Fueling the Fire

It’s as reliable as the cold weather that sets in every fall. This time of year, all of us are likely to experience a cacophony of advertising voices that will overwhelm our senses as competing suppliers of heating fuels all scream “pick me!” But whether your choice is gas, oil, electric, propane, solar or soybeans, the selection will undoubtedly have an impact on both your comfort and your wallet.
Choosing the best heating

It’s as reliable as the cold weather that sets in every fall. This time of year, all of us are likely to experience a cacophony of advertising voices that will overwhelm our senses as competing suppliers of heating fuels all scream “pick me!” But whether your choice is gas, oil, electric, propane, solar or soybeans, the selection will undoubtedly have an impact on both your comfort and your wallet.

Choosing the best heating fuel for your home is not an easy task. Competing claims of energy savings, convenience, safety, environmental benefits and other factors make it even more challenging.

According to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), selecting the best fuel for your home depends on a variety of factors including the cost and availability of the fuel, the cost to purchase, maintain and install the heating system and the fuel’s impact on the environment.

One way to make a comparison is to compare the cost of the fuel. To do this however, you first need to understand how much energy is in the fuel you might be purchasing.

Energy is measured in "BTU's" which stands for British Thermal Units. One BTU is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. But since gas is sold in cubic feet, oil is sold in gallons and electricity is sold in kilowatt hours, trying to sort out the details of energy output isn’t easy without a calculator in hand and at least a reasonably strong command of arithmetic.

For example, according to the DOE, one million BTU’s is the heat equivalent of approximately 7 gallons of heating oil, 293 kilowatt hours of electricity, 976 cubic feet of natural gas or 125 pounds of air-dried wood.

For a simpler comparison of costs, heres how Energy Information Administration experts compared fuel costs in a recent interview:

  • Natural Gas = $13.40 per million BTU

  • Oil = $17.45 per million BTU

  • Propane = $21.46 per million BTU

  • Electric = $30.19 per million BTU

    Despite the above, the truth is that for most of us, the type of heating fuel we’ll purchase this winter isn’t really a choice. Since the fuel has to match the heating appliance that was installed in your home, apartment or condo, switching from one fuel to another usually isn’t practical. However, there are things that you can do to assure that whatever fuel you purchase; you will be able to squeeze as many of those BTU’s out of it as possible.

    If your home is heated by natural gas, oil or propane, it very important that the heating systems be cleaned and serviced on an annual basis. Just like a car that burns gasoline, furnaces or boilers that run off these petroleum based products must be cleaned and the burners adjusted. If not, combustion deposits that form can build up and lead to break downs or worse, the formation of carbon monoxide.

    Electric systems also need care. If your home is heated by a heat pump, basically an air conditioner that can also heat, it too needs to be serviced to make sure it is operating efficiently. If not, the system will need to run longer to do the same job and that drives up energy costs.

    Above all, the more energy efficient your home is, the less fuel you’ll need and the more money you’ll save. So before you think about changing heating equipment to save a few BTU’s here or there, it’s wise to make sure your home is as energy efficient as possible.

    Order oil on-line

    Besides tightening up your home, there may be other ways to cut heating costs. If you heat by oil, or in some cases propane, one such way to join a fuel oil cooperatives. Cooperatives are groups that form to purchase fuel oil in bulk at discounts which are then passed along to end users. Cooperatives have been around for more than 20 years and joining one can result in substantial savings.

    To be fair though, it’s important to note that local fuel suppliers also provide lots of service, like an emergency oil delivery on a cold weekend night, that an on-line service might not be available for. So befor you consider going coop, make sure the service you need will still be there.

    Grow your own

    In another effort to lower heating costs, Purdue University, Professor Harry Gibson says future home owners may not have to rely totally on conventionally produced fuel oil to stay warm and comfortable. Gibson, a professor of agriculture and bioengineering, is working with a team of researchers that have discovered soybean oil makes a great heating fuel. For the last two years, researchers have been adding soybean oil to conventional fuel oil with great results.

    “Soybean oil can actually burn by itself,” says Gibson, “We’ve tested fuel mixtures of up to 30 percent soybean oil but found that a mixture of 20 percent soybean oil works best. It allows existing oil heating equipment to function perfectly.” If Gibson is correct, future oil heat customers could reduce their reliability on fuel oil substantially with no need to change or even update existing heating systems.

    Gibson says the team is continuing to experiment now with higher concentrations of soybean oil but thus far it looks like the only change that might be needed to take advantage of the less expensive alternative is to change to nozzle in conventional oil burners to one that runs at a higher efficiency. Nozzle replacement is an inexpensive process that can be easily accomplished by a heating contractor in just a few minutes.

    As promising as this may sound, Gibson warns that soybean oil additives are in a demonstration phase now won’t be available on the open market for some time yet. The technology works he said, “But getting the infrastructure to get it to the home may be more of a challenge.”

    Self-sustaining power possible

    In an effort to develop what might possibly be the most convenient way to heat your home and fuel your car at the same time, Honda R & D, a division of Honda Motors, along with Plug Power, Inc of Latham, MA, is working on a joint venture to build a Home Energy Station.

    A Home Energy Station is a fuel cell system that provides electricity and heat to a home or business, while also providing hydrogen fuel for a fuel cell vehicle. The product is fueled by natural gas and is expected to be more environmentally friendly than traditional energy devices due to its higher efficiency and lower emissions.

    Capable of operating on multiple fuels, such as natural gas, propane and hydrogen, fuel cell systems offer higher efficiency than conventional power generation, little or no pollution, greater flexibility in installation and operation, and might eventually become cost-effective alternatives to existing power sources.

    Fries for fuel?

    Considering America’s love affair with French Fries, one of the more interesting fuels we’ve found is “biodiesel.” Biodiesal alternative fuel option for home heating that is gaining in popularity in the U.S. Europe currently uses 1.5 billion gallons of biodiesel annually, primarily in home heating.

    Made from American resources including virgin vegetable oils (primarily soybeans) or recycled sources (used cooking oil), biodiesel resources are renewable and include surplus vegetable oils and waste products.

    In fact, since the beginning of the 21st century, biodiesel has been America’s fastest growing fuel because it works better than petroleum in existing diesel engines, cleans the air and supports the domestic farm economy.

    So could eating more French fries really help secure America's energy independence? I’m really not sure but suggest everyone head out to a local fast food restaurant, order up a big plate of fries…and think about it.

    Note: Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. To find a local radio station, download the show’s podcast or sign-up for Tom’s free weekly e-newsletter, visit the program’s website at www.moneypit.com.

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