Recently, a connection on LinkedIn asked me a question about the best emergency backup heat for winter: “What would you recommend as an affordable heat source backup for winter.” I saw that she was from Maine so I knew what kind of wicked winter she was up against.
Whenever I’m asked questions like this, such as the “best ways” to heat or the “best type” of heating system or heating appliance, my first thought is that hands-down, the absolute #1 best backup heating your house is — insulation!
Kidding aside, I can not tell you how many times I hear from consumers who are focused on the wrong end of the heating efficiency and effectiveness question – while giving almost no thought as to how they’ll not waste the heat they already have.
Insulation is inexpensive, highly effective, in most cases and can be greatly improved over the course of a weekend DIY project.
Frankly, most homes have far less insulation than what they should have. Heat rises so Step #1 is to head up to your attic and check how many inches of insulation you already have. Most homes have fiberglass batt insulation. If you are looking for the best backup heat but find you have less than 15-20 inches of fiberglass – START THERE!
For an overview of the most common types of insulation and how much you need for each type, take a look at the insulation guide we put together. I also detail a spray foam insulation project I did at my – formerly very leaky, formerly poorly insulated – 1886 house – which the gas company now tells me every month is one of the most efficient in our area!
Best emergency backup heat when power is down
Now, as for your backup heat question – my recommendation would be an efficient wood stove or, if you already have a fireplace, an effcient woodstove fireplace insert. Newer, properly installed woodstoves do a pretty good job of delivering heat. Plus, firewood is generally readily available and can be stored for years if needed. Just make sure you burn hardwood like oak, cherry, ash or maple. These woods deliver more BTUs than softwood and are less likely to gum up the inside of your chimney or vent pipe.
My answer above presumes that you are using natural gas or a highly efficient at pump as your main hating system. These systems, when properly maintained and installed, deliver the most efficient heat on a cost per BTU basis. But if the electricity is down, none of these systems will offer you a smidgen of warmth! When that happens, having a wood stove or wood stove fireplace insert is a reliable, comfortable backup heat solution.
Fireplaces are not a great backup heat solution: Here’s why
By the way, as for fireplaces — while I love warming myself in front of the fireplace as much as anyone else, a fireplace by themselves is a terrible heating solution as most send more heated air up the chimney than they create!