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Best heating system for older cabin

Nathan Welton
December 4, 2018
last modified: December 4, 2018

So I just bought a duplex that's kind of a mess and I may need to totally redo the heating system, and I'm looking for advice on the best way to proceed.

There is no crawl space, no attic space. One unit sits on a concrete slab, and the other unit is joists sitting on beams sitting on dirt, and that side's floor is uninsulated. The walls are 2x4 with R11 batt in them. The windows are single paned and drafty.

The left side is 450 s/f and has 8' ceilings and has three rooms: open living/dining/kitchen, a small bathroom, and a small bedroom. It's got a 50,000 BTU propane furnace from probably 1980 in the living/dining/kitchen area. The bedroom and bathroom are unheated, so if someone closes a door, they'll get quite cold.

The right side has 12' ceilings and is also 450 s/f with roughly the same layout. It's got a a 30,000 BTU propane furnace (same age) in the living/dining/kitchen area plus an old wall mounted box-shaped propane furnace in a bedroom.

The propane guy wouldn't fill the tank because the tank rests on its side and has a regulator that is too old for him to want to touch. The furnaces DO work, we just ran out of propane right after purchase.

It's at 8000 feet in Colorado.

Options are electric baseboard throughout, for probably $3k (electrician will run the wires and we'll connect baseboards); rent a new propane tank and replumb the lines going to the old furnaces for $1700, plus run a few lines for baseboards in the bathrooms (this will total around $3k for both the electric and plumbing, but we will need to eventually replace the old furnaces to the tune of $2k ea); run a heat pump for $12k; or do a high efficiency propane furnace for $10k or more.

No idea what to do. All my reading shows propane often isn't cheaper than electric baseboard heat these days due to rising costs of propane.

Electric here costs 11.5 cents per kWh. Propane is hovering at $2.10/gallon in Colorado.

It'll be a short term rental unit, expected occupancy of 50% in winter and 100% in summer on both sides.

Plumbers want to sell us hydronic heats, HVAC guys want to sell us furnaces or heat pumps, and electricians want to run the wires for baseboards.

So, we are confused. Any thoughts?

Leaning toward baseboard heat and taking the extra money and replacing the windows...? What's the best use of time and funds?

Comments (15)
  • mike_home

    What is the plan for cooling? If you need to provide cooling then installing a heat pump with the duct work would be the best option.

    Nathan Welton thanked mike_home
  • Nathan Welton

    homes rarely get hot enough for cooling up here so we are planning on skipping cooling, and using box fans the few times a year when necessary

  • 3pinktrees

    We’ve been very happy with the small rectangular electric wall heaters. They are unobtrusive and you can control them individually in each room. They were inexpensive to install and kept heating costs down. I prefer them to baseboards both for looks and functionality. As an added bonus, they don’t take up near as much space.

  • robin0919

    ditto what 3pink said. 11.5kw is a very good price. You can probably get those cheap enough to be able to replace the windows which you really need to do.

  • worthy

    I bought a cottage on two wooded acres. The first couple of weeks there in the fall, I installed baseboard heaters throughout. Turns out the existing woodstove was more than was ever needed.

  • tigerdunes

    don't kid yourself, electric resistance baseboard heat while cheap to install will be expensive to operate. May need to rewire electrics as well to handle. Start with insulating cabin and replacing windows and ext doors. If AC is not necessary and operating costs for heating are important to you, then look into some type of wood stove. Is there a fireplace?


  • ci_lantro

    What about propane wall heaters? Vented, of course.

    Wood heat would be a no-go. Probably would not be able to get insurance on a rental with a wood stove. Aside from that, when the unit is vacant, no one to tend a fire to keep the plbg. from freezing up.

  • mike_home

    Who pays for heating? If it is the tenant then does the heating cost affect the rent you can charge?

  • Nathan Welton

    Hi all thanks for all your responses! A few points:

    Both sides will be AirBnBs so not concerned about dividing up the heating bill. We will pay it

    As mentioned we have functional propane wall heaters there, but as best I can tell, the cost per BTU for propane is pretty close to electric based on my prices of $2.25/gallon for propane and 11.5 cents/kWh for electricity. With those prices, am incorrect in my calculations that electric at is within 10% of the cost of propane?

    wood heat is a no go — between guests the pipes would freeze And I imagine renters would make a mess of burn themselves.

  • ci_lantro

    Using the calculator here:


    Cost per 100,000 btu's is $3.36 for electricity vs $2.45 for propane. So, electricity would be approx. 28% more expensive.

  • Nathan Welton

    But the propane furnaces are 80% efficient compared to 100% efficient for electric, so you have to buy more propane to get the same BTUs if you have a standard propane wall furnace... is that correct?

  • tigerdunes

    at 90% eff, propane is about 10% cheaper to operate than electric resistance baseboard heat. Neither cheap though.


  • cat_ky

    I have gas here, and its very high. Propane is also very high. Here it is much cheaper to have electric. If you decide to go for electric units, for wall, make sure they are the kind with the blower fan, and not the coils. I actually prefer them over baseboard heaters.

  • DavidR

    If the power is reliable, I'll cast my vote with baseboards. At least around here, heating with propane isn't any cheaper than heating with electricity. You also won't have to worry about the tank running empty while the units are vacant.

    If you want lower long-term costs in return for a lot more $$$ up front, and it doesn't get down into the single digits most winters, go with mini-split heat pumps.

  • tigerdunes

    commenting on above post from David, the living area is quite small...I would at least take a look at mini split HPs but only if you intend to upgrade your cabin's insulation qualities.


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