What’s the most economical heating system?

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What would be the most economical heating system to install and run? The temperature at our cottage easily dips to -25ºC overnight in the winter. -Karen Bell, via email

It depends, says Alex Waters, the senior manager with the Living City Campus at the Kortright Centre for Conservation. The key factor is: What energy sources are actually available in your area? In cottage country, certain options may be inaccessible, unreliable, impractical, or ridiculously expensive. You also need to consider a system’s convenience, its ease of maintenance, and your own long-range plans for the cottage. For example, propane may be the right choice if your place is off-grid and has a crawl space where you can run ductwork, but not if the cottage is too remote for regular or affordable delivery.

The system that’s going to save you money long-term is the one that’s the most efficient. Waters suggests an all-climate heat pump for your situation. “This would provide heat down to about –25°C, and it would still be almost one and a half times more efficient than electric baseboard heat or forced air.” At $10,000 to $12,000, including installation, it’s not cheap—but it would give you air conditioning in the summer, the operating costs will be lower than electric, propane, or oil heat, and some designs can provide water heating too.

Of course, no system will be cost effective if your cottage is poorly insulated and as drafty as an old barn. So it’s important to assess the building envelope, says Louise Roux of the Office of Energy Efficiency at Natural Resources Canada. Where are you losing heat? If you need expert help to figure this out, get an energy assessment; a specialist will come to the cottage and give you a report. For more info, and to compare the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of heating systems, visit oee.nrcan.gc.ca.