Oil to natural gas - not as simple as it used to be
September 16, 2018 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Help us weigh the economic vs the social and environmental impact of natural gas.

We live in suburban Boston and need a new furnace before this winter. We had an energy audit and it was recommended to convert from oil to natural gas. This would certainly make the most economic sense. However...

1) The recent gas catastrophe in the area has got us a bit spooked.

2) The local gas company (National Grid) is on strike right now, with workers locked out.

3) It would be a contractor who digs up our street and installs the gas line

4) Our neighborhood is already riddled with small gas leaks that National Grid refuses to fix.

5) Fracking

So do environmental and social justice issues trump pure economics? I realize this is a question for one's own conscience, but we're kinda deadlocked, so any thoughts on the subject would be appreciated.
posted by schrodycat to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Until they have legitimate pipefitters back at work, you might want to avoid National Grid.

Are there any tank propane companies in the area that could give you a quote, and is your area zoned for standalone propane tank usage?
posted by nickggully at 9:23 AM on September 16, 2018

Heat pumps (air or ground source) have come a longs ways recently, and are almost certainly the best choice for long-term environmental impact. The transition to a fully renewable electric grid is going to be happening very quickly.
posted by rockindata at 9:39 AM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yes, look into air source heat pumps, especially if you can get solar panels. They are very popular in western MA. You do need a back up for super super cold days but the people I know who have them have been really happy with them. They do AC too in warm weather so it’s two for one.
posted by john_snow at 9:48 AM on September 16, 2018

Diesel (which is what home heating fuel oil is) emits about 50% more carbon per unit of heat generated than does natural gas. It is going to be very hard to make an environmental case for putting in an oil furnace over a gas one if you have to make a change. (Fracking is only an argument for fuel oil over gas in a very parochial sense, because there are few economic reserves of crude in the northeast, while there is abundant natural gas producible with fracking. But more globally, the marginal barrel of crude oil is certainly being produced in fracked fields these as much as the marginal Mcf of natural gas is.)

While the leaks aren't bad, don't overgeneralize. The gas distribution system is on balance a lot safer and more reliable than the fuel oil system, although both are pretty safe.

Gas in Massachusetts works like this: gathered in western PA or eastern OH, sent in a pipeline to plant where it is lightly processed, and sent through series of further interconnected pipeline systems to your furnace. On the coldest of days (when use exceeds production), gas will be withdrawn from deep underground storage tanks into the pipeline system in addition to coming in from the wells.

Fuel oil works like this. Oil is extracted through subsea gathering systems offshore of the UK or Norway. It is loaded into large tankers, and tanked 4,000 miles to refineries on the East Coast. Refineries then (among many other things) distill diesel from the crude. The diesel is pumped to storage tanks. The diesel is pumped from storage tanks to tank trucks. Tank trucks drive it to your house. Tank trucks pump it into your tank. Your furnace then pumps it into its combustion chamber from your tank. You can see from this that the gross carbon in the EROEI is going to be even higher than the 50% on combustion to BTU.
posted by MattD at 10:07 AM on September 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

4) Our neighborhood is already riddled with small gas leaks that National Grid refuses to fix.

What?!? No. If this is really the case call 911.
posted by Toddles at 10:14 AM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

They're both pretty terrible from an environmental standpoint, honestly. It's like debating whether the beef or poultry industry is better to animals; sure there are differences, but at the end of the day they're both awful.

Folks above have mentioned heat pumps and I agree that they're pretty good for a lot of people's needs, and also that yeah, they're especially good if you're also interested in going solar. I happen to work for a company in your area that does that stuff, so maybe I'm biased—but I chose this industry for a reason, and I think that the issues you're weighing (safety, environmental, cost) are right in line with that.

I don't want to use AskMe as a means of promoting my company, but do feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk more about it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2018

Toddles, it is a commonly known and accepted fact that MA is full of small gas leaks and the company is very slow about fixing them. Many of them are small enough that there’s not much of an odor but there’s one near me that smells regularly (yes we call and report it every time). See heetma.org for a map and more info.
posted by john_snow at 12:19 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you haven’t checked out Mass Save yet do that first. You can get a free energy assessment, deep discounts and subsidy on insulation and air sealing work, rebates of several thousand for replacing old heating equipment, and zero interest heat loans to buy new efficient heating systems (often expensive) and spread the cost out over years.

I’ve used Mass Save twice to upgrade insulation in homes and it works great a little beurocratic but the approved contractors did very good work.


I live in a MA suburb and have used gas and oil at various times for heat and hot water. Gas is by far easier and less expensive. I am also freaked out by the gas explosions in our state, however oil disasters can also happen. I almost served on a jury in Woburn for an oil company that filled the wrong house flooding a basement with oil and contaminating the structure and the earth under the foundation. The house was uninhabitable. Sometimes this happens and the oil burns or explodes.

So if you do switch, make sure that the tank and oil fill pipes are completely removed and the entrances to the basement are sealed with concrete.

For zero carbon environmental impact, you can choose a third party electric supplier that uses 100% renewables through the MA GreenUp program.


That’s what I do and we get 100% renewable without having to do our own solar installation.

If you can afford the higher rates for renewable electricity and switch to electric heat pump and electric hot water and clothes dryer your entire house will be carbon neutral.

Word of warning electric heating uses a lot of current and you might need to upgrade your electrical service. Especially if you want to add more high power devices in the future like electric car chargers.
posted by sol at 6:10 AM on September 17, 2018

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