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Page added on October 26, 2013

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Getting the most warmth for your money

Consumption

In the face of petroleum’s massive price jump over the last decade, more and more homeowners are moving away from oil to heat their homes. And up until recently that move has been toward natural gas, which has also begun to rise in price this year.

The average price of heating oil has tripled between 2003 and 2012 to about $4 per gallon, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Prices were slightly lower than that in mid-September, but are expected to increase as the season goes on.

This is mainly due to a spike in demand compared to last winter, combined with constraints in the supply of natural gas to the region, which drove spot prices up in the Northeast an average of 146%.

According to the federal government forecast, natural gas customers will pay an average of $679 this winter for heating, up 13 percent from last year. Electricity customers will pay $909, up 2 percent. Propane customers in the Midwest will pay $1,453, up 9 percent, and propane customers in the Northeast will pay $2,146, up 11 percent. Heating oil customers will pay $2,046, down 2 percent.

The relative economy of natural gas heat should not cause a stampede to convert from oil or other forms of fuel, says Larry Chretien, executive director of the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance. Consumers should keep in mind that just because natural gas is still relatively cheap compared to heating oil, it won’t stay that way forever.

“There’s a lot of talk about natural gas being plentiful, about these new drilling technologies they’ve developed,” Chretien said. “But 10 or 15 years from now, we don’t know how that’s going to play out.”

Still, gas providers National Grid and NSTAR performed more than 9,500 oil-to-gas conversions in the last fiscal year, and spokespersons for each company say that they expect to perform even more this year.

Both companies are also planning to raise their prices for gas this season over last year by, respectively, about $5.18 and $1.50 per month. This will translate to a monthly gas bill of roughly $151.45 for an NSTAR customer, and $187 for a National Grid customer using about 130 therms of natural gas.

Census figures show that less than one-third of Massachusetts residents heat their homes with heating oil, compared to 40 percent in 2003. Nearly 50 percent use natural gas. The remainder mostly use electricity and propane.

So if gas is getting more expensive and heating oil continues to be expensive, how can a homeowner decide when it’s right to change fuel sources?

“There are a lot of questions you need to ask, both about the energy source, the cost to make a change, and the contract you’re signing,” said Barbara Anthony, head of Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

First, it’s important to check the age and efficiency of your furnace.

Chretien says that a furnace more than 20 years old or operating at less than 72 percent efficiency is worth replacing, a process that can cost upward of $6,000 depending on the unit’s efficiency, fuel source, and other factors.

For a heating oil customer, other important questions include whether or not a contract includes maintenance and emergency servicing, and if there are any upfront costs to be paid before oil deliveries begin, says Anthony.

In any heating contract, Anthony says that it’s important to know whether the price of fuel will be “fixed” or “capped.”

In a capped price contract, a customer will not pay more than a maximum rate per unit of fuel for the season. With a fixed price contract, the customer agrees to pay a set rate for the season, regardless of price fluctuations.

Fixed rate contracts for heating oil have largely fallen by the wayside in recent years, according to Ken Williams of the Quincy heating oil company Scott Williams Inc., due mostly to increasing volatility for oil prices.

“With a fixed price contract, customers lose out when the prices drop like that and sellers lose out when prices go above the fixed price,” Williams said.

Finally, Anthony notes that whether you’re using oil, gas, propane or wood to heat a home, using less energy overall can be the most effective way to see cost savings in the long run.

Making a change in fuel type without first looking over ways to save energy, she says, “is just throwing money out the window.”

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18 Comments on "Getting the most warmth for your money"

  1. DC on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 12:05 am 

    How about checking the age and ‘efficiency’ of the structures themselves. Mainly sawdust and PVC. They way we build, heat leaks out almost as fast as its pumped in. Pump in enough heat to our leaky shacks and enough of it will stick around to raise the average temperature. Cant fix crap with a more ‘efficient’ furnace. Only means it costs a little less to watch the same % of heat evactuate through walls, windows and doors, where it then preforms the vital task of heating the outside.

  2. Mike on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 12:33 am 

    To change to gas or not is more a question of having a gas-pipeline near you or not. If you have: Change, If not, what alternative instead of wood, propane or heating-oil you will have?
    Coal! There are automatic-feeding furnaces, useing high quality coal (like a wood-pellet furnace). With a price of coal of ~250$/t this gives a price per kWh of ~3$ct. -Heating oil and propane cant be cheaper.

  3. BillT on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 1:48 am 

    All of the homes I have built or owned had electric heat, except one small one. Those homes were insulated for electric heat and exceeded the building codes.

    For a few thousand dollars more, a home can be built with good, insulated windows, proper floor, wall, and ceiling insulation, and durability.

    You will have electric energy longer than you will have oil or gas. It may get expensive, but … so will the others and faster. And, with electric you have individual room control and can adjust temperatures accordingly. An unused room is left cold or just above freezing when not in use. etc. If you have the option, go electric in a new home.

  4. Kenz300 on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 2:18 am 

    Save energy and save money…..

    Too many people look to buy the cheapest furnace or air conditioner instead of looking for the most energy efficient………

    In many cases an energy efficient appliance will save you money in the long run…….

    Short term thinking end up costing you more money…

  5. BillT on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 3:56 am 

    BTW: If you think ‘renewables’ don’t need outside help…consider this article with references:

    ‘A Small Fan”

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/

    Check out the references and then come back and we will discuss ‘renewables’ again.

  6. rollin on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 4:04 am 

    Homes have been built with more insulation for decades now. External foamboard is placed on the sheathing, vapor barriers are used inside and out. Attics are all insulated. Windows are double paned with good seals. Doors all have seals. Furnaces are far more efficient now.
    Increasing the attic insulation,insulating basement walls and plugging obvious leaks is about all the homeowner can do without incurring very large costs.

    Houses in the US have dramatically increased in size but use the same or less energy for heating than houses built in the 50’s and 60’s. That means they are much better designed, insulated and sealed than their predecessors.

  7. Norm on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 4:27 am 

    I can’t believe all this chat board tack, is leaving out the most efficient solution to Suburban heating. Its a ground exchanges heat pump. Much better than an air exchange heat pump. Called geothermal heat pump, though I never liked that label. Major supplier is ‘water furnace’. They have lots of web presence. Will deliver 15,000 Watts of heat energy on a power feed of 3000 Watts. That clobbers a plan of heating individual rooms on resistor electric. Oh, but such equipment costs real money and real effort to retrofit. Oh almost forgot, Mitt Romney stole all my money

  8. Norm on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 4:29 am 

    so since I am broke after the repubs wrecked the country, excuse me while I attend to my wood stove it runs on cardboard and old pallets you might want to stand up wind.

  9. BillT on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:37 am 

    rollin, I hope you are joking. I was a custom home designer for most of the last 20 years of my career in construction. Few, if any homes are built properly.

    Plastic with a bit of foam is worthless if the air can get around it or through cracks. Ditto for windows. Thermopane windows, not properly installed, are a waste of money. Most home’s exterior walls are 4 1/2′ thick and have an R of 15 or less in reality when they should have R30 or better. Attics…ditto. Floors in cold climates need at least R15.

    No,few homes built in the last century are truly energy efficient. Very few, because it costs money, thousands of dollars extra, and then you need close supervision of the labor that builds them to make sure everything is done correctly.

    I built a 2800 sf home for myself, before I retired, that WAS built as it should be. 5 inch thick slab-on-grade with R20 polystyrene foam under the slab and at the foundation walls. R25 total walls properly sealed, wrapped, taped and caulked. Ditto for windows and doors. Roof insulation on the attic floor of R30 plus.

    How do I know? I designed it that way and built it myself. And, without labor costs, just materials, it cost me an extra $5 per sf. And tract homes are even worse. Designed to last as long as the mortgage (30 years) and no longer. Energy efficiency is an extra that is not profitable for the developer.

  10. BillT on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:43 am 

    BTW: a 1/16 inch crack at the windows and doors on the outside of a typical home is the same as a hole big enough to put a basketball through. That leak into the walls, even if it doesn’t go all the way through is still cooling the wall interiors and allowing moisture into the walls. Simple caulking annually will cut that airflow drastically. If you have that vinyl siding crap, you have no idea how big the ‘hole’ is in you walls because they are hidden behind a leaky plastic cover. the only thing worse than vinyl siding is aluminum.

  11. Norm on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 9:51 am 

    Ya but Bill if you seal the window that tightly, then ya gotta open it to get some air. So might as well build it crummy in the first place.

  12. Arthur on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 10:30 am 

    The average energy bill for a Dutch family must be around 220 euro per month. Most of it is heating. Here is a trick that shows how you can keep warm for a few euro’s per month:

    http://tinyurl.com/qcgeh3c

    Thermo-wired clothing, batteries included. This means that apart from your i-gadgets, you have to plug these batteries to the grid 2-3 times a day as well. The battery is carried in a pocket.

    In Holland during the coldest months of the year (Jan, Feb) the average temperature over 24h is 3 degrees Celcius. As a consequence temperature in unheated homes does not go below 10-12 degrees, because of the sun rays through the windows during the day and the closed curtains at night. In principle you can survive in these unheated homes with these thermo-wired cloths and maybe an extra infrared panel, creating a micro-climate around the place where you sit…

    tinyurl . com/qc7a5bt

    …and stick your feet in ‘electrical slippers’. No central heating needed and even poor people can still survive.

  13. rollin on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 1:11 pm 

    Average energy use per home has fallen steadily since 1980, from 120 mmBTU to 90 mmBTU. Space heating and air conditioning energy use is now less than appliances and hot water heating energy for homes. Heating used to be the majority of energy use.

    In the US the major increase in energy use is in the commercial and industrial sector. Transportation and residential total energy use is running flat.

    To give an overall comparison, in 1970 (76.6 million units) US residences used 6.96 quads for heating. In 2005 (111.1 million units. Residences used a total of 4.30 quads for heating. That is less than half the space heating energy per
    residence.
    Data from the EIA.

    So BillT, I was not joking and if houses were built better we could get down to one quarter of the heating energy used per house in 1970. Even though much of the houses are bigger.

    The largest energy sector use in the US is electricity.

  14. BillT on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 1:18 pm 

    Norm, since you cannot possibly totally seal any house air tight, all you can do is reduce the easy infiltration. Opening the outside doors and normal use will prevent lack of air. Heat in winter will dry out the air so no mold. I sealed my last house totally as best as possible going beyond even the description above and we had no problems.

    rollin, yes, you are correct in that most houses are not built to be energy efficient. Not even close. But, they are NOT going to be built better. Not 99,999% of them. And the number of new ones is dropping anyway. Most are condos/apartments, not stand-alone homes.

  15. Ghung on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 2:27 pm 

    Getting the most warmth for your money? Wow! No mention of passive solar. While not suitable for many locations, in our situation, good design and orientation means that solar is by far the heavy hitter in our home. The rest of you seem stuck in an industrial age time warp.

    Implementing good solar design and thermal mass is mostly about arranging structural elements to take advantage of what is free to be exploited, without complicated mechanicals and dubious inputs. Sometimes we humans overthink things.

  16. Kenz300 on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 2:49 pm 

    Many utilities now offer energy audits for home owners. They bring in an outside contractor that uses one of those door fans to put the house under negative air pressure and then they check for air leaks in the home. Sealing up the home from outside air leaks can save money. My utility offered to pay 50% of the cost of sealing up the home and I took them up on the offer. My home used 20% less energy the following month. It had less than a two year payback for all the work done.
    Saving energy saves money…..

  17. Ghung on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 3:21 pm 

    An earlier photo of our home:

    http://i1001.photobucket.com/albums/af140/Ghung/houseshot02-1.jpg

    While very well insulated (which could apply to any of these heating schemes), south facing glazing and overhangs calculated for seasonal solar gain/shading, 5″-6″ insulated slab with zoned hydronic heating, mainly used to move heat to back rooms such as bathrooms, provide most of our heating needs. The slab (thermal mass) moderates temperatures nicely. A woodstove is used to occasionally bump temps up into a more comfortable range on the coldest/cloudiest days, but mainly functions to heat water in a 1600 liter storage tank during colder months for DHW and hydronic heat when desired. The small propane boiler required by code almost never gets used; thinking about selling it. We use a very moderate amount of wood. I also installed duct work when I built the house for a redundant backup, but haven’t connected the air handler yet.

    The upper windows and some of the doors/windows are opened in warmer months for passive cooling. Even though we average 65 inches of rainfall, annually, we’ve had no problems with humidity, moisture or mold.

    Passive means using far lower amounts of electricity, gas, or wood in keeping with our off grid strategy; these other energy sources are secondary. Surplus PV production gets dumped into the hot water tank via a simple heating element.

  18. Lorraine Jacobs on Tue, 29th Oct 2013 12:08 am 

    It is really very nice when we can get warm but in a lesser expense. Those people using fuels, furnace and boilers should carefully take note that they should be approved and qualified by the EPA because these things are basically loaded up and run for many hours. As you can see, they can make amazing quantities of smoke. Which is a health hazard.

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