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Building Matters

Climate Action: Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

A review of Lloyd Alter's book—a deeply researched look at what it takes to live an ultra-low-carbon lifestyle

Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5° C will require a lot of change, in how we live, eat, and move

Lloyd Alter, architect and prolific blogger at Treehugger, has a new book. Titled Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, the book is an exploration of what it takes to live within a pretty strict carbon budget. That means tracking the carbon emissions impact of everything he does: what he eats, how he travels, what he wears, the electronic devices he buys, and more.

But it was his subtitle that really grabbed my attention: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More Than Ever. For the past few years, I’ve been with the crowd that believes individual action can’t solve this problem. Without big shifts in new technology and government policy, individual action seems to be ineffective. So, I began reading, hoping that Alter would win me over.

I’m going to cover some of the important points in the book, but you’ll need to get a copy and read it yourself if you want to understand all that he has to say, which is a considerable amount, especially for a brief 142 pages.

The premise

Whether you believe it or not, you know the story line by now. The Industrial Revolution began an unintentional experiment to see if we humans could change the climate on Earth. Before the Industrial Revolution, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) level was 280 parts per million (ppm). Two centuries later, it was up to 319 ppm when I was born. Yesterday, the CO2 level at Mauna Loa was 416 ppm, 49% higher than it was in 1750 and 30% higher just in my lifetime.

And, as Svante Arrhenius predicted in the 19th century, the Earth is warming. There’s tons of evidence that increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere raises the global average temperature. We know we need to do to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, collectively referred to as CO2e (the e stands for equivalent). The 2015 Paris Accord is where the 1.5 degree number came from, as the participating nations agreed to keep the global temperature from rising more than 1.5° C above what it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

That limit to temperature increase correlates with specific targets for carbon emissions. The goal is to get total carbon dioxide emissions down to 2.5 tonnes (1000 kilograms) per year per person by 2030 and down to 1 tonne per year per person by 2050. Alter chose the easier 2030 target for his experiment in living the 1.5 degree lifestyle. That put him on a diet of about 7 kg of CO2e per day. To track his personal CO2e emissions, he created a spreadsheet and recorded everything with a carbon impact.

Two kinds of carbon emissions

But first, we can’t jump into carbon tracking without distinguishing between the two kinds of carbon emissions.

Operational carbon emissions – the greenhouse gases (CO2e) emitted as the result of operating a building, vehicle, or device.

Embodied carbon emissions – the CO2e emitted as a result of making those buildings, vehicles, or devices.

When you burn fuel for heat at your house, for example, the exhaust gases put CO2 into the air right there. The electricity you use is usually generated somewhere else, but it still results in greenhouse gas emissions. Those are both operational carbon. Embodied carbon emissions are the greenhouse gases emitted during the mining, transport, and manufacturing of all the stuff that goes into your house: building materials, furniture, food . . . everything. Because of the structure of our economy, almost everything we do has a carbon impact—operational and embodied.

The embodied carbon problem

But there’s a problem with the term “embodied carbon emissions.” Often, the word “emissions” is left off. Do a search and you’ll see few instances of the full three-word term. Everyone wants to talk about embodied carbon. And because a lot of people don’t know much about it, they assume embodied carbon is a good thing.

Last week, I posted a poll on LinkedIn and Twitter asking what people thought embodied carbon means. Here are the LinkedIn results:

Confusion about mbodied carbon is obvious in the results of this (unscientific) poll
Confusion about embodied carbon is obvious in the results of this (unscientific) poll

At 42% and 58%, the Twitter results weren’t much better. Clearly, a lot of people seem to believe embodied carbon is good because it’s carbon tied up here on the ground instead of trapping heat in the atmosphere. Maybe they’re confusing it with sequestered carbon.

Also, the full three-word term contradicts itself. Is the carbon embodied? Or is it emitted? It’s hard to imagine it could be both.

I mention this here because Alter has come up with a much better term: upfront carbon emissions. It would be hard to think that’s a good thing. He’s gotten some traction with adoption of the term already, and I think everyone should start using it and drop the confusing “embodied carbon” immediately.

A few tidbits

Alter’s book is packed with great information and pithy quotes. Here are a few of the things I found notable, some of which were new to me.

Carbon emissions shown as Scope 1, Scope 2, or Scope 3 [Credit: US EPA]
Carbon emissions shown as Scope 1, Scope 2, or Scope 3 [Credit: US EPA. Click to go to their page.]
  • Carbon emissions are counted in one of three categories: Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3, as shown in the EPA diagram above. When companies claim they’re carbon neutral, ask if they’re including Scope 3 emissions.
  • Energy and money are the same thing. This comes from Vaclav Smil, the great writer of weighty tomes on energy whom I learned about in 2005 in my peak oil days. It means simply that having more money gives you the power to control more energy.
  • Alter believes the Jevons Paradox is real. I found this comforting because some people in this field don’t believe it. Also known as the rebound effect, this paradox says that efficiency gains lead to greater consumption. Read more about it on the Interwebs or in Alter’s book.
  • In discussing the CO2e of food, Alter goes into detail about the “cold chain,” which is the system of refrigerated transportation that uses a lot of energy.
  • Net-zero energy is not the same thing as net-zero carbon. Right now, carbon—especially upfront carbon—is more important.
  • The “15-minute city” is a name for being able to walk or bike within 15 minutes to most of the things you do. It makes living the 1.5 degree lifestyle easier, and Alter lives in such a community himself.
  • E-bikes are the next big thing.
  • Alter talked about being a cottager in the summer and buying Norwegian wood in a bag . . . and missed the opportunity to make a Beatles joke.
  • A paraphrase of something from Robert Ayres: “The purpose of the economy is to turn energy into stuff.”
  • Beer Can Appreciation Day is a fake holiday. “I yell at my own kids about buying beer in cans,” Alter wrote, lamenting the loss of returnable bottles and the increased carbon emissions of disposable containers.
  • Operational emissions dominate in housing and cars, but upfront carbon is the biggie with electronic devices.
  • “There is a giant pile of carbon behind every minute of our screen time.” The Internet and the entertainment industries are huge emitters.

My take

Chapter 4 is the most important chapter in Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle. It’s titled “Energy, Efficiency, and Sufficiency,” and he gets into some deep discussions of energy, the economy, and growth. That’s where he quotes Vaclav Smil and brings up a book about something called “degrowth.” It’s the stuff we really need to grapple with as we navigate the climate crisis. I was hoping he would mention the work of physicist Albert Bartlett, which would have fit in well here, but he didn’t.

Alter’s diligence in researching the CO2e associated with all his activities is impressive. He shows parts of his spreadsheet throughout the book and discusses where he succeeded, where he failed, the lessons he learned, and the things that surprised him. He’s done a great service by digging into this.

So, did Alter win me over? Do I now believe that individual action matters more than ever? Here’s my problem with this claim: It just seems to me that if it’s going to take a concerted effort by a significant portion of the population to avert climate catastrophe, we’re already screwed. I can’t see it happening.

I know that sounds like what Michael Mann calls “doomism.” But while reading the book on the plane to Seattle (hmmmm), I looked at what the people around me were doing in airports, restaurants, and stores. I don’t see an appetite for this kind of change. Also, because we can’t even have a real debate about climate change in the U.S., many people here aren’t even aware of the problem, much less the kinds of solutions that Alter discusses.

But here’s what happened. After reading the book, I found that my thinking had changed. My MacBook Pro, for example, is six years old now, and I’d been thinking of getting a new one next year. Now I’m thinking I’ll try to squeeze as much life out of it as I can before replacing it; maybe even just replace the battery, which has a cycle count of 1996 right now and is giving me the “Service Recommended” warning. And that kind of thinking has spread to a lot of my decisions.

Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle is an important book. It’s well documented, easy to read, and full of great information. Alter has really done his homework, literally! I recommend it highly.


Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, by Lloyd Alter


Allison A. Bailes III, PhD is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard in Decatur, Georgia. He has a doctorate in physics and writes the Energy Vanguard Blog. He is also writing a book on building science. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


  1. nickdefabrizio | | #1

    Great article! Thanks for suggesting this book. Those of us actively trying to reduce our operating carbon footprint can't ignore the rest...I hope to get it and read it soon.

    I am lucky and can afford to spend money working hard toward full electric (it is also enjoyable). But to do that and maintain a middle class semi rural life, I fear that the amount of up front carbon emissions will be high. And then, even with all of these changes, my operational carbon emissions will be far higher than they were when I was living in a walk up in NYC and taking the subway. But we will keep working toward this goal.

    On a societal level, however, so much of the US economy revolves around high levels of consumption of low quality, "stuff"...... and the stuff is typically now made in third world countries or China and shipped to us in a cycle that facilitates huge expenditures of carbon. As we see with the recent "supply chain" issues and inflation, our economy is now so tightly leveraged that even small changes to this system bring about massive complaints and push back. I think you are absolutely right that Americans right now have very little tolerance or patience for sacrifice and inconvenience. The collective response of many to COVID (not including our valiant health care workers and many who work in essential jobs) highlights this quite well.

    Politically the GOP has determined (probably correctly) that at least for the next two election cycles, a majority of the public is in no mood to make sacrifices for a low carbon future and will punish at the polls those politicians (including the current Administration) pushing for more aggressive measures. Meanwhile, those who do support more aggressive measures are struggling to tie climate issues to the gigantic costs of natural disasters that now seem endemic in every part of the US. The media harps on it but there is very little in the way of response that would suggest that most people caught in these events are changing lifestyles or policies to address a future with more of these events.

    Thus, in the near term, I am not confident.......However, longer term, I am hopeful for two reasons: (1) technology keeps advancing and (2) so many young people are far more ready to change. As they take the reigns, they will have ever rising power over political and cultural decisions and my generation's influence (which has been terrible in my opinion) will start to fade.

    1. GBA Editor
      Kiley Jacques | | #2

      "So many young people are far more ready to change."--Amen

      1. nickdefabrizio | | #3

        It sort of reminds me of when I am out walking: I walk slowly-like an old guy...When young people come up behind me, for a brief moment they hesitate and politely walk behind me for a bit. Then when the opportunity arises, they take the chance and scoot past and around me! :)

        1. GBA Editor
          Kiley Jacques | | #4

          Ahhh, age. Ain't it the way?

    2. chuckwalla | | #8

      "…so many young people are far more ready to change…". I hope you're right. However, the "young people" I know, including my kids and their friends, only give it lip service, and, just like us, aren't interested in making the significant lifestyle changes that we must (and eventually will be forced to) make if we're to turn this thing around. I'll think that, overall, they (and we) will delay taking action till it's too late.

  2. BCinVT | | #5

    You can tell just from the number of comments how hot this topic is, but thanks, Allison, for a chance to see it mentioned.
    At least 30 years ago there was a book titled "Simple in Means, Rich in Ends" that also made the direct connection between lifestyle and sustainability. Decades before that was "Small is Beautiful". Perhaps .05 percent of Americans ever read these. Now, of course, we have all the time we need to make up for that.

    Sorry, I'll file this under 'Unanswered Prayers"

  3. capecodhaus | | #6

    I don't need a book to guide me toward living a simple life. I would also encourage those that would like to read it, to consider sharing the book instead of purchasing multiple copies.

    I agree with Mr. Bailes "take" on the topic, individual efforts won't do much to curb the degradation of our planet. Nor is it useful preaching to a choir who's not paying attention. Its good to try though.

  4. chuckwalla | | #7

    Random thoughts:
    * I totally agree that we're "screwed" as a species. Very few of us care enough to make even minor changes to our lifestyles in order to reduce our footprint, including (to my dismay) the so-called "greenie activist" pals I've hung out with for most of my life. They're mainly Boomers who are retiring and cashing out. They're all gloom and doom about our Climate Disaster, yet in a total disconnect, keep planning their next trip to today's Destination-du-Jour, or buying an RV or vacation cabin, or whatever - and those are the "believers". Then consider all the folks who think Climate Change is a hoax or are just too busy to think about it at all. When citizens don't care, what can we expect from Congress Critters?

    One problem is that, while it matters immensely what we ALL do to our climate, it makes virtually no measurable difference what any ONE of us does, which makes it too easy to rationalize. Another issue is that our energy is ridiculously under-priced, reflecting only a fraction of the Real cost.

    *The US already produces more than enough energy to meet our needs. The problem is that we profligately WASTE most of the energy we produce. According to the LLNL, the US produced 92.9 Quads of energy in '20. Of that, 62.3 Quads (67%) were wasted ("rejected", in LLNL-speak). We produced 35.6 Quads of electricity, of which we wasted 23.2 Quads (65%). We wasted 35% of our Residential energy, 35% of Commercial energy, 51% of Industrial energy, and a whopping 79% of Transportation energy (our second biggest usage sector).

    While some of that energy is lost in our inefficient distribution systems, an enormous portion is just frittered away because we don't give it a thought. Sure, we complain about $4.00 gas (far lower than the Real cost), but we'd rather blame the Prez' rather than the 4wd, urban Gashog SUV we just bought. Speaking of the "Prez', his BBB contains some money to upgrade the grid (not enough, if the bill's even passed), but ultimately, the onus is on us end users to reduce our own individual energy waste.

    * Re: "individual efforts won't do much". It's (again) more a factor that we won't make the effort than it is that the results won't do much. We could fix this if we cared enough to do so.

    Anecdotally, here's our recent experience after buying an all-electric, 60's, semi-fixer-upper rancher (w/ a dysfunctional grid-tied solar array). For about the cost of a small SUV, we: Rehabbed the solar system; Performed an energy audit, sealed the leaks and insulated to R50+; Installed cool roof shingles; Replaced the resistance baseboards with radiant ceiling/cove heaters; Put in new windows and insulating shades w/ sidetracks, and Installed a heat pump H2O heater.

    In the 12 month period after the work was completed, we produced 68% more electricity and consumed 31% less, producing 3,000 kWh more than we consumed. Next step'll be to use the extra kWh to run an EV that'll also serve as battery backup.

    While the payback on this work is relatively long at current rates (15 years?), at least there's a payback, unlike the $XXXXX vehicles that most of us have in our drives. Plus, we'll create a buffer against rising costs and power outages.

    1. nickdefabrizio | | #9

      Yes, I understand the frustration. It seems like there is more lip service paid to decarbonization than true commitment, although I do believe young people are more willing to change. Perhaps the level of that change is closely related to where they live-it is much easier to reduce energy consumption in a city environment: I know many folks who have ditched the taxis and even subway for a bike...almost everywhere. .

      I must admit, I haven't done everything I could do to reduce my consumption, although I have cut my consumption with PV, mini splits, HPH2O heater, air sealing, a plug in hybrid and work from home etc. Still I am lucky and have not had to make harder choices ...yet.

      I think your own experience with your rancher is interesting. That is great you actually export more energy than you use. It is typically hard to do that with a large heating load as I have in Zone 5. I am curious about your choice of ceiling cove heaters: are they really better than 1:1 electric baseboard?

      1. chuckwalla | | #10

        Good for you on your efforts.

        I'm still a little skeptical of my data showing net positive electric production. I keep reviewing it and calculating it different ways, but it appears to be true. Future data will tell. We are in 6b, so it's a little easier. Our array is 10.2 kWh - Huge by our standards (we lived off-grid with a 1.1k system for many years ) but we also now have electric heat and a/c.

        The radiant heaters are terrific. They produce high quality heat - like the sun. No drama, air currents or noise, you just feel warm. This morning, with the thermo reading 63F in the LR, it was toasty warm under a panel, sitting in the recliner and shooting up the morning news. From that standpoint, they're a big improvement over the 60 yr old baseboards. I don't have a way to measure consumption by source at this point, so I don't know how they compare energy-wise. The manufacturers cite studies that show they're more efficient but, you know, studies… Overall, we're using lots less kWh's.

        We debated radiant panels vs heat pump (to replace the existing a/c). Finally based the decision on less upfront cost, zero maintenance, zero breakdowns, no need to ever replace 'em, the ability to zone by room (we don't turn the heat on at all in 3 of our 7 rooms that are rarely used). Again, can't say enough about the quality of the heat.

        Onward, into the void…

        1. nickdefabrizio | | #11

          Interesting. My brother in law is looking to build a whole lot of homes out west in the Idaho/Wyoming area and he is looking to use radiant ceiling panels and wood stoves as back ups. I am trying to have him look at mini splits but there is little interest in A/C so the up front costs are insane for mini splits (I just got a quote for $28k to replace the mini splits (8 heads) at my dad's NJ shore house). The idea of using too much electricity in an area where coal is used to produce it is troubling, although he points out that Bill Gates is building a new type of nuclear plant in the area that may change everything.

          It is hard to beat "less upfront cost, zero maintenance, zero breakdowns, no need to ever replace 'em, the ability to zone by room".......

          1. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #12

            I was interested to read Chuck Walla's experience with his radiant cove heaters. I specified them on two houses. One client balked at the price compared to resistance baseboards, the other went ahead but has not noticed much difference in the way the heat is delivered. Perhaps some emit a larger proportion of the heat as radiant than convective than others? And maybe some people are more content with spot heat, while allowing the rest of the conditioned space to remain colder as Chuck describes?

            Many of the houses I've done here in rural Vancouver Island do the reverse of what your brother is thinking of, with the wood stove as the primary heat, and electric baseboards used in distant rooms. As Chuck said, the lack of things to break, and the ability to zone the house are very appealing. Without a source of free fuel (which some of us enjoy here) I'm not sure wood stoves make much sense, nor does relying on electric resistance heat for new construction. Simplifying somewhat, you could say that switching to a heat source like heat pumps with a COP of 3 has the same effect as would tripling the amount of insulation in your building assemblies.

          2. chuckwalla | | #13

            Please allow me to clarify my comment about feeling warm under a radiant heater at 63 degrees (couldn't find a "reply" for Malcom's comment). If I'm mansplaining here, I apologize in advance.

            Both the ceiling and cove heaters we chose are entirely "far infrared" heaters that heat objects (chairs, people…) by radiant rays. The convection part occurs when the heat secondarily flows from these warmed objects to the air in the room and heats it up to the thermo set point (I'm no expert, that's how it was 'splained to me and they sure seem to work that way).

            We turn the heat down to 60-61 at night and I'd just turned the thermo up after I got up. Yet, even at that low ambient temp, it was comfy under the radiant heaters since the "far infrared" rays were heating me - the air's still cool, but I'm warm, sitting there in shirtsleeves.

            We heated w/ "free" wood (except for cutting, loading, hauling, unloading, splitting, stacking, yada) for decades. Radiant panel heat feels the same, but you don't have to open a window when you put one too many logs on the fire.

            We installed slightly more costly ceiling panels in the LR where we use heat the most. The less expensive cove heaters may be bit more visually intrusive (to some?) and we used them in all other rooms. The manufacturers cite studies that assert that radiant heaters use 50% less electricity vs. baseboards.

            Some other advantages are: Unlike heat pumps the radiant panels maintain efficiency no matter what the outside temp is; They're super easy to install (at least if you have attic access); They're silent, unlike baseboards; and the temp is very even (tho' that could be due to the upgraded thermos we installed).

            I was assured by the manufacturers that they are viable as the only heat source and that's proven to be true. All in all, we're happy with 'em.

        2. nickdefabrizio | | #14

          What you are telling us about the radiant heaters is what my brother in law seems to believe. I do not have experience with them but I would be interested in your on going experience in terms of efficiency. There is no question that in cold climates where air conditioning is not very important, if these heaters turn out to be more efficient than baseboard (in terms of using less electricity to reach your comfort level-as opposed to trying to reach a set temperature) that would be a huge thing.

          Certainly, simplicity and ease of install is hugely important. I heat with mini splits and we have two houses full of them, but I am becoming skeptical of their long term viability as the large scale solution to our society moving away from fossil fuels. For one thing, their longevity is questionable: I am now replacing all of the mini splits in my dad's shore home after 10 years. Granted this is a salt air environment, but even so, most other systems seem to last longer even in this environment and indoor heaters should last indefinitely ..Second, they are complex and therefor often need a lot of upkeep or repair: I have already replaced the motherboard on one unit (I did it myself-because I could find no HVAC company to do it-they all wanted me to spend $9k for a new condenser). Finally, mini splits are now becoming too expensive. I just got a quote this weekend of $25-28k to replace the units in my dad's 1600 sq ft 4 bedroom house (admittedly 8 heads, but most people every room if the home is not super tight). And my quote is not for top of the line units. My HVAC guy tells me these prices reflect a 30-40% markup from last year...

          So the big question is-can these cove heaters really keep you comfortable using significantly less electricity than just installing electric baseboard....

          1. charlie_sullivan | | #15

            I think the story of feeling warm in a cold room with the cove heaters running is quite accurate, but some caution is needed in trying to plan around that result. If the heater is running hot enough to get that level of comfort in an otherwise cold room, and if the room is well insulated, the room will be ramping up in temperature during that time. There isn't an option for a steady-state situation in which the radiant heat is keeping you comfortable while leaving the room sitting in the low sixties F. The main advantage it offers is that you can leave the average temperature in the building overall low, and immediately get comfort if you enter a room and manually or automatically have that heater come on.

            The other advantage is that if you are heating with a few minisplits and there are comfort issues in rooms that are not directly heated by them, adding cove heaters to those rooms can solve the problem, while only using energy when the room are occupied. That can help avoid the oversized minisplit disasters we hear about here regularly.

            Another solution to the problem of wanting a heat source in each room, but minisplit heads being oversized for that, is to use an air-to-water heat pump and put small panel radiators in the rooms that would not get a minisplit head.

          2. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #16


            What we are seeing in my area is single mini splits replacing the spot heat source in the main living areas that used to be taken up by a wood stove. That eliminates a lot of the complexity and expense, but does still leave you needing supplemental heat.

            I lived in Britain for several years in the late 1970s. Many houses relied on radiant heaters. The occupants kept their houses quite cold and limited their movements to stay within the range of the electric grills. I'm not sure there is much of an appetite to go back to that level of discomfort.

            Much like energy consumption, I suspect that comfort is influenced by very personal circumstances. Just as the same house can use widely varying amounts of energy based on the occupants lifestyles, people who are interested in conserving energy may be much more likely to make concessions, like having cold parts of their house or simply putting on a sweater, that the wider public.

            What would be useful was some evidence outside the experience of radiance heat advocates that people really are able to maintain a lower temperature in the house, while maintaining comparable levels of comfort. That's something I haven't seen, and the evidence from buildings using other sources of radiant heat - floors, wood stoves - doesn't appear to support it.

          3. nickdefabrizio | | #17

            Interesting Charlie and Malcolm. For heat, maybe the cove heaters supplementing mini splits is a good solution. For cooling, there are not many alternatives

            In my home, two single head mini splits are doing fine heating a large open area. The difficulty (and expense) comes in trying to cover bedrooms down halls etc....(in my case, 74F in main room, 66 F in bedrooms) and other rooms in average houses. I think that most people who are not green building fans (e.g., my wife) want every room either covered by its own heating/cooling emitter or at least close to even temps. Since someone like me only needs to bring bedroom temps up for limited periods, perhaps they might work.

            In my father's case. the cost of trying to cool every room with mini splits is sky-rocketing. .I am having a hard time explaining to my dad why 10 years after we installed the first batch of mini splits we need to replace them....when he is used to boilers, window A/C units and central air units lasting decades. And then to have to explain that the cost of the units will exceed what he originally paid for the house (albeit some years ago), makes this an unpleasant conversation.

            My brother in law is a very well known EE/inventor in the chip and LED lighting area. I expect he will personally design a system like the one Charlie describes, where the cove heaters are complementary sources to wood stoves (I say complimentary because I do not know which source will be primary) and they will come on as one enters the room. I am sure he will research the heck out of it before he goes forward so if hear of any interesting information on these I will start a thread here.

            One interesting aspect of his build plan is that he will have only one or two 15 amp light circuits in each house and very few switches. The LED's draw so little and most control of the lights will be via smart phone. He says it will significantly reduce the amount of wiring needed for the homes.

            One last point to Charlie: I did consider air to water systems but in retrofit situations the emitters are expensive and regular baseboard doesn't work. I mentioned in a previous thread that there is a European joint venture producing a C02 based A2W heat pump that will emit 160-180F water that would work with many existing baseboard systems. They are rolling it out in Netherlands. Should be interesting

          4. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #18


            Worst case is that as my client found, the radiant cove heaters perform much like resistant baseboards. No real harm.

  5. onslow | | #19

    I am six years into heating my entire home with cove heaters, so I think I can offer a few points. I would never describe them as energy efficient or able to keep me warm at a lower set point than traditional or mini-split heating. I pay dearly for the fact that my BTUs are solely resistive. I had few alternatives at the time of my build and spouse revolt to deal with when I pushed mini-splits. The only local source for mini-splits seemed determined to acquire both of my arms and legs.

    Keeping a peaceable kingdom was paramount, so the silent heat won. However, being largely bald has revealed one issue to me. The cove heater's long wave infra red heat is meant to warm objects not air (at least directly). Consequently, I find it necessary to set the temp to 72 to be comfortable if I am not wearing a hat inside. Yes, one can feel the heat if within a few feet of the cove source, but the intent of them is to warm the mass in front of them. The air eventually warms up by transfer from the general mass of stuff which means the actual air temperature is never higher than the set point.

    Traditional forced air heating and wall cassettes blow air well above the set temperatures and historically I found these friendlier to my bald pate. I also historically had to deal with animal hair in filters and filthy ducts that also accumulated astonishing amounts of fuzz. I only miss my old furnace for the fact it ran on natural gas, which was very cost effective on a dollars per BTU basis. I miss the prospect of lower electric bills with minis, but I am still a year away from break even with the savings I gained by going cove. Yes, it the minis quote was that stupid high. I also don't worry about snow, defrost cycles, loss of system charge or filter and drain line maintenance.

    I will give cove heaters a few advantages over the wall types or baseboard heaters. Most of the heat transfer from wall and baseboard heaters is to the air flowing over whatever coils, fins, or plates are being heated. The warm air rising from the units might help my bald top, but I would suggest that warming air to warm objects in room is a bit backwards given the low heat carrying capacity of air.

    I would also further note that from my experience, a lot of heat generated by baseboard or wall panels is transferred to the walls they are attached to. If the walls are interior then the heat will eventually work to heat the house. However, on outside walls one would have to look at the insulation efficiency and consequent losses as having a much higher delta T than the nominal room temperature used in calculations. This become especially true for the oft mentioned radiant ceiling panels. The ones I am familiar with were essentially toaster panels embedded in gypsum or plaster that were jacketed with metal panels. Admittedly, the panels I am most familiar with were ones my parents installed during the late 60's when nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter.

    In a very inadequately insulated house the cold shadowing of these panels was remarkable. Under tables or desks it could be like sticking your hand into a refrigerator. Cranking up the heat quickly made it uncomfortable due to baking the top of your head while having freezing feet. It did make my attic lair more comfy though thanks to the upward losses. Perhaps new units have managed to reduce losses.

    My cove heaters are quite surprising in how little energy is lost to the wall they are mounted to. I used interior wall locations as much as practical though I now find my early assumption of heat losses out the back sides to be false. Even after the self imposed 15 minute cycle of my thermostats, I find the wall behind barely warmer than the general wall surface.

    I intend to use cove heaters again in my next build as adjunct sources for bedrooms. Mini-splits are going to be the main source of heat, but as others have noted, room layouts and closed doors that may create air starvation effects which diminish overall heating. I am losing more of my hair while I analyze best work arounds for integrating minis into a open 1st floor and a fairly un-open second floor.

    I will say that PGH insulation levels make heating with cove heaters less painful than they might be. I would also urge not turning down the thermostat overnight as the recovery rate for cove heaters is very slow. We lost power for 18 hours one winter and the majority of the house was not being warmed by the woodstove. It was over a full day before the more remote rooms came back into balance.

    A few last comments. Malcolm, my one trip out of the states was to UK in early 80's. The Scottish in particular seemed fond of flinging open windows for fresh air regardless of the season. One BNB owner was aghast at our request for an electric blanket. According to her, we would die in our bed horribly by fire or electrocution. She did bring a ginormous hot water bottle to stuff under the sheets. Another BNB owner informed us that "No, the heat would not be turned on. It wasn't October yet" Maybe this is why my ancestors fled. The vets in our family always said England was the land of warm beer and cold houses.

    Regarding Nick's brother's electrical plans for limited circuits. Would the new AFIC rules among others in the code prevent his plan? Even with LEDs the loads per circuit add up.

    As for a low carbon life, our local grid is now well past 35% renewable and on track for 50% soon. So even though my kilowatt usage could be considered shameful, it is less so than in many areas. Our personal lifestyle is more old hippy than most, so I guess we are doing what we can on that front.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #20


      As always a thoughtful and interesting rely.

      I am surprised that Britain, although in close proximity to several forward thinking European and Scandinavian neighbours, still seems to build very energy inefficient homes. Maybe it is as simple as you say and they are inured to discomfort by centuries of experience.

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