Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Natural Gas Blues, Part I: Tankless Water Heaters And Radiator Reflectors

Our natural gas bills have always been outrageous in this house, sometimes over $300 a month during the winter. And it isn't because I keep the place nice and toasty--daytime is usually 67 degrees F, going down to 63 degrees at night. With prices higher than ever in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this year I am getting serious about reducing our heating costs. Maybe it's time to finally put curtains over all those windows (my excuse: we just moved in... about 6-1/2 years ago), or at least cover them with plastic for the winter. I tried the plastic thing two years ago but only did one window (on the bright side, that window is still covered, though it looks a little worse for wear).

Our gas water heater is 11 years old and I'd like to replace it, maybe with a tankless unit. Considering that our current model uses only five therms less than the most wasteful model on the market in 1994 (an estimated 276 therms annually), I'm sure we'll be better off no matter what we buy. The previous owner made a lot of bad decisions with this house--if he wasn't dead, I'd probably go smack him upside the head at least once a month. Tankless systems are more expensive, but they last longer and use less gas, especially if we get one with an intermittent ignition device (like the spark ignition on our stove) instead of a constant pilot light

Most of our gas is used by the radiator heating system (hot water as opposed to steam). While perusing a government web site about conserving energy, I found this suggestion: "Place heat-resistant radiator reflectors between exterior walls and radiators." That makes a lot of sense, but of all the radiator-heated buildings I've been inside, I have never seen this. Even my in-laws, who are notoriously chea--I mean thrifty--don't do this. Intrigued, I googled "radiator reflector." Tossing out the obvious mismatches (i.e. car radiator stuff), I found some U.S. sites that reprint the government's suggestions verbatim but very few that elaborate on them. I found many more U.K. web sites, so I would guess this is more popular across the big pond.

Some sites tell how to make your own, and it's as easy as you might guess: tape aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard. The way I turn any home improvement project into a disaster, however, I'm afraid that my homemade reflectors would look cheesier than a 1950s science fiction movie. Although a few U.S. sites claim that hardware stores sell them, our local store right here in the heart of radiator-heated Chicago does not. Twelve pages into my Google results, I only found sources in the U.K. except for one in Canada. If I lived in Ontario, I could even get a rebate for installing radiator reflectors. With a stab in the dark, I googled "radiator reflector Illinois" and came up with a supplier in New Jersey. I don't get it. If these things are as great as everyone says they are, they should be selling them on every freaking street corner in Chicago.

P.S. While researching energy, I found Mr. Electricity, aka Michael Bluejay. Not only does this guy offer advice for saving electricity, but he's a safe cycling advocate, too.


Anonymous said...

As we all know it takes money to save money. First insulate your house as best you can including high performance windows and well sealed doors. Then you may want to consider a modulating condensing boiler properly sized for your new heatloss requirements. Then get an indirect fired domestic water heater that uses the new boiler to heat the water for you. That would be even more efficient than a tankless unit.

David Johnsen said...

Thanks for the suggestions. My reply got long, so I made it into a new post, Natural Gas Blues, Part II: Boiler, Windows & Insulation.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever find the heat-resistant radiator reflectors?

David Johnsen said...

I ordered excellent heat reflectors from Novitherm Canada -- much fancier than anything I could have made myself. I measured the radiators and they put together a quote for me. They cost about $170 for the whole house (nine radiators on outside walls, including two very long ones). Installation was as easy as promised. When I had an energy audit last year, the auditors were so impressed with them that I gave them a scrap piece as a sample.

To update the rest of this entry, our water heater failed last month. I found a few negative comments online regarding tankless models in old homes (high installation costs, up to 20 years to pay off). I decided to keep it simple and go with an efficient tank model with a 12-year warranty instead of switching to tankless.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the radiator reflectors were worth the cost and trouble?

David Johnsen said...

I'm sorry, I can't say because we made a bunch of other improvements (attic insulation, caulking, honeycomb window shades) at the same time. The reflector project was small enough that I'm not really worried about payback, and I like having the "peace of mind" that I've done everything I can. You'd probably have to ask a professional, such as an energy auditor.

Anonymous said...

I bought my radiator reflectors from the Boston Building Materials Coop. They are a layer of styrofoam bonded with a sheet of aluminum foil on both sides, sold in 3'x4' sheets for $9.50; cut to fit approx. 2 radiators each. The BBMC advertises them in their most recent newsletter, here: , though there is no extended discussion, or anything. I don't think it would make much difference for radiators in the interior of the house, but ours all abut an exterior wall (we're in Boston), and I do expect an impact. But for the cost, I won't be sorely disappointed if it doesn't work out. There is one older couple I know who have the cardboard/aluminum foil solution set up. I think the reason more people don't do it is because of aesthetics/lack of marketing.

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Michael Watson said...

Reflectors made from kitchen foil will soon become inefficient, as aluminium oxidates very quickly and then loses its reflective quality.

There are only two radiator reflectors approved for use in the UK Government's Carbon Emission Reduction target (CERT) Scheme administered by Ofgem (the UK's Regulator of energy companies) – Radflek and Heatkeeper (another name for the Novitherm product). Independent testing of Radflek for the CERT Scheme has shown that Radflek is 23% more efficient than Heatkeeper. All third party test data for Radflek is disclosed on its website ( unlike its competitors.

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