Heating Homes, Past and Present

Solar is a great source of passive heating and can be used actively for electricity and in ways such as hot water panels that circulate water to heat the house. These solutions don’t always work in a given situation but when they do they can be very attractive.

One common heating method in the past (and still used a fair amount) is oil tanks. Before that we had coal heating for houses. The house I grew up in had such a system (taken out long before I moved in, but remnants of it were still visible) where coal was poured down a shoot, at ground level, into a basement room with the furnace.

Then the coal was heated and I believe water was heated and sent to radiators to warm the house. This was no longer in place, so I am guessing; when I moved in the house had a furnace using gas to heat air and that was sent to warm the rooms upstairs. I remember sitting by the vents where the air would be warm.

Removing oil tanks and especially underground tanks can be quite a challenge and requires special attention to potential environmental issues (leaking oil). This clip from This Old House shows an old system being removed and replaced by a new oil tank.

Normally oil tanks are used for heating in areas that don’t have natural gas utility lines available. That is often rural areas but also areas that just never had gas lines put in. Heating using house-hold oil tanks is quite common in the North East United States even today. Delivery trucks connect to the house and pump in oil – very similar to what old coal delivery truck did (and in many houses in the North East they probably had trucks delivering coal before converting to oil).

This Frequently asked questions on oil tanks (from Commtank – the company in the video), provides lots of useful information, including:

Why should I consider removing my Underground Storage Tank (UST)?

Approximately 50% of 275-gallon 12 gauge steel tanks are estimated to develop leaks within 15 years, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Many older underground home heating tanks were never designed to withstand long-term exposure to soil and water. Even steel tanks that were specifically designed for underground use can leak if they do not have adequate corrosion protection. Home heating oil storage tank leaks can be very damaging to the environment and leaking petroleum products may contaminate the groundwater. Toxic ingredients such as benzene, toluene or xylene threaten human health by poisoning the environment and may require costly cleanup.

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Using Algae Filled Window Panes to Provide Passive and Active Solar

This webcast looks at this demonstration project (at the International Building Exhibition IBA 2013 in Hamburg, Germany) using algae filled window panes to provide passive solar and active solar. Passive solar is achieved as the algae grow quickly under direct sunlight and thereby produce share for the building. Active solar is achieved by using the biomass of the algae for energy.

The algae use photo synthesis to grow and create biomass. The water also is heated up by the sun and that heat energy is captured to be used also. The algae window panes are moveable in order to provide shade and better capture sunlight.

This is a speculative project. It is interesting to see the various alternatives to reducing our use of un-renewable energy and using design to create livable spaces.

The BIQ algae-powered building has been operating for over a year. It’s faring well so far

The building currently reduces overall energy needs by 50%, and Wurm says 100% is achievable. Combined with solar panels to power the pumps and heat exchangers, the building could be completely self-sufficient.

Wurm says we’re likely to see the first full-blown commercial applications on data centers, which of course are particularly energy hungry, and require a lot of cooling. That’s another advantage of algae: it provides natural shading as it absorbs sunlight.

It seems up front costs may mean this isn’t economically viable yet. But we need to keep experimenting to find solutions that work. Also, the current failure to properly count for the negative externalities of fossil fuel is something that must change.

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