Expert tips for heating your home this winter

Set heaters and other thermostats at the minimum temperature you find comfortable. Every extra degree is costing you money. Photo / Getty
Set heaters and other thermostats at the minimum temperature you find comfortable. Every extra degree is costing you money. Photo / Getty

It felt like it would never happen, but the chill of winter is finally making its way into our homes. You may have already dusted off the heaters and switched your summer sheets for heavier bedding. But how do you make the most of the heating options available to you?

George Block from consumer.org.nz reveals the do's and don'ts for staying warm this winter and shares tips to ensure you're not just blowing precious warmth and money out the window.

Why is a warm, dry home important?

Damp homes are harder to heat and a big driver for New Zealand's comparatively high levels of asthma, respiratory infections and rheumatic fever - conditions which disproportionately affect those on low-incomes.

Beyond the growth of mould and mildew that dampness encourages, moisture in your home will cause it to deteriorate faster and make for an uncomfortable environment to live in.

The biggest home heating mistakes

• Don't set your heat pump to a higher temperature than required. Selecting 300C in an effort to warm a room extra fast doesn't work - set the temperature you want and let the heat pump do the rest.

• Don't neglect heat pump maintenance: every three months remove the filter from the indoor unit and give it a good vacuum. Then inspect the outdoor unit to ensure it hasn't become overgrown and its air intake hasn't become clogged with debris. Keep an eye out for rust, too.

• Beware of cold callers pressuring you into expensive heat pump servicing. They often charge hundreds of dollars for a service you can perform yourself in a few minutes.

• If you've got a wood burner, make sure you're burning seasoned firewood (wood with less than 25 per cent moisture content). That means buying firewood several months ahead of winter and storing it, or paying more now for pre-seasoned dry firewood. You should also make sure the wood is the right size to burn with maximum efficiency and minimum pollution - as a rough guide it should fit through a 110mm hole.

• Plug-in electric resistance heaters cost much more to run than fixed forms of heating such as wood burners, heat pumps, natural gas fires or whole-home central heating systems. For a decent-sized living area a fixed, efficient heat source will more than pay for itself over its lifetime. Plus it will have enough power to raise the air to a healthy temperature quickly and evenly. However, if you're relying on portable electric heaters to heat living areas make sure you get a model with a fan. Our testing shows models with a fan are much better than fan-less models at heating a room quickly and evenly.

• Damp air takes more energy to heat than dry air, so you're wasting money if you've cranked up the heater but haven't addressed the sources of dampness in your home. One of the biggest sources of moisture comes from dampness under a house. Fix any drainage, guttering, downpipe or plumbing problems then look at installing a sealed moisture controlled sheet.

• Scroll down for the top five heating tips

Are you contributing to your home's dampness?

It also pays to look at the daily activities that add lots of moisture to your home:

• Drying clothes inside can add five litres of moisture per load. Make use of good winter days to dry clothes outside. Using the fastest spin speed on your washing machine minimizes the amount of drying needed. If you use a vented clothes dryer, ensure it vents outside.

• Cooking can add up to three litres a day to your living spaces. Use pot lids when cooking to contain steam and a range-hood or fan that vents outside.

• Showers and baths add up to 1.5 litres per day, per person. Use an extractor fan when showering or taking a bath, or at least open a window. You can also fit a dome to your shower to contain moisture.

• Don't use unflued gas heaters to heat your home. Not only are they dangerous unless well vented, they add up to a litre of moisture to the air every hour.
The best type of heater

A recent heating costs survey conducted by consumer.org.nz found that natural gas central heating was the cheapest form of heating to run per unit of energy, costing an average of 9.2c/kWh.

This doesn't take into account the high upfront cost of installing gas central heating, or the fixed daily charge for natural gas which will set you back around $1.50 per day. But natural gas heating is definitely worth considering, especially if you're already using gas for cooking or water heating so you won't feel the shock of the fixed charges so much.

If you're looking for a heater for a living area rather than your whole home, a fixed form of heating such as heat pumps, flued natural gas fireplaces or wood burners are all worth considering.

A matter of preference

Depending on your circumstances, any one of the above options could be considered the best for you and your family.

Some people swear by the ambience and radiant heat of woodburners or gas fireplaces and the fact that their performance doesn't degrade as outside temperature falls (which can happen with some heat pumps).

But others may love the fact that they can set their heat pump to come on automatically each morning and can wake up to a warm home without having to mess around with starting a fire. It's all a matter of personal preference.

The humble plug-in heater

There's still a place for the humble plug-in electric heater. Their low upfront cost means they're often the best value for money in small spaces such as a study or bedroom, where a fixed form of heating would be too much.

Heaters to avoid

Unflued LPG heaters are by far the worst option. They cost almost three times as much to run per unit of heat than a good heat pump. Any gas heater without fixed, attached vents to the outside will fill rooms with moisture and dangerous gases, making your home stuffy and damp at best, and posing a serious health risk if you don't use them with adequate ventilation. Consumer.org.nz strongly advise against running unflued LPG heaters indoors.

Beyond heating your home

Heating is only one piece of the puzzle. To really make your home warmer, drier and healthier, you need to think about how insulation, heating, ventilation and tackling dampness work together as a system.

Before installing a new form of heating, make sure you have adequate insulation. Insulate the roof first, and then look at underfloor insulation. Wall insulation and double-glazing should be considered the final steps.

New Zealand's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) offers insulation funding for those on low-incomes in rental properties. They also work with a number of local councils to allow you to pay insulation and heating costs as part of your rates bills. Ask your local council for more information.

• Eligibility is changing at the end of next month. Find out more about the changes at energywise.govt.nz

Top five home heating tips

1. The key to reducing dampness is targeting the sources of moisture and ensuring your house has adequate heating, ventilation and insulation
2. Insulate first, particularly the ceiling and underfloor
3. Temporary double glazing is a cheap way of reducing heat loss through windows
4. Oil-column and other convection heaters can create a "pool" of hot air above the heater, while the rest of the room is heated less. Use a small desk fan to mix the air and even out the temperature.
5. Set heaters and other thermostats at the minimum temperature you find comfortable. Every extra degree is costing you money.

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