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The facts on Oil vs. Natural Gas

A commentary by Eli Van Etten submitted to the Times Herald-Record for their story on customer conversion to natural gas.

In response to your request for the oil heat viewpoint on the topic of natural gas conversion, my thoughts are as follows:

Natural gas has no significant advantages over oil heat. The costs and the life-cycle environmental impacts are similar. The big difference is in service, because full-service oil heat dealers provide the preventive maintenance that every heating system needs, regardless of the fuel it uses. Local family run oil heat dealers also provide great peace of mind by offering 24-hour emergency service, friendly advice on conservation and payment options to fit nearly any budget or income level. Gas utilities, on the other hand, generally provide neither preventive maintenance nor emergency service. As a result, gas customers may be wasting fuel by using poorly tuned equipment, and they might have no one who will help them in the event of a heat emergency. In fact many gas utilities tell their customers to look in the phone book for a plumber or heating specialist to solve their problems.

Homeowners have the long term advantage over the natural gas utility. There are no utilities in oil heat. Instead, thousands of independent dealers compete for business, and competition is fierce. When a company faces stiff competition, as most oil heat dealers do, it must match or outperform the competition to survive. Oil heat customers reap the benefits of competition every day in the form of low prices and excellent customer service. Natural gas utilities, on the other hand, face less competition, if any. In fact, the government has resorted to regulating the natural gas utilities to keep them in line. The competition that exists in oil heat has naturally resulted in companies that offer better service with many more options for the homeowner.

The Consumer Energy Council of America calls fuel conversion an “expensive gamble” and recommends that homeowners upgrade their oil equipment to achieve conservation, rather than switch fuels. Conversion is more expensive than upgrading, with a low likelihood of meaningful savings. Converting a home from oil heat to gas can cost up to $10,000 and maybe more. In addition to installing a new boiler or furnace, a homeowner might need to reline the chimney; install a gas line; install an excess flow valve to protect against fire or explosion; plumb and wire the new system; and remove or abandon an oil tank. Some utilities offer free boilers or furnaces, but these promotions may not include the costs of installation or any other services. In addition, the customer should investigate the free appliance’s efficiency rating, as they are usually lower efficiency units with additional charges should the homeowner choose the higher quality equipment. The cost of upgrading an oil heat system is lower than the cost of converting, because the homeowner is buying only a new boiler or furnace, and no other equipment requires changing. The cost will be determined by the type of new equipment chosen. The Consumer Energy Council of America (CECA) calls fuel conversion “an expensive gamble” with no guaranteed payoff. “In 95 out of 100 cases, it makes economic sense to stick with oil, and if an energy-related investment is desired, to invest in conservation.

Natural gas is explosive, and leaks can be hazardous. In light of numerous deadly explosions, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the use of excess flow valves that can keep gas from entering a home when there is a rupture in a gas main. Utilities install these valves on new homes, but many older homes are unprotected. Natural gas heating systems are also the leading cause of non-fire-related carbon monoxide deaths.

Oil heat produces near-zero levels of emissions today and is not regulated by the Federal Clean Air Act. Equipment manufacturers are introducing new oil burners that further reduce emissions by “re-burning” the flue gases created inside a boiler or furnace. The New York State will adopt new environmentally friendly blends that can be mixed with biofuel to create one of the cleanest heating fuels available. This adoption will be in place by the summer of 2012. To understand natural gas emissions fully, you have to account for methane, which is a greenhouse gas with 72 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide. Natural gas is 95% methane. There are 2 million miles of pipeline to distribute natural gas in the United States with many ongoing leaks that spew raw methane into the environment and aggravate global warming. Natural gas also generates carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, while it is being burned. Oil heat distribution does not contribute significantly to climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, crude oil transportation activities account for less than one half of one percent of total methane emissions from the oil industry, and carbon dioxide emissions from transportation operations are negligible. Oil heat is the better choice, because Oil heat emissions occur only during combustion, while natural gas creates substantial emissions during two phases of operation: distribution and combustion.