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Published March 06, 2009, 12:00 AM

Efficiency is crucial in a sunroom design

Dear Jim: We need some additional living space, and I was thinking of installing a sunroom.

By: By James Dulley, INFORUM

Dear Jim: We need some additional living space, and I was thinking of installing a sunroom. My wife prefers the appearance of a conservatory. What are the actual differences between the two, and which is better?

– Al R.

Dear Al: Building a typical sunroom or conservatory is not inexpensive, but it certainly is less expensive living space per square foot than adding another room to your house. All of the glass area offers the possibility of free solar heating for your house and other uses such as growing plants.

A conservatory is actually just a type of sunroom, but with some specific style characteristics. Neither is inherently better than the other. As with most home-related products, there are various qualities of each available.

Conservatories often have more sides than a typical rectangular sunroom and are more ornate. A pitched roof with an ornate roof ridge and decorative or leaded glass are also common features of a conservatory. With these features, a conservatory usually costs more than a typical sunroom of the same size.

There are several general designs and styles of conservatories. Before selecting one, try to determine how it will be used. If you plan to use it for living space, but also to capture the sun’s heat to help warm the rest of your home, it should face within plus or minus 15 degrees of true solar south. In most areas, true solar south is different than compass south.

If the conservatory will be used for growing plants or for a spa or pool, make sure the flooring is strong enough to handle the additional weight. Also, it would be wise to install a vapor barrier in the common wall with your house to block excess moisture from migrating indoors.

When most people think of conservatories, they picture traditional Victorian-style ones from Europe. This style is still very common in Europe, and many of the highest-quality Victorian conservatories available in the United States are manufactured in Europe.

There are several options for purchasing one of the European conservatories. Some are made entirely in Europe in a modular form and delivered to your building site. Others are delivered in various stages of partial completion. Still others import just the frames and ornate roofing from Europe and use domestic windows, doors and glass.

Efficiency is always a concern with any sunroom design, and the type of glass has the greatest impact. As a minimum, install double-pane glass with a low-emissivity coating. You will also need some type of ventilation and shading to minimize overheating during summer. Solar-powered vents are effective because the sun’s heat actuates them.

The following companies offer conservatories and kits: British Conservatories, (800) 566-6360,; Four Seasons Sunrooms, (800) 368-7732, www.fourseasons; Oak Leaf Conservatories, (800) 360-6283, www.oakleafconservatories.

com; Renaissance Conservatories, (800) 882-4657,; and Town & Country Conservatories, (773) 506-8000,

Dear Jim: I get ads in the mail for very expensive electric space heaters that can “cut my heating bills in half.” I also find heaters for less than $30 at Wal-Mart. What is the difference to justify the cost?

– Linda H.

Dear Linda: Any electric heater that is plugged into a standard wall outlet produces a maximum of about 5,100 Btuh. The more expensive heaters have fancy cabinets, but produce no more heat than a cheaper one.

Also, all electric space heaters are nearly 100 percent efficient. I use a cheap radiant electric heater in my home office so I can set the furnace thermostat a few degrees lower. My savings is about 5, not 50, percent.

Send inquiries to James Dulley, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244, or visit