ALBANY, NY — What happens to homeowners when their power goes out?

In addition to being left in the dark, they’re often also left in the cold. That’s because oil- and gas-fired heating systems rely on electric controls, pumps, and blowers to circulate heated air or water throughout the house. When the power goes out due to a storm or other incident, these components cannot be operated.

While usually just a temporary inconvenience, if the power is out for an extended period, as was the case with the 1998 ice storm that left more than 130,000 New Yorkers without power for as long as several weeks, it often results in damaged pipes and forces owners to abandon their homes for shelters.

A new heating technology from ECR International Inc., Dunkirk Division, Dunkirk, NY, may end these kinds of reliability problems while also saving customers money on their electric bills.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) recently signed an agreement with ECR to develop a self-powered heating system. The system puts a twist on the concept of generating your own electricity that may appeal to consumers concerned with electricity reliability and cost. It uses low- or moderate-pressure steam to generate electricity that could operate the heating system’s electrical components.

“Not only can self-powered heating eliminate the loss of heat during power outages, but it has the potential to reduce customer’s utility bills as well,” said NYSERDA president F. William Valentino.

Powering savings

“Annually, up to $200 of the average residential customer’s electric bill can be attributed to the controls, pumps, and blowers associated with the heating system. A system that generates its own electricity would eliminate that portion of the bill. There is also potential that the system ECR ultimately develops could generate enough electricity to power other systems in the home, leading to even greater savings.”

As part of the development project, ECR will investigate two methods of designing and building a self-powered system, with the expectation of commercializing the more promising approach.

Under the first scenario, the self-powered unit would use low-pressure steam to generate a small amount of electricity — just enough to power the heating system.

With the second scenario, the unit would use higher-pressure steam to generate more electricity so that other systems such as lighting or appliances could be powered in addition to heating. It is possible that this approach could reduce consumer electrical demand from the utility by as much as 50%.

The limiting factor that will determine which method is pursued will likely be manufacturing cost. In the competitive and mature hvac industry, high-efficiency equipment must provide a fast payback to the customer to succeed in the market. While generating more electricity may have a greater impact on electric bills, there will be added cost.

The energy savings from operating the self-powered system must pay for the added initial expense in a few years to have a chance of succeeding in the market.

“We see this project as making sense on many levels, from economic to energy conservation and ultimately the homeowner’s well-being,” said Tim Reed, president of ECR. “This device is a natural extension of our existing product line.”

The cost for the project is about $500,000, with NYSERDA providing about $200,000 from its New York Energy Smart program.