Sara and Peter Starr (© Peter McCollough)

Sara and Peter Starr spent about $70,000 in heating and electrical equipment. // © Peter McCollough

In June, Peter and Sara Starr gave dinner guests a tour of their new Bayside, Calif., home. There’s the designer kitchen fitted with free-standing ergonomic furniture, and the valley views, complete with majestic redwoods. But the pièce de résistance sits just off the living room: a 100-square-foot nook otherwise known as the boiler room.

Inside hums the heart of about $70,000 in state-of-the-art heating and electrical equipment. Rooftop solar panels feed a sleek hot-water tank and an array of batteries storing electricity and feeding excess power back to the grid. Hanging nearby, a petite black boiler provides radiant heat while hundreds of feet of copper piping snake outward, delivering warmth and water to the 1,800-square-foot house.

“It looks like the 'Star Trek' Enterprise,” says Peter Starr, 61. “It’s really a little focal point and a sign of pride.”

Say goodbye to the scary room, that dank, dark spot where boilers and water heaters work among the spiders, with human visits taking place only when something — "Honey, there’s no hot water!" — goes wrong. As homeowners begin to in renewable energy and other high-efficiency equipment, some are spiffing up the mechanical room and, in some cases, trying to make the air conditioner a showpiece. (Bing: Federal tax credits for energy efficiency)


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Producers of this stuff are touting style. Take the LG Electronics Co. Art Cool duct-free air-conditioning units, which hang directly on interior walls and can frame works of art. Last year, Nortek Inc. launched a line of Maytag gas furnaces with “fingerprintless” faux stainless doors. General Electric Co. recently rolled out its futuristic, $1,600 GeoSpring hot-water heater, which looks like it might share DNA with the Jetsons’ cartoon robot maid, Rosie.

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Such gadgets are the latest means for leaving the Joneses in the dust.

“The mechanical room is now like the wine room or the library,” says Stephen Bohner, owner of Alchemy Construction Inc. in Arcata, Calif.

Bohner installed some of the Starrs’ equipment. He says all of his new construction projects include renewable-energy equipment, such as solar panels.

“If you are spending money on that stuff, you want to show it off,” he says.

Vince Kimbel recently installed a GeoSpring water heater in his Louisville, Ky., home. The unit combines energy-efficient heat-pump technology with an electric heating element, pulling warmth from surrounding air and transferring it into the tank. Says Kimbel, a builder: “The look translates into people saying, ‘This is different.’ If it was a traditional water heater, they wouldn’t give it a second look.”

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The mechanical makeovers come as the residential heating and cooling industry battles back from lean years. Home-improvement spending is expected to climb nearly 5% this year, the first increase since 2006, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Helping sales are federal tax credits and rebates that offset outlays on certain energy-efficient equipment.