Gas, oil, electric? Which new furnace to get in Seattle
August 28, 2014 1:55 PM   Subscribe

I live in a 1911 Craftsman in Seattle. The heating situation is... pretty weird. (See the "more inside".) My 42-year-old oil furnace still works like a champ, but the oil company folks say they won't service it any more and it has to be replaced. I have been searching and searching to try to figure out the best way to deal with this before it gets cold out, but I am not finding what I need. Should I change my heating method and can people recommend whom I might call for this?

OK. Here's the situation. The house was built as a one-story bungalow + attic and unfinished bedroom. During the last 50 years, the attic was finished (and roof partly raised), and the basement was finished.

The main floor is about 1100 sq ft. It is served by the old oil furnace in the basement. The oil bills are very high. The CO detectors in the house don't show any noticeable CO levels, but the oil company serviceperson who last serviced it said it was likely to cause CO problems, and they won't service it anymore. (He drilled a big hole right in the front of it to do some sort of reading! And so now I have a furnace with a hole in it. Still works fine, no CO issues, but because of the hole is putting out heat into the furnace room where it shouldn't. I am skeptical of what the serviceperson said -- I think it's possible they just wanted to sell me a new furnace.)

The basement, also about 1100 sq ft, is not served by the oil furnace -- instead, there is a gas heater against one of the outer walls. (The basement is divided into a living space, and laundry room, storage, etc. The gas heater only heats the living space. So it's not all 1100 sq ft.) Gas also runs to the fireplace above it on the main floor. I am not sure if there is gas piping to anywhere else in the house. There is an old pipe in the main floor kitchen wall where the stove is (and probably was, all the way back to 1911) which may be gas, but could also have once been for hot water. I have no idea at all. No ductwork for a new heater to use to heat the basement, but probably not difficult to add in that location.

The attic, 780 sq ft, has two huge baseboard heaters, one for the bedroom and one for the upstairs "living room" (currently just storage). The bedroom one is kept fairly low and the "living room" one is kept even lower. I use a heated mattress pad, and a small portable heater for the otherwise unheated upstairs bathroom. The electric bills for the house are outrageous, though my housemate and I have cut back on our usage to about 50% of what it was here a few years ago. There is no ductwork upstairs and adding it is not financially feasible for me now.

I have just gone through a divorce and so this is the first winter I will be paying all the energy bills myself. I don't know how much my husband was paying for oil, just that each delivery was several hundred dollars. Gas has been pretty cheap, but it is only used for the fireplace (occasional use) and the basement furnace (which my housemate, who lives down there, doesn't turn up much). The electric bills are very high.

My financial situation is precarious because of the divorce, so I am not certain what my best options are here. This is what I see at the moment:

1. Keep old oil furnace until it really dies. It won't get serviced unless I convince another oil company to service it. 42 years old, so could break down any time, probably in January when it's really cold. Keep paying horrible oil prices. Not very green, but no big upfront outlay until...

2. Get new oil furnace. Keep paying horrible oil prices. Not green, and now I've just made a big financial outlay for something that burns oil...

3. Get new gas furnace. Presumably requires extending gas piping to furnace location from elsewhere in the basement. (Not sure if there is any infrastructure there for it already.) Some cost of doing the piping, but it's a relatively short distance. Have been told that with old furnaces there may be asbestos abatement issues -- not sure if this is the case with mine. Also, something has to be done with the old oil tank. I do not know what would be required -- it seems to vary depending on the situation -- but it seems likely to be expensive. Still not too green, is it? But financially it might cut the monthly heating bills in half.

4. Go all electric. Not sure at all how this is done... electric furnace? Heat pump? What? My head is spinning. I do know that the bulky ductless heating things that go up near the ceiling would be very very ugly in my Craftsman house, so I don't want that. I hate my existing electric baseboard heaters and do not want more! I want to be rid of the ones I have. The problem with the existing oil tank is still here with this option. Probably wouldn't lower the heating bills as much as I would like, though currently it should be cheaper than the oil heat.

5. Is there something else I'm forgetting? Wood stoves are probably not an option. :)

I was told "Call Puget Sound Energy and they can get you set up with a new gas furnace and installer, etc." When I asked PSE, they didn't seem able to do any of that -- just said I should call a contractor. I'm feeling very overwhelmed by this; I don't know who to call, what the right questions are to ask, how to keep this from killing me financially, etc. If my financial situation were different, I would just pay people to get this done one way or another, but I can't do that this time.

So what I need is information to help me make an informed choice of what to do as far as the heat is concerned, and recommendations of honest contractors/companies I can call to assess the situation, or sell me the heating equipment, or install it.

Sorry this is so long!
posted by litlnemo to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Get a gas furnace, end of story. Your gas company may offer incentives to change out the oil setup, remove the tank, etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:59 PM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should probably add the info that I am in South Seattle, so PSE is my gas company, but Seattle City Light is my electric company. We used to get oil from Genesee Oil but if I start to use oil again, I would look into what other companies are out there.
posted by litlnemo at 2:00 PM on August 28, 2014

You might qualify for weatherization rebates on heater replacement costs. Seems worth investigating.
posted by Mr. Six at 2:01 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One more thing I forgot to include -- since I already have gas heat in part of the house, it disqualifies me from many of the incentive/rebate programs to switch to gas. Not necessarily all, though, so I do keep looking! Just be aware that this is one of the things that adds complication to the situation.

There, I hope that covers everything I should have included in the post!
posted by litlnemo at 2:04 PM on August 28, 2014

Since you've already got a gas heater, it seems like the easiest thing to do would be to convert to gas. All they'd need to do is run a gas pipeline to where the oil burner was, and they can use the existing circulators and hot water piping or duct work et cetera. The only complication is the attic area, for which you may have to stick with electric heat.

If you go all-electric with a heat pump, they'll need to run new ductwork (if there isn't any). I've got two heat pumps in my current house and I pay less in terms of what's extra on the electric bill than I paid for oil in my first house -- my house is about twice as large and in both cases this is fairly new, energy efficient equipment. Anything you buy today will be energy efficient; I believe the federal minimum is currently 14 SEER and that's for the worst systems.

I had an oil burner in my first house, which was only slightly larger than your first floor. The oil bills were ~$400 each delivery.

Your service tech drilled a hole into the exhaust pipe, which doesn't effect the burner, to measure the CO level and draft. During normal operation of the oil burner, the exhaust fumes will be sucked up the chimney (drafted) and not come out the hole, because it's higher pressure exhaust gasses moving to an area of lower pressure air - this is a basic chemical principle. Yes, there's SOME CO coming out of that tiny hole, but it's a negligible amount, and you're not going to spend lots of time sitting next to the oil burner anyway.
posted by tckma at 2:08 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: Your best bet for long term savings is to replace the oil furnace with a gas furnace. It will be expensive, and your gas company may offer incentives. You may need financing from the contractor, or home equity based financing.

Is it mandatory to replace the furnace this year? If it is still functional, and is not emitting CO, you can use it this winter, right? The oil company refuses to service the furnace because they do not want to expose themselves to liability. Can you find another servicer for the furnace? Al least you should be the hole patched.

Gas is cheaper and cleaner than oil, and is much cheaper than electric, in most cases.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:08 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: By the way, if you do any energy-efficiency upgrades to your primary residence (and this would count), you can deduct a portion of the expenses to make the upgrade from your Federal income taxes -- consult a tax professional.
posted by tckma at 2:09 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: Ask your coworkers and any friends (who live in Seattle, because this sort of thing is rather regional) who they recommend for a heating service company. Price out a gas heater and go from there. Electric is going to require ducting, which will be invasive. I was going to recommend ductless mini-split units--I'm preparing to install a two-unit one in my 1901 Craftsman--because they'll be the cheapest and easiest to install, but you're right that the aesthetics can be off-putting. (I like the way they look, but I also like trolleybus wires and exposed concrete, thus proving that tastes are different.)

For what it's worth, calling PSE is an exercise in futility* because they don't do referrals like this but they will happily drill a gas main through your sewer pipe ask me how I know.

This is just like searching for any other contractor. Make sure they have the relevant license from the state, are licensed to do business in Seattle, and that they pull the right permits.

If you need an electrician, because not all HVAC contractors are licensed electricians, MeMail me for a recommendation on the person I used to rewire my house.

*(like most things with PSE, but I digress)
posted by fireoyster at 2:14 PM on August 28, 2014

I love the idea of switching to gas, because it'll be so much cheaper and more efficient... in the long run. If I were in your shoes, though, I'd hope the boiler made it through the winter (it has for the last 42, right?, pay the high cost of oil, and then look to getting switched to a gas furnace next summer when you've (hopefully!) had a chance to save a little money, do a little more research, and find the best heating contractor to switch it over for you in their non-busy season.
posted by ldthomps at 2:20 PM on August 28, 2014

One thing that's well worth the money is to have an energy audit done by a reputable company (sorry, I don't have any local ones to you). This will tell you what size heater you'll need, before you upgrade any insulation, and what size you'll need after.

If you engage in some upgrading of insulation and general weatherization, you'll be shelling out a little bit of cash for that in the immediate term, but you might not need as big of a gas furnace to heat the whole building. I worked for a heating and cooling place in Maine for a short stint and they were oftentimes able to replace the furnace with such a remarkably smaller one.

You might also want to contact a couple folks out there to just see if they have an appropriate gas burner to replace in the oil burner in the furnace. This conversion is significantly cheaper (but not nearly as efficient) than a full replacement. Only certain models have conversion units for them, and you might need to shop out of your market to find one.
posted by furnace.heart at 2:35 PM on August 28, 2014

I'd do gas if you can, but even if you get a new oil furnace it would still probably cost a lot less to operate than your old one. Modern condensing furnaces are 90%+ efficient, compared to older furnaces which are only around 60% efficient. So you will use a lot less oil.
posted by zsazsa at 2:48 PM on August 28, 2014

Check out Community Power Works for rebates for homeowners (not limited to low-income homeowners). I had work done through them at it was a great process all around.

I opted for ductless mini-splits and they've been great. They're a bit more expensive upfront, but so high efficient that I'm saving a ton overall.
posted by brookeb at 2:50 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm on the East Coast, not the West, but gas is so much cheaper than oil here. I don't convert because my oil furnace is still less than 10 years old, and it would cost a *lot* to convert to gas, but I mentally shake my fist at my neighbors with gas heat, paying so much less than me! Oil last winter during the polar vortex was brutal.

This would not be a hard choice for me if the oil furnace went belly up. I'm not sinking money into another oil furnace.
posted by instead of three wishes at 3:17 PM on August 28, 2014

I'd second that notion of getting an energy audit. The auditor will be able to help you make sense of your options and focus on the best return for your dollars. You don't do this for a living, but there are people who do, and part of their job is to make the options that are available understandable. They'll also be aware of what rebates are offered and whether it makes sense to jump in immediately or to ride this winter out with the existing equipment. Finally, many times the utility will rebate the cost of the audit. Getting the informed opinion of someone with no skin in the game is invaluable.
posted by bullatony at 3:28 PM on August 28, 2014

High efficiency gas would be a great choice. And, the move to high-efficiency may still qualify you for rebates as well as tax deductions.
posted by quince at 3:46 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Community Power Works in Seattle will set you up with an energy audit that is pretty thorough for a reasonable and city-subsidized fee. I think mine was around $90. They come in, check out the furnace, measure insulation, look at ducts and pipes, take infrared photos of likely sources of heat loss, all kinds of helpful stuff. Like you, I have an oil furnace in Seattle and am trying to figure out if it makes sense to replace it. I think we spend about $800 per year on oil for an 800 square foot house, all heated with oil, and none of the house very well insulated. Anyway, the energy auditor should let you know what kind of rebates you might be eligible for through various sources, whether it makes more sense to upgrade to a better oil furnace, a gas furnace, or a heat pump. The people that did my audit in Seattle were pretty up front about which upgrades were a good return on investment and which weren't. Like you, I was a bit overwhelmed with all of the options but I felt much more in control of the situation after talking with the energy auditor, following him around the house, asking a bunch of questions. Good luck!
posted by bepe at 5:36 PM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

He drilled a hole in your working furnace? weird. I thought I needed a new furnace, so I got an energy audit and I got 3 estimates. The company that tried to make me get a new furnace was full of crap, my 22 year old furnace was repaired, and all is well. If I had access to natural gas, I'd convert, because it's cheaper and doesn't require as much maintenance. The energy audit should be a big help in making your choice. Check on rebates and tax credits, both likely to be available.
posted by theora55 at 5:48 PM on August 28, 2014

"Ductless" minisplits can be used with ducts, too. It depends on the layout of your house, but it's possible to install one or more ducted indoor units like these fujitsus (other manufacturers also offer them). They can be installed in a central location and then ducted to the various rooms with relatively short lengths of ducting (e.g. in the ceiling of the corridor leading to the bedrooms).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:08 AM on August 29, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all so far! If anyone has anything else to add, please do!

"I was going to recommend ductless mini-split units--I'm preparing to install a two-unit one in my 1901 Craftsman--because they'll be the cheapest and easiest to install, but you're right that the aesthetics can be off-putting. (I like the way they look, but I also like trolleybus wires and exposed concrete, thus proving that tastes are different.)"

I guess I am curious about them, then. The only ones I have seen were just huge, and they really wouldn't work here -- but perhaps I haven't seen all the ones that are out there. I like trolleybus wires and exposed concrete too, but the electric units I saw just seemed to be white plastic.

So if you want to recommend what you are installing, please do tell me more. Thanks!
posted by litlnemo at 12:49 PM on August 29, 2014

Response by poster: Hi, all! Thanks for all your advice back in August. Here's what ended up happening:

I got a gas furnace. Someone I know with a similar old house recommended the guy who had just installed his new gas furnace. I hired him, and he did a great job. He also ran a gas line into the kitchen so someday I can have my dream stove.

The old oil furnace was removed and the oil tank was filled with some sort of inert substance, then capped with concrete. That part cost around $900 including the permit from the City.

This was in October, if I recall correctly. Winter's almost over now, and this isn't the best winter to judge, since it's the warmest winter in Seattle's recorded weather history, but the cost of the gas in our coldest month was only half of what we were previously paying per month for oil -- all 12 months a year. (The oil was on a budget plan that spread the cost around the whole year to make payments more affordable.)

So the highest gas payment is only for a month or so in winter. In summer, when the gas isn't used for heat, the bill will be back to the tiny charge it was before. This is a HUGE savings for me.

No question about it. If anyone else reads this with a similar question -- get the gas furnace.
posted by litlnemo at 12:51 AM on March 6, 2015

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