FAIRBANKS - There are many ways to heat your home during the winter. Electric heating appliances, such as electric furnaces, electric boilers, electric baseboards and electric space heaters, convert electricity directly into heat and obviously will not work during any power outage.
Heat pumps and solar thermal panels do not use electricity to create heat, but they do need power to transfer heat from one place to another. Solar thermal panels require electricity to run pumps that transfer heated fluid from the panels into a storage tank, and then to pump the fluid back to the solar panels. Heat pumps use electricity to run a refrigeration cycle that transfers heat from the ground or air into a home. These appliances do not require as much electricity as an electric boiler, furnace, or baseboard, but they still cannot function without power.
Oil-fired and gas-fired furnaces, boilers and space heaters produce heat by burning fuel oil or natural gas. However, they too rely on electricity. Boilers use pumps to carry heated fluid away from the combustion chamber to the home’s hydronic distribution system; furnaces similarly use fans to carry heated air to the duct distribution system. The control systems for these appliances also require electricity.
So what to do in the event of a power outage? In Fairbanks, the local utility GVEA strives to prevent power outages and fix them quickly when they do occur, so an electricity-free appliance is not a complete necessity. However, options do exist.
Most heating appliances that do not need electricity use firewood. Wood stoves operate without any electricity: simply load dry firewood into the firebox and light. They don’t distribute heat through ducts or a hydronic distribution system, but simply radiate heat into the home. (Wood-fired boilers or hydronic heaters, which can distribute heat to a distribution system, need electricity to power pumps.)
Another option is a masonry heater. Masonry heaters also have a firebox and are much larger and heavier than a wood stove. The flue in a masonry heater snakes through a heavy mass of rock or brick, which absorbs energy from hot flue gases and radiates it slowly into the room.
Pellet stoves are a relatively new appliance in comparison to wood stoves and masonry heaters. Most models are controlled by a programmable thermostat and use electricity for automated operation. However, some models do not require any electricity, such as the gravity-fed pellet stoves made by Wiseway Pellet Stove in Oregon.
Also, many pellet stove manufacturers now include a battery backup that allows the stove to operate for up to 24 hours without electricity. There are a limited number of gravity-fed oil combustion heaters that do not require electricity, but they are not common today. In the past, they were called “drip stoves” and were not considered a very safe appliance.
Finally, if you are building or retrofitting a home, consider two methods that will keep you warmer during a power outage that have nothing to do with your heating appliance.
First, more insulation on the envelope of the house will allow less heat escape. If you don’t have a wood-burning appliance, at least you won’t freeze up as quickly.
Second, many houses are designed with passive solar heating elements such as south-facing windows or sunspaces, or a large mass such as a concrete floor that can absorb heat from the sun during the day and then release that heat at night. While these techniques are generally not able to heat an entire home, they can provide supplemental heat throughout the year.
The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life. Ask a Builder articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. If you have a question, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 457-3454.