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Choosing a Home Heating System
Let’s say your home heating system isn’t quite as hot to trot as it used to be. Maybe it runs constantly, trying to heat your home but not really getting the job done. Perhaps it goes on and off a lot, or heats only part of your home effectively.
Maybe your heating system requires constant repair, or the utility bills have increased recently and are continuing to climb. When you find yourself reaching for a sweater in one part of the house and needing to take it off in another, that’s a sign that something’s amiss.
After eliminating the easy things, such as clogged filters and closed vents, it’s time to consider getting a new heating system. The U.S. Department of Energy has lots of helpful information for you to review. It covers everything from thermostats to wood heating and pellet stoves, with a big focus on energy-saving tips.
For example, did you know that between 2007 and 2012, the average U.S. household spent more than $700 heating homes each year using natural gas, but more than $1700 heating homes using heating oil? Over time, those sorts of price differences between natural gas and oil can have a material effect on your household budget.
Let’s review the most common sources of fuel for heating your home and examine the pros and cons of each one. When we’re done you’ll be in a good position to make a well-informed decision about which system is right for your next purchase.
Natural gas is the most common home heating fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that natural gas is used in about 57 percent of all U.S. homes. While its use in the U.S. is declining everywhere except the Northeast, it is still by far the favorite choice in every region of the country with the exception of the South, which relies mainly on electricity.
The American Gas Association reported in 2013 that more than 500,000 housing units in the Northeast had switched from oil heating to natural gas. Those who did saved money. In 2011-2012, the estimated average savings per home was 70 percent as compared to homes that relied on heating oil.
When compared to electric heaters, natural gas offers many advantages. For example, you can replace the hot water you use in a 10-minute shower about 60 percent faster with a heater that relies on natural gas rather than electricity. In addition, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel you can choose.
The efficiency of a natural gas system is measured by its annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE). It’s much like the measures of efficiency we’ll see in electric/heat-pump systems in a moment. AFUE measures the amount of energy going into the HVAC system and the amount of energy that comes out as usable heat. The measure is constructed so that the higher the AFUE, the better.
Modern natural gas systems have AFUE ratings between 78 and 97 percent, so they’re very efficient. You can do a cost analysis by examining how much the system costs to purchase as well as the expected annual operating cost. For example, a system with an AFUE of 78 might cost $500 less than one with an AFUE of 97, but it might use more than $130 per year beyond the 97-rated system. If you plan on keeping your home for several years, the cost trade-off can favor the higher-efficiency system.
Liquefied petroleum gas (LP gas or LPG) is an alternative to natural gas and supplies about 4 percent of America’s energy. LPG is a flammable mixture of different gases and consists of either propane or butane. For reference, propane and butane are each hydrocarbons and have been used in the home since at least 1912. When liquefied, they can be transported, stored and used as a source of convenient energy.
LPG heating systems can work with convective fan-driven heaters, with radiant floor systems or a combination of both. Typically, LPG systems can be tailored to heat an entire home area or be applied to targeted rooms. This helps increase the efficiency of LPG.
LPG is a safe alternative home heating method and often mistakenly thought of as a leading cause of home fires; however, the National Fire Protection Association doesn’t list LPG as a leading cause or contributor to home fires. More than 14 million American homes use LPG. Still, it’s one of the least common consumer choices.
In warm climates, an electric heat pump can be a great choice. It can deliver more heat energy to your home than the electrical energy it requires. Here’s how common heat pumps work.
They start with a compressor and two copper coils, one of which is indoors and the other outside. When heating, the outside coil takes heat out of the air via a liquid refrigerant that evaporates and the indoor coil releases heat from the refrigerant by condensing it back to a liquid state. The process can be reversed to cool the indoors.
Many years ago, heat pumps weren’t particularly efficient. New technological advances have improved their efficiency by as much as 100 percent. You can see just how efficient the heat pump is by looking at the EnergyGuide label.
On the label, heating is measured in terms of a heating season performance factor (HSPF). This is expressed as the ratio of the number of British thermal units (BTUs) needed to heat a volume of air to the electrical energy (watt hours) needed to drive the heat pump.
Cooling is measured similarly by what’s called the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). It’s the ratio of the BTUs needed to cool − that is, remove heat from − a volume of air to the total watt hours needed to drive the pump that does the work.
You should look for electric heat pumps with HSPFs in the range of 8 to 10 and SEERs in the range of 14 to 18. Even if you can’t find a pump that efficient, you have to consider the equipment you are replacing. Pumps from the 1970s might have a SEER of about 6, so stepping up to a SEER of 12 means you’re going to use only half the electricity that you did before.
Generally, geothermal HVAC systems work by circulating fluid and either absorbing heat from the ground to distribute inside the home, or absorbing heat from the home and putting it back into the ground. They have three components: a heat pump, a heat-exchange system and a delivery system. The delivery system is either an air duct system or radiant heat, typically in the floor of the home.
A geothermal HVAC system for the home offers several advantages. One important advantage is that the system is generally underground, out of sight, and maybe out of mind too. Temperatures above ground can vary greatly, but temperatures below ground are much more constant. This helps the efficiency of the system, and results in less energy used.
You might think that maintenance would be an issue for any energy system that was buried underground. Certainly there are special considerations for repairs, but remember that there’s no weather underground, so damage from the elements is minimal. Maintenance costs are often lower than for conventional systems.
Geothermal HVACs are a nice choice for green-minded consumers. They emit no greenhouse gases and are often very quiet. However, as with many green-friendly products, geothermal HVACs are going to be more expensive than other options. They can cost twice as much or more than a conventional system, but you can look for governmental subsidies that can make the costs very competitive.
In the long-run, the cost savings by going geothermal can be truly substantial. We’ll come back to that in the summary.
Home heating-oil systems work by burning what’s called No. 2 heating oil. The fuel is drawn from a storage tank by a pump. The fuel next goes through a fine spray nozzle where it mixes with air and is ignited. The heat from the combustion chamber is then used to warm up air or surrounding water/steam for use in the home.
No. 2 heating oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons that is much heavier than alternatives such as natural gas or propane. In the U.S., it’s transported by tanker truck and stored in large above-ground tanks.
A gallon of No. 2 delivers 138,000 BTUs of energy, which is more than you get from a gallon of propane or butane. (These average about 91,000 to 102,000 BTUs.) This is one reason people focus on heating oil as a potential choice.
Heating oil systems have also become more efficient over time, with some systems exceeding 90 percent efficiency, but the cost of heating oil has also increased in recent years.
The World Almanac reports that the price in dollars per gallon for home heating oil has increased from less than $1 per gallon in 1995 to more than $3 per gallon now, and even as high as $3.49 in certain regions. In the Lehigh Valley, on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the 2014 cost for heating oil was $3.83 per gallon. It’s projected to drop slightly to $3.74 per gallon in 2015, but that’s still expensive relative to natural gas for the same BTU output.
Comparing Natural Gas, Geothermal and Oil
If you have a choice in your home heating system, you’ll likely be choosing between natural gas or geothermal and oil. Let’s focus on those and see which of these you should favor.
If your primary concern is carbon emissions, you have to examine geothermal systems. However, cost is the primary factor that drives most people’s decisions in matters like these. With regard to price, in the long run the scales really tip in favor of natural gas or geothermal as opposed to oil.
The cost of installation for a natural gas system depends on where you live, and you also have to include the cost of the appliances that will be running on the gas line. A gas line can cost from $1,500 to $3,000, according to Jim Kabel, a certified remodeler in San Jose, Calif., but conversions from oil and new installations can range from $2,000 to $9,000 or more.
Then there’s also the difference in cost between electric-driven appliances and gas appliances, which can be hundreds of dollars out of pocket, with electric-driven appliances costing less.
However, moving to a natural gas-based home heat and water system can capture rebates from federal and state government programs. For example, Puget Sound Energy indicates that there’s the potential for a nearly $3,000 incentive to make this switch. That helps make up for the extra costs of appliances and conversions.
The cost of a geothermal system is estimated based on the indoor and underground installation costs. These costs can exceed $18,000, even with federal tax credits. After that initial outlay, you save dramatically. There are no more LPG or other fossil fuel costs. Your savings can be on the order of $2,800 annually. If you’re going to be in your home for several years, you can be way ahead by choosing geothermal.
Annual costs are also definitely in favor of natural gas over oil. Puget Sound Energy reports that in the Washington state area, $100 of natural gas offers as much energy as $283 of propane and $345 of heating oil. Looking back in time, the cost of natural gas has been between 50 to 80 percent of the cost of equivalent energy units of propane or heating oil.
What’s more, it’s less expensive to maintain natural gas furnaces than those running on heating oil, which leads to additional long-term savings. You also don’t have to deal with an industry run out, when the oil company fails to deliver heating oil to your storage system in a timely manner. You can imagine how that would go on a cold and snowy winter night.
The best long-term options for heating your home are almost always going to be natural gas and geothermal. Energy savings and maintenance savings will outweigh the cheaper installation costs of oil-based home heating systems. What’s more, you can feel good that your system will be producing fewer or even no hydrocarbon emissions. With geothermal you also eliminate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The cost of fossil fuels always varies. Fossil fuels are commodities and their prices will go up or down depending on many exogenous factors, including the strength or weakness of the U.S. dollar, inflation and industry demand. You can remove a lot of the variability of price movement by choosing natural gas over oil. You can remove almost all the variability by going geothermal. Despite the greater initial outlays, natural gas and geothermal are much more cost-effective in the long run as compared to heating oil.