Cottage Q&A: Heater recommendations for the cottage in winter

cabin in winter By Smit/Shutterstock

Can you recommend a cottage heater for Alberta winters?—Bill Mayet, Pigeon Lake, Alta.

Without knowing any details about your place, including the size or layout, “that’s a very hard question to answer,” says Luke Dolan, the director of the Canadian Association of Consulting Energy Advisors and the owner of Capital Home Energy, an energy design firm in Vancouver. But this is Cottage Q&A, and we’ll take a crack at pretty much anything. So read on.

If you have electricity, Dolan suggests a ductless mini-split heat pump, such as Mitsubishi Mr. Slim M-series. Unlike traditional baseboard heaters and furnaces, these pumps transfer heat from one place to another. They extract what little warmth there is in the cold outside air—using coils and compressors and refrigerant, like an air conditioner, but in reverse—and, via a fan, blow it indoors. They’re compact, and very energy efficient. Check out Natural Resources Canada’s info on Energy Star–certified options; search “ductless heating” on the website—it includes a list of units that are designed for colder climates. 

If the cottage is small and airtight, a woodstove is also a good option; if you’re off-grid, it might be the best option. Today’s stoves burn less wood, produce fewer emissions, and put out a lot of heat. “If it’s a 500 sq. ft. cabin, a high-efficiency woodstove would roast that place,” says Dolan.

For an open-concept cottage, the folks at Knotty Pine Cabins, an Edmonton cabin builder, agree. “I’d push them towards a woodstove,” says the company’s Don Macgillivray; he says that most of Knotty Pine’s customers opt for either a woodstove alone or use electric baseboards with a backup stove. “Even wiring in one baseboard, with a backup stove, might be enough.”

No matter which heat source you choose, you’ll save money if you reduce your need for energy as much as possible. “You want to ask yourself: How am I losing heat? Where can I add insulation? Where do I need to draft-proof? Can I upgrade to double-glazed windows?” says Dolan. “If you improve the cottage’s thermal performance, you’ll need less energy to heat it—and you can get away with a smaller heater.”

First woodstove? Here’s how to light a fire.

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