Oil vs Natural Gas (vs other type?) Boiler
I could use the help of the knowledgeable people here on pp.com! I need to replace my old, rusting oil boiler, and am facing the question: do I get another oil boiler, or should I switch to Natural Gas (NG)? Or is there another practical alternative that I should consider? I live in the Northeast US, where we get cold long winters, so having a dependable heating system is essential. I do have a good back-up wood stove. But I don’t feel comfortable depending on that to heat my house at this point in my life, as I still work full-time, plus have to travel on occasion. So I am not always around to keep a wood stove going. Similarly, I did see something about wood pellet boilers. But I am not sure if that’s a practical choice (at this stage in my life) if it requires a lot of care, feeding and maintenance.
I am hoping some of the knowledgeable people here on pp.cpm can help me “get educated” on the pros and cons of oil vs natural gas boilers. Or to suggest alternatives. In terms of “cost”, the conventional wisdom of friends and neighbors is that of course I should switch to NG because “natural gas is cheaper!!”. And I know that was true when fracking was at its peak (and maybe still is now). But I am wondering if that’s a safe assumption for the future, giving the decline in the fracking industry.
Then there’s the “environmental impact” criteria of burning oil vs NG. There are such differing “facts” in the articles I’m finding on-line that it is hard to sift out truth from bias or beliefs. So any insight here would also be appreciated.
Other criteria that I can think of that are important are “availability” (which fuel source is more likely to be available longer in the years to come), “safety”, “maintenance requirements”, and maybe others I am not thinking of.
I know that oil and gas are not ideal/sustainable choices. But at least for now, I am still stuck living in the old world, and still have to deal with these less than ideal dilemmas.
I’d really appreciate your insights into these choices!
A forced air system will probably be your cheapest, fastest form of heat to install. Fuel options would first be NG with oil as a second choice.(#2 fuel oil and NG are usually the closest and most available source in the NE). If you decide to go with a boiler, a natural gas fired boiler suppling a hydronic, radiant heat system is the most efficient. However, it will be the most expensive system to install, especially if it is a retrofit installation (baseboard heaters). In a new installation, a slab heated, hydronic boiler system would be the way to go. Once installed, it should last a long time. My father did that using copper tubing installed in a slab and hot water as a heating medium some 60 years ago. He switched to a glycol (Dowfrost/antifreeze circulating fluid) about twenty years ago (don't have to worry about frozen re-circulating pipes bursting is the power goes out). With the trend towards reducing ghg emissions, more NG is coming into the NE as a replacement fuel for coal fired electric generation. Is there a NG supplier and/or pipelines in your neighborhood and is there a hook up fee to get NG to your house. LPG (propane) is also an option, but then you have Tank and fuel delivery issues to arrange(relatively easy and inexpensive) and fluctuating propane prices based on availability. Propane is good down to -43. before is liquefies, so you should be safe unless you were to move to northern Alberta. Only had our LPG liquefy twice in 27 years, so you should be safe on that account. #2 fuel oil is an established fuel in the NE and fairly convenient with a lot of service people to help if trouble should arise. A bit dirtier than NG, but a damn site better than a coal fired boiler. NG provides a lot of options and with the new, more efficient, technologies providing some pretty good efficiencies (93-97%). Right now NG is bargain priced and with all the fracking going on in the US and Canada, should stay very competitive.
Bottom line: I would go with a NG and a forced air system, from a cost, installation and efficiency stand point. Hope this doesn't confuse the issue.
Thanks for your insights, Uncletommy!
Yes, I am dealing with an existing baseboard heating system, so I am already committed to going with a boiler. And our town does have a NG pipeline so it is available right at the house. On the other hand, I also already have an oil tank. So I have the set-up to go either way (NG or oil), depending on which of those seems like the best option.
I guess one of my concerns is whether NG will continue to be a cheaper and dependable option with the fracking industry not doing as well as in the past (with low oil prices hurting the industry). Then again, who knows what the future holds for heating oil, either! But I'm trying to read those tea leaves as well as I can in making this (expensive) decision.
Thanks again, Uncletommy; I really appreciate your inputs!
"I guess one of my concerns is whether NG will continue to be a cheaper and dependable option with the fracking industry not doing as well as in the past (with low oil prices hurting the industry). "
Hard to say which fuel will be cheaper over the long run, but I think the prices of both are likely to go up. I think Oil & gas are at extraordinary low prices and will like go up 30% to 50% at some point. NatGas Prices should start rising soon as many utilities have begun building large scale Nat Gas Turbine plants that are coming on line over the next few years. Thus increasing the demand of NatGas even if the economy does not pick up. That said, if the cost of Nat Gas becomes excessive, Nat Gas Turbines can also run on Oil, which probably means that costs for both fuels will go up together.
I think that prices for Oil & Gas will remain volatile as prices increase causing demand destruction which results in prices dropping back down. There will be a whip-saw effect for prices, which has been going on since the early 2000's
I think the practical option is to have access to multiple heating sources to avoid getting stuck. Of course the downside to implementing multiple source is the cost. At best I would recommend one standard source (either NG, Propane, Or Oil) with an alternative option (wood or Coal). In the event Oil & NatGas are rationed or just not available, you have a back up source that you can rely on.
For my own energy needs will be a combination of multiple sources:
1. Propane for Domestic hot water and some heating. Nat Gas isn't available and I can store propane on site I don't have to worry about supply distruptions. I also like the idea of using Propane for cooking in the event I loose power (ie grid down).
2. Solar Thermal. However this isn't going to be sufficient since its not going to work at night, overcast, and during the winter months when the day is short. When Solar is insufficient, other alternate heat sources will be used. Solar isn't without its issues. Expect to spend a lot of time tinkering with a solar thermal system to make it work for you.
3. Outdoor wood/coal boiler. This can be used to provide heat without excessively consuming my propane reserves. The advantage of using an Outdoor furnace is that it does not exposure your home to fire, and you're not tracking in dirt and ash into your home trying to maintain your furnance. The outdoor furnance is connect to the home using a buried, insulated line. The property I own has a substantial wooded area. I also plan to use the outdoor furnace to provide heating to an outbuilding or two, and a perhaps a greenhouse.
Should there be a problem that forces me to be energy independent on my own, I have plenty of wood that I can harvest on my property. I also will have the convenience of hot water even if solar is not available, or if my outdoor furnance isn't operating, via propane. All heat sources will be interconnected via heat-exchangers. Solar will take the first crack at heating, then the outdoor furnance (if its operating) and then to propane if the water temperature isn't hot enough.
If Wood isn't an option for you, than the alternative is Coal. Coal is readily available at retail locations in many states, and is sold bagged or unbagged. About 1 ton of coal is equal to about 6 barrels of Oil ( about 250 gallons) Bagged coal will remain usable indefinately. Yes, People still heat their homes using old-fashioned coal.
Here a blog post from DIY heating system using two sources (oil & outdoor furnance):
I'm still wrestling with this decision, and so appreciate your insights!
Just my opinion…
- Non-electrical propane/natural gas water heating is best, if it exists. So you can work in a power failure. Even if you have a generator or solar panels, it's obviously ideal not to depend on electricity.
- Second best–if only a few people in your house–get on-demand electric water heat. Much simpler. Plenty cheap.
- If you have more people–so long as it is on-demand, either propane or fuel oil can work well–basically depends on which fuel you might already be using for other things.
- If possible, rig up a system using solar water heaters–or black garden hoses under long-lasting greenhouse cover 5-year rated plastic. Gets hot in the sun.
…for your inputs. I'm trying to make it through this winter with my old oil furnace – kind of have to because we are all snowed-in now. But I need to replace it when the weather gets better; I don't want to push my luck another winter!
Glad you found my opinions interesting. Also, suggest to discuss with several installers before buying a totally new furnace. Be sure you really need to replace the old oil furnace, such as 30-years old maybe. So long as it is fairly modern, you can keep replacing any part. New furnaces claim to be extremely efficient, but that is only under ideal conditions. We got several "replace" opinions before finding out there was really no need to replace.
Just a word of caution on how much money you want to stick into an old furnace. Krystof is right on being able to replace parts – ignitors, blower motors, gas valves, etc.; however, there will be installation costs if you aren't doing it yourself and if it happens that your heat exchanger is shot, a new furnace will be cheaper in the long run (just check with the inspector to see if it really is the heat exchanger). The high efficiency furnaces are getting close to their rated performances, but will probably come with the additional costs of a PVC venting system and need a condensate drain line, if it is a condensing type furnace. Plus they will probably require a sloping vent tube that exits out the side of your house somewhere between the floor joists. Another under appreciated requirement is that you replace the air filters regularly to reduce the load on your blower fan (always a good idea). Ciao, Uncletommy
Thanks again for the advice, Krystof and Uncle Tommy. In my case, it doesn't make sense to sink a lot of money in my existing boiler. I'm eligible for retirement in a couple of years (at least in the current reality!), and am in a better position financially now to replace the boiler than I will be after I retire. So better to do it now rather than spend more money on the old one. In addition, I am contemplating selling my current home after I retire to get something smaller, with lower energy and maintenance costs. And maybe a different climate. 😉 So I figure I will need a newer boiler to make my house more attractive to potential buyers as well.