a lot, as it was efficient, sending out enough heat to warm the whole, two-story place. The surface of the stove was such that we could place a kettle of water on top to combat the dryness.

When we moved south, we purchased a house with heat and air conditioning. There are two heat pumps which are outside and duct work in the ceilings of the house. Though I'd vowed to NEVER have a forced air system again, guess what? The house had just that, with the grates in the ceiling. It's wonderful in the summer, for the cool air comes from the ceiling and falls toward the floor. But, we all know that heat rises, so in the winter, it's not as efficient as we'd like. The living room is where the thermostat is located, and it's the coldest room in the house. If we set the temperature at a level of comfort for the living room, then the rest of the first floor is unbearable. So, we've got a small electric fireplace in the living room which brings the temperature up about four degrees, just enough. While I'm still wishing that I had a wood burning fireplace in this house and, perhaps hot water baseboards rather than blown air, I am pleased to have the air conditioning in the summer. The fact that this entire house is electrically run makes it less expensive than other heat providers. The square footage of the house is more than twice the size of our old house, and our highest electric bill for heat, hot water, cook stove and two electric fireplaces has never been higher than one month's oil delivery bill in NY.

I guess I've seen it all, regarding heating, with the exception of space heaters and that very expensive under-the-floor tubing. As far as I'm concerned, each system has it's annoyances or dangers, but I can overlook them, as long as they do the job they were intended to do...provide heat when asked.