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How Habitat for Humanity makes heating affordable

A propane boiler donation from Bosch and propane supplier Dead River Company provides a "hand up" to a low-income Maine family.

By Jeffrey Lee

Staff Writer

Habitat for Humanity's clients don't have a lot of extra room in their budgets for surprising spikes in their energy bills or unexpected maintenance. As a non-profit that builds simple, decent, and affordable houses for low-income families, the organization and its affiliates prefer to build sustainable, energy-efficient dwellings that don't create a burden on homeowners' monthly bills.

So for homes like the 1,200-square-foot ranch house that Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers Maine is building in Brunswick, Maine, propane heating is an ideal fit. With the donation of a propane combi boiler from Bosch, coordinated by local propane supplier Dead River Company, the future homeowners will have a highly efficient space heating and water heating system at a price they can afford.

Steve Bolton, executive director for the 7 Rivers Maine affiliate, has witnessed housing costs and utility costs creeping up in an area with one of the country's coldest climates and with some of the country's oldest and least-efficient housing stock. "We started looking for more energy-efficient ways of building," Bolton says. "So we're looking at different types of boilers and heating systems and insulating opportunities. We know we're working with folks who can least afford rising energy costs."

Dead River Company has stepped in to donate heating systems for several Habitat for Humanity projects in recent years. In fact, Habitat for Humanity's site supervisor for the Brunswick home, Chris Turner, is a senior manager of business applications at Dead River Company. Turner worked with Dead River Company sales manager Scott Johnston to approach Bosch about donating a boiler to the home. Bosch agreed to allow Dead River Company to use their contractor rewards points to donate the combi unit to the home. "Bosch was just really wonderful to work with," Johnston says.


 
   
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The propane-fueled 100,000-British thermal unit (Btu) Greenstar wall-mounted combi boiler will provide a number of benefits compared with oil or all-electric heating, Turner says. "Propane's a lot more affordable," he says. "You don't have to do an annual tune-up. They run clean, they take up less space, and they're really quiet."

The boiler provides on-demand water heating, eliminating the standby heating losses of a storage tank water heater. "You're not heating a 40-gallon tank and keeping it hot all summer," Turner says. "That cuts back a lot. When you think about how important that is for a family that's not there nine hours a day, that's going to save them a lot of money too."

The hot water will also provide the home's space heating through an in-slab radiant heating system. "What we've discovered, since we've done this in numerous homes, is radiant floor heating allows you to set the thermostat lower and be every bit as comfortable," Turner says. "That thermal mass that's sitting under your feet makes a world of difference when it comes to cold spots. We don't have that."


"We know we're working with folks who can least afford rising energy costs."


A common saying around Habitat for Humanity is that the organization provides "a hand up, not a handout." The homes are sold to families at a discount because they're built with volunteer labor and donated products, but the families also do their part by helping to build both their own home and other homes in the community. They also take first-time homebuyer and maintenance courses to become successful homeowners.

"The goal is to make sure we set them up for success and not failure," Habitat for Humanity's Bolton says. For instance, like many Habitat for Humanity homes, the Brunswick home is located in an urban/suburban area close to jobs and the nearby Bowdoin College. Energy-efficient construction techniques such as dense-packed cellulose insulation, closed-cell foam insulation in the attic, and high-efficiency propane heating are just another step Habitat for Humanity takes to ensure its clients become successful homeowners.

"We would put money into insulation and tightening up a house over granite and any of that kind of stuff," Bolton says. "But if we can get donations from companies like Dead River and Bosch to help keep those costs down for that family, that's an investment for us. Because now we know the family is going to make it, and that's where we should put our money and our time."

 

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