Prepping for a cozy winter

I love autumn and all the rituals of buttoning down for the winter—unpacking the heavier quilts, putting the garden to bed, outfitting the screen doors with storm windows and building the woodpile in preparation for evenings around the wood stove. Maybe it’s my childish anticipation of changing leaves and the hush of the first snowfall, or something more elemental about human hibernation; autumn brings me a sense of well-being and gratitude for a warm home, family and friends. This year, my husband and I have a new focus for these preparations: last spring we installed rooftop solar panels and began monitoring our first year of solar energy use. So far, the system has performed beautifully and, thanks to net metering, we have banked an ample supply of solar kilowatt hours to draw upon as the days grow shorter and production wanes a bit.

The solar project prompted us to make a long-desired change by switching to a tankless hot water heater. Keeping hot water in ample supply is one of the biggest energy draws and expenses for householders, accounting for about 17% of the energy bill for the average homeowner, according to the Department of Energy. Conventional hot water heaters have to keep a tank full of water hot all the time—anywhere from 40 to 80 gallons of water for the typical residential system. Tankless systems use significantly less energy because they heat water instantaneously as needed instead of maintaining that volume of hot water. We started with a conventional electric tank 20 years ago, then switched to a propane-fired tank, which lasted about five years and was eventually replaced with an indirect heater tied in to our propane-fired boiler—neither of which saved us any money in the long run. Given our cost consciousness, our commitment to reducing our use of propane, and our impending solar installation, all signs pointed to the switch to tankless.

We prepped by working with our solar installer to size the system to handle the anticipated electricity load and by upgrading our electric panel from 100 to 200 amps—another long-overdue improvement and one that corrected some problems with our 40-year-old electric supply equipment. This upgrade was a bit expensive, but it paves the way for us to further reduce our use of fossil fuels by retiring our aging propane-fired boiler and switching to electric air source heat pumps at some time in the (near, I hope!) future.

The cost of the tankless system was comparable to replacement of a conventional tank. If you are one of the many local residents or small business owners who have signed up with New York’s Solarize program, you might want to consider building this option into your solar design. Make sure your hot water pipes are wrapped with insulation to maximize your energy conservation, and take the opportunity to get a home energy assessment, which will identify other opportunities to improve your energy efficiency, reduce drafts and ensure sustainably cozy winters.

For more information see:

NYS Energy and Research Development Authority:

U.S. Department of Energy:

PA Department of Environmental Protection:


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