How Did Our Heating Upgrades Pan Out?

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One of the things you do when you’re an analyst is try to turn everything into numbers. Which you can then analyze. If anything, this tendency has gotten worse since becoming a parent, because I find myself up late but not in a position to watch one of my movies which typically involve explosions, a lot of yelling or both.

The latest target of this unhealthy fixation on metrics is our heating costs.

By way of background, our house is a modestly-sized single floor ranch built in the 1970’s. When we bought it, we believed that the house had both adequate attic insulation and an oil burning furnace of a relatively recent vintage. Both of these things were later proved to be untrue. Which is how we ended up paying around $2,800 to heat our house two winters ago.

Part of that was oil that cost two dollars more a gallon than it did this winter, but still, that’s bad for a house of our size, even in a climate like Maine’s. Terrible, actually. Worse was the fact that we’re using the word heat very loosely. Up until this past winter, we kept our house cold: heat set to 50 the majority of the day, bringing it up to 60 during the morning when we left for work and for a few hours when we were making dinner.

Humans really are adaptable creatures, so this felt normal to us. Friends wore mittens when they came over. This, for almost $3,000.

So we did the logical thing: we contacted an energy auditor. He had a lot of recommendations, new attic insulation among them. What we thought was adequate was actually somewhere around R17 versus the recommendation for new construction of R49. Thankfully, when we got bids for attic insulation, they came within a reasonable enough margin of the DIY cost, so I didn’t have to crawl around our attic with a respirator getting stuck with tiny shards of fiberglass. I have legitimately never been more relieved than when the winning bid came in.

One of the other recommendations from our auditor was ductless minisplit heat pumps, which are hyperefficient relative to our old and inefficient oil furnace. Not believing the technology was quite ready, we instead swapped out our fireplace for a fireplace insert (a Jøtul Rockland 550, specifically). If you’re unfamiliar with the product, it basically crams a woodstove into an existing fireplace. Wood is not a perfect heat source and has its environmental drawbacks, obviously, but given that the new EPA approved model wood stoves burn much cleaner and that after loading all of the costs oil doesn’t look too good we didn’t have much debate about the insert.

We made many other smaller changes to the house – I hung storms on two windows that were so leaky we used to get snow inside, we sealed cracks with spray foam and so on – but the major changes were the new layer of insulation in the attic and the stove. The question was: were they worth it?

Having run the numbers, the answer is an unambiguous yes – in spite of the cratering of price of oil.


  • As mentioned above, in 2013 we spent $2,821.29 on heating oil. In 2015, we spent $610.62.
  • The huge difference is not attributable to any single factor, of course. The average temperature was a few degrees warmer this year, and most obviously, oil cost a lot more in 2013. But the savings would be massive even without the huge price drop: at 2013 prices, we would have spent $1,368.29 on oil.
  • We would have spent less than half as much because we used less than half as much oil. In 2013, we bought 827.6 gallons of oil. This year, that number was down to 401.4.

The pricing numbers are slightly misleading, however, because a wood stove obviously requires fuel of its own. We spent a little less than a thousand on wood. If we take that thousand, then, and add it to what we would have paid for oil if it cost as much it did in 2013 we’d come out just shy of $2,400.00. A savings of better than $400 over our 2013 costs, but substantially less impressive. Except for the real wild card in all of this.

Remember how I said we kept our house cold? We did not – could not – do that this winter, because we came home from the hospital with a tiny human in December. What this meant in practical terms was first that we needed to keep the house a lot warmer than we usually do, and second that we needed to heat it essentially round the clock while we were home with the baby. So instead of heating the house to 60 for a few hours a day, we had to keep it at 68 or higher from December through March, 24 hours a day. All of a sudden, the numbers look a lot more impressive.

The analyst side of me desperately wants to extract and assign the precise savings per investment – the fireplace insert saved us X, the insulation Y – but even if that’s possible with any degree of precision, it’s not worth worth it. It’s enough to know that the combined investments have the potential to save us hundreds (potentially thousands) a year while allowing us to make the house much more comfortable for a child. The insert is also an excellent hedge against fluctuations in the market price of heating oil.

All in all, it’s money well spent. And when we build a fire now, it actually heats the room.