For a few years now I've had in the back of my mind the thought that we needed to know how we would heat our house when oil became problematic. The time is here, and we're not ready. Our neighbor is converting from oil to natural gas. I'm not convinced that is right for us. For one thing, if we're spending a lot of money, I'd rather spend it on a system that taps into renewable energy sources, not simply a different non-renewable fossil fuel. For another, my understanding is that in the long run, gas and oil prices track each other.
The alternative heating market is not ready for all us New Englanders who heat with oil and are looking to switch now. I have friends using wood either in wood or pellet stoves. Although wood is renewable to some extent, it's not clean. We have a neighbor who uses wood, and although I enjoy the smell of the wood smoke, I think if my other six close neighbors were using wood, the neighborhood would be unpleasantly full of smoke. And what are those pellets really made of, anyway? And I suspect wood prices will rise as more people switch to it. We have a fireplace with heating rods and a blower, and we may use that more this winter, but wood is a lot of work – it has to be cut, split, stacked, carried, and swept up after. And the fire has to be tended. However, we have some uncut logs out back, and it might be time to put in that work and burn some wood this winter. I'm not sure I can use a chain saw and a splitter with my kids asking me questions and trying to help, though!
We are thinking about building one or more of these solar window heaters (there are other versions around the web). Our south facing windows are on the back side of the house, and we have six double-hung windows back there. There are some trees, but in the winter there are no leaves, and I think the sunlight is still significant. We may build one and see if we think it works. We like this option because it's cheap and we can try it out without cutting holes in our house. They may require some babysitting when the sun is not shining (closing the vents), but it seems that it would be minimal, and nearly free heat would be worth it. The fireplace is in a different room, allowing us to heat two rooms without oil (and very possibly more if we can move the heat around) and paying more attention to heating only where we need it would allow us to save some oil. I'm also looking for more blankets for the beds. For now, we'll stick with our one year old oil hot water heater.
Solar heating seems to be the exception. Solar systems generally seem to be for electricity or hot water. Right now my primary interest is in heat. Our electricity bill is not overwhelming, and neither is our summer oil bill for hot water – our heating oil bills could be. We buy about six tanks of oil a year, and last year I had one bill of about $800.
I'm still looking for a long term solution. Perhaps a heat pump or geothermal system? I have a pipe dream of a few neighbors sharing a geothermal system, but the septic systems might get in the way. I don't generally look to the government for advice, but I wish someone would suggest the right way to jump.