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Heating Oil Versus Natural Gas Heat in Boston

As the fall weather turns cooler, for some homeowners in Boston, heating their homes in winter is becoming a big concern. The cost of home heating oil continues to rise, and many people who use it are considering the switch from oil to gas. How do oil and gas compare, and what are the options for homeowners who are considering a switch?

From an emissions standpoint, oil and gas compare quite favorably. Both fuels release about the same amount of carbon into the air – not much. Both oil-burning and gas-burning devices are chimney-vented. The potentially harmful emissions are routed up the chimney and into the air, away from the home. Chimney concerns do motivate a lot of conversions, and I’ll talk about that next week.

From a cost standpoint, natural gas is the big winner. The price of home heating oil is currently about $3.35 per gallon in Boston. Heating oil is a commodity, so this price varies daily throughout the season. While there have been periods of time where home heating oil was less expensive than natural gas, we haven’t seen them anytime recently. Home heating oil costs have risen about 35% in the last 12 months, while the cost of natural gas has actually dropped by about 2%. For a given space, heating with natural gas will cost about 2/3 as much as heating the same space with heating oil.

From an environmental standpoint, each type of fuel poses its own dangers. Heating oil can be very dirty, and a leaking tank can cause a lot of environmental damage. Tanks must be inspected periodically, and a leaking tank must be replaced to avoid further contamination. Oil is considered a toxin and exposure to petroleum-based oils and vapors can cause respiratory and skin problems. Natural gas is explosive, and leaks can be deadly if the leaking gas is accidentally ignited.

Maintenance on oil-burning heaters is an absolute requirement to preserve the efficiency of the device. Even a small amount of soot or residual material on certain components in the system can significantly reduce their efficiency, which translates into higher operating costs.

Gas-fired heating equipment also requires regular maintenance and inspection. The highest rated equipment can be about 95% efficient under optimal conditions. Very high efficiency furnaces have a relatively short life expectancy, so proper maintenance is critical.

Heating oil is regularly available in the northeast. Homeowners usually buy oil from a service company, or have an oil contract that provides for periodic refilling. Natural gas is also readily available from utilities in the Boston area. Gas is delivered via the gas company’s infrastructure, so no gas reserves are stored on the premises.

Overall, natural gas is significantly cleaner to work with, cheaper and environmentally more friendly than heating oil. Next week, I’ll talk about chimneys and the benefits of direct venting. In the mean time, if you have questions regarding home heating oil, natural gas or would like a consultation on oil-to-gas conversion, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911.