Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Emergency plan 2.0: Our new ventless gas heater

Last October, as you may recall, I was feeling pretty good about how well our household was prepared for emergencies. In addition to a stove that would function without electricity, a well-stocked pantry, and a supply of stored water, we had just acquired a battery-powered LED lantern, an emergency radio that could be powered via hand crank, and a jumbo box of chemical hand warmers. These supplies, I figured, would be enough to get us through two weeks or more of being stuck at home without power, summer or winter.

By February, however, I was no longer feeling so sanguine. At that point, we knew what a prolonged wintertime power outage was actually like, and it turned out that the chemical heat packs weren't actually much good for keeping warm. They can keep a specific part of you warm, assuming you have some way to secure the heat pack to the appropriate part, but they aren't much good at warming your whole body. We attempted to buy and install a little gas heater as a backup heat source, but it turned out that installing one of these was really a job for a professional. So we had to shelve that plan, and fortunately, we made it through the rest of the winter without incident.

I made up my mind, however, that it was going to be the last winter we would go through without some kind of emergency backup heating. So I started doing research into emergency gas heaters. I found that unvented gas heaters, like the one that we initially tried to install ourselves and ended up having to return, are by far the cheapest and easiest to install, but there's a bit of controversy about how safe they are. Carbon monoxide poisoning isn't a serious danger, as these heaters produce only a tiny amount of CO, and it shouldn't build up to dangerous levels as long as there's enough ventilation in the room. (This website from a distributor of heating appliances says that in most homes, just the natural "breathing" of the house through cracks and crevices should provide enough ventilation, but other sites, like this one, recommend opening a window to make sure.) Having the flame use up all the oxygen in the room isn't a problem, either, because all these heaters now come with an O2 sensor that automatically shuts them off if the oxygen level in the room drops below a certain point. However, sources like the Green Building Advisor still recommend against using them for three reasons:
  1. "Even when working perfectly, they put a lot of water vapor into the house." Manufacturers counter this claim with a study showing that moisture buildup is typically a problem only when these heaters are used in northern climates and in confined spaces—and even then, the problem can be solved by choosing a heater that isn't too powerful for the space. I didn't think it would be a problem for us, since the heater would be installed in a big, open space and would only be used for emergencies anyway.
  2. "Drafts, fans, candles, and tight houses can mess up the combustion process." Our 1970s house is neither especially tight nor especially drafty, so those concerns didn't seem to apply for us. We obviously wouldn't be using a fan during a power outage, and with our new battery-powered lantern as an alternative, we wouldn't be likely to use candles either. And if something did manage to go wrong somehow, there would be a CO detector just a few feet away.
  3. "Many homeowners don't understand how to operate or maintain them." Since I always read the manual, I didn't expect this to be a problem in our case either.
So, having weighed the pros and cons, I decided that a ventless heater was probably the best choice for us and asked the contractors who came to give us quotes on our new boiler what they would charge to install one. We got a variety of reactions to the question: one contractor said, "We don't do those," citing the concerns I mentioned above, while another said, "Oh, those are great—I have a friend who uses his all winter long." The contractor we ended up going with said that if we hired him to do the boiler, he'd throw in the heater hookup for $100, so long as we provided the heater. However, due to a minor screw-up on my part (the heater I ordered from Amazon was a propane model, rather than the identical-looking natural gas version, and had to be returned), we didn't have the heater yet at the time the guys came to do the boiler. So they just put in a valve hookup for it and said to call them back when we got the actual heater.

So, after returning the propane heater, I ended up finding a reconditioned gas model on a site called Factory Buys Direct for only $80 ($105 including shipping). Of course, I'd also taken a $41 hit for returning the first one (ouch). But on the plus side, even with the extra $41, I still paid less altogether than I would have if I'd bought the correct Mr. Heater model from Amazon in the first place, and the one we ended up with is both more powerful and, in my opinion, nicer looking. Here it is, mounted to the wall in the room I've finally decided to start referring to as the rec room.

With the addition of this backup gas heater, our emergency plan is truly complete. We can now be snowed in for a week without power and still keep warm (in the rec room), cook meals (on the stove, with the food stored in the pantry), entertain ourselves (with books and games, a battery-powered radio that we can recharge with a hand crank, and an LED lantern as a light source in the evenings), make necessary phone calls (with our cell phone, which we can recharge via the radio), and even take showers (since the water and the water heater still work). We'll still have to do without e-mail, Internet, and TV, but it'll be more like a vacation in the country than a sojourn in the wilderness.

Of course, I'd rather not actually be snowed in for a week without power in the first place. But if we are, I'll be a lot happier being snowed in with this thing than without it.

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