Pros and cons of oil or natural gas heating
June 25, 2004 12:34 PM   Subscribe

HomeImprovementFilter: It's time to replace our aging oil-fired furnace (so old it's a converted coal furnace) in a great old house with radiators. Now we need to decide, do we stick with oil or switch to natural gas. After getting estimates, the price is pretty much a wash (including cutting up and removing the oil tank if we go with gas), so I'm trying to figure the pros and cons of both. The other wrinkle is that the new oil system would have a coil-heating system for hot water, rather than the traditional hot-water tank. Either way, the system should pay for itself in less than 10 years, as the service guy yesterday said our current system is running at 61% efficiency.

So. Any strongly-held feelings out there on oil vs. gas?
posted by baltimore to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Which one is least polluting? Gas, I imagine.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:30 PM on June 25, 2004

Do you have a gas stove now? Do you want one?
posted by smackfu at 2:54 PM on June 25, 2004

I found that the oil system I had when I lived on Long Island needed an auxillary holding tank for hot water or the shower temperture varied too much when the rest of the house was calling for heat. Although, after installing that you could shower 'till the cows come home.
posted by mss at 3:01 PM on June 25, 2004

Questions for your question:

1. Where are you located? (Baltimore maybe?)
2. Do you have natural gas in the street or is the gas you speak of propane?
3. Do you have much land?

With the right combination of answers, you might also be a candidate for a ground-source heat pump.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:07 PM on June 25, 2004

Gas produces somewhat less CO2. If you're furnace is in good shape, there's no other pollution effects.

Check out your costs for gas and oil. Right now, in my area, fuel oil is slightly cheaper heat than gas. Long-term trends only look to increase the gap: gas is going up much faster than oil.
posted by bonehead at 3:12 PM on June 25, 2004

I don't have any direct experience with oil heat -- as far as I know, it's completely illegal here, and at the very least I've never actually seen it up close -- but just this morning I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who mentioned that she hated having oil-heated water because when the oil ran out, usually just a couple of days short of refill day, her building had no hot water.

Using natural gas, unless you're in a community where NG is tanked, means you get to hook up to a larger infrastructure. Though at least around here, the companies that provide tanked gas respond very quickly -- in a couple of hours -- to refill requests. I don't know if oil delivery provides the same level of service.

In my current home, the old steam radiators have been converted to a modern, NG hot water system. They're utterly silent and never get hot enough to cause injury. I don't know if similar systems are available with oil, but I sure like this one.
posted by majick at 3:13 PM on June 25, 2004

To answer the questions, we do have natural gas already coming into the house and use it for our stove and dryer. So getting gas to the house is not an issue.

We have a typical in-city (Baltimore) 1920s suburban plot of land. About 50 x 150 feet, so not a lot of land, though I'm not sure where that figures into the equation.

And mss, I was wondering about the hot water situation myself. Not so much in the winter, but in the summer - they claim it's efficient, but it seems strange to have to run the furnace in the summer just for hot water.

There's also the issue of THE TANK. It's huge, and inside the house. I've heard horror stories of what happens when they inevitably rust through, so even if we stick with oil, we're getting a new oil tank, as this one is from the 1950s at the newest, more likely the 1940s.

But then, we live dangerously. The hot water heater has a 1974 manufacture date.

We've got to get rid of this system. Money is literally gooing up the chimney...
posted by baltimore at 7:00 PM on June 25, 2004

I'd wholeheartedly recommend gas over oil. Oil tanks can be a huge hangup if you ever sell your place, and paying for proper removal can be a royal pain in the ass.
Have you checked with your local gas utility for incentive programs for switching, or possibly something from the state?
Water heaters that date from the Ford Administration need to be removed as soon as possible too!
(As a side note, what kind of sun and wind exposure do you have? Any trees? How are your windows?)
posted by TomSophieIvy at 7:17 PM on June 25, 2004

You don't need a tank if you use natural gas. There are new instant-on tankless water heaters. They're extremely efficient, hang on the wall, take up next to no space, and they're not much more than the price of a top-end traditional hot-water heater, especially give the large energy savings advantages. (Er, the ones in the link appear to be pricey compared to the others I've seen at Revy & Home Depot.)
posted by five fresh fish at 8:58 PM on June 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

I just had to deal with the removal of a leaking oil tank, as part of selling a house, and while my homeowners policy covered the bulk of the cost (soil removal and remediation, which can run into several thousand dollars), most policies don't cover the actual cost of removing the tank, or of replacing it, so the out-of-pocket costs can still run a few grand before you're done.

We offered the buyer to replace the oil burner with gas, which they wanted to do at first, but later decided to stick with oil. We found a couple of things along the way--first of all, in NY at least, you basically cannot put a new tank in underground (at least, not without spending a ton of money). Everyone now puts new oil tank installations in their basements. (Ours was actually two half-tanks that they piped got down the tiny staircase, and it gave them more flexibility in where to put it.)

Regarding gas, we discovered that, while we also already had gas coming in for the stove, etc., increasing the capacity wasn't necessarily so simple. In our case, ConEd was going to need to put in a larger meter, and that larger meter needed more clearance around it to meet the town permits. Unfortunately, there was already a water heater and softener in place, which were too close for the new meter, and we would have had to move all those, too.

The real lesson was a basic homeowner lesson--the first three or four guys we had in for gas-conversion estimates never mentioned any of those complications. It wasn't until someone who had done a ton of oil-to-gas conversions came in that he caught that stuff, and in asking around afterwards, we found that it's pretty typical. (It's also pretty typical not to learn about it till _after_ the guys start working, so you're over a barrel, and you've got to start going through endless rounds with the Building Inspector.)

If we had it to do for ourselves, I think we would have still gone with gas--those tankless water heaters look great, and we were sick of that faint smell of oil that started wafting up from the basement every time the 50-year old furnace kicked in. It's definitely not simple, though, and I'd make sure you've got someone you really trust who's helping you frame out the work and get it done.
posted by LairBob at 9:33 PM on June 25, 2004

Bah. Those were the wrong tankless heaters: they heat hand-washing water to a comfortable temperature only. They can't supply hot water to a dishwasher, say.

These are the ones I was thinking of. Natural gas, instant-on, 2 to 4 gallon per minute.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:42 PM on June 25, 2004

I have oil heat in an old home. I don't like it. If the burner isnt tuned correctly the oil produces a fine ash that floats in the air . It basically creates a toxic dust cloud in your home not to mention black volcanic like ash builds up on everything. I have had the repair guys out here 5 times and they cant get it right I've spent literally days in the basement with them tearing it apart and rebuilding, I am now an expert on it. It sucks. It also smells and it is loud and is one of the more environmentally unfriendly ways to heat a house.

SO I bought a wood pellet stove insert for my fireplace. Since I don't need to heat the entire house to full 70 degrees I can keep my living area warm with the wood pellets and then the oil heat only comes on hopefully never, but we will see this winter. Anyway, if you have gas go for it. To give some idea, %10 of homes in the USA are oil heat it is not a very popular method.
posted by stbalbach at 12:27 AM on June 26, 2004

Baltimore, I asked about the land + location to see if you were a candidate for a ground-source heat pump (sometimes confusingly but perhaps accurately referred to as a geothermal heat source. I'm no earth scientist though.)

Your location is right for it -- mid-Atlantic -- but you do lack the land. Installation requires a lot of trenching or deep wells -- it does not appear that you have enough land for either.

My conventional wisdom says switch to gas but I think many good points have been made above to stick with oil. The beauty of gas is that it is piped from the street and yes, it is a more flexible energy source (as F3 suggests with the not-new-at-all, quite common in europe instant water heaters).

Aside: in Paris, some parts of the city are served by central steam which is delivered from incinerators on the periphery of town. It is piped into buildings as a utility, just as natural gas is, metered and then typically (maybe always, I can not say) used to transfer heat to hot-water systems.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:54 AM on June 26, 2004

Instant Water Heaters can be a pain! I had a new one, of supposedly good brand, in Germany. The damn thing took to deciding it was over-heated in the middle of showers. Stop shower, get out, restart the burner, return to shower. This was a gas one, maybe electric works better.

I personally would prefer gas heat over oil, any day. I've lived with both, and oil simply stinks. The new gas furnaces for hot-water heating systems are the size of a kitchen cupboard (common in England). I'm amazed by this , and of course, very efficient. I'm used to forced-air heating (midwest).
posted by Goofyy at 10:32 AM on June 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Goofyy, I can't imagine for a moment that your experience is the norm! I suspect it was either a bad day at the factory, installed incorrectly, or in need of tuning.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:57 AM on June 26, 2004

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