How to Convert Your Heating System to a Different Fuel
LESLIE: Well, chances are you’re living with the heating system that was in your home when you bought it. But new construction isn’t the only time that you can choose the way you want to heat your house.
TOM: That’s right. Many homeowners with electric heat have wondered whether a conversion to gas or oil might be worth it. Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating expert for TV’s This Old House is here to help us decide.
RICHARD: Hey, guys.
TOM: The fuel that we use to heat our home is something that, for the most part, many of us feel stuck with. But does it ever make sense to change from one to the next?
RICHARD: Well, there are many people that are switching fuels nowadays. The hot fuel lately – no pun intended – is gas. People are switching to gas. It’s not available everywhere.
But the important point to know is that each of these fuels has an advantage and a disadvantage. There’s no magic fuel that we’re all going to race and go to. Natural gas, you have to be sure it can get to your house. A lot of times, they don’t have the pipelines in rural areas and they can’t get it to it. So that’s an advantage. A disadvantage is people are always nervous with gas or the chance of any explosion because it’s a volatile gas that can blow up. So many people are nervous.
TOM: And to that point, I always get a kick out of the fact that in the fall, when the oil-heat dealers start to advertise for oil, they always mention that, in some very subtle way. “And you know, it could be unsafe.”
RICHARD: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TOM: And you can see the mushroom cloud in the background, in your mind.
RICHARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had a friend of mine who used to be the spokesperson for the local gas company. His job was to stand in front of the building that was completely decimated behind him and say, “There’s no evidence, at this time, that gas had anything to do with it.”
TOM: Right. But the point is it’s not a dangerous fuel if it’s properly maintained.
RICHARD: Absolutely. Yeah, right.
TOM: And the same could be said for oil.
TOM: Oil could be just as dangerous if the equipment is not maintained properly, correct?
RICHARD: Right. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, another advantage of gas is once gas is brought into your house, you can – people like it for cooking and for dryers and laundry appliances. And that’s the advantage and disadvantage.
Propane is also available in many areas. Propane is bottled gas that comes to your house. Has to be delivered and refilled much like oil has to be. You have to have a storage tank in place.
LESLIE: That makes me think more about explosions than natural gas does.
RICHARD: Yeah. Yep, yep, yep.
TOM: But in terms of the money that we could possibly save here, it seems to me that if there is a no-brainer, it’s getting off electric heat.
TOM: Electric heat is incredibly expensive.
TOM: The least expensive to put in and there are so many developments out there, across the country, where they’re all electric.
TOM: If you have an opportunity to go with a different type of system, with a fossil fuel it seems like that would be the one scenario where it almost always makes sense. Wouldn’t you agree or not?
RICHARD: I do. If we stay with the way we deliver electricity right now, with power plants regionally located, and try to bring the electricity to every house. But the thing we’ve got to watch for on the horizon is this solar photovoltaic. This is one of the few markets that we’ve ever seen – in history, that I’ve seen – where the price per watt of the solar collector on the roof is dropping at such a rate that it’s making solar photovoltaic, the ability to make electricity, very viable, so …
TOM: Yeah. More affordable than ever.
RICHARD: Absolutely. So …
TOM: Because it was very expensive for a long time.
RICHARD: That’s right. Right. That aside, if you’re going to go off the regular grid and you have electric baseboard – I’m in New England. We pay, I think, 19 or 20 cents a kilowatt. So, it’s crazy what the cost of it is.
TOM: And then there are more efficient electric systems, like geothermal, for example, right?
RICHARD: Yeah. The last – I really didn’t talk about yet is oil and that’s still a viable solution. It’s got advantages and disadvantages. You have to store the oil. The nice thing about oil is you are commonly traded among competitors, so you can always get – you can – a fair price.
LESLIE: A fair price.
RICHARD: But you also have people that will be in – very aggressive to try and service the equipment because they want to keep the account to keep the fuel account, where you don’t always have that in the gas; you’re sort of on your own.
Now, to your point, though, about solar, we don’t know what fuel will heat our houses ultimately. I’m not sure that it’ll be gas or oil; maybe that’ll be the backup. But there’s more energy below our feet, in the core of this Earth, to heat our buildings. And we could go down into the ground and use geothermal to pull that heat, not only up in the winter and deliver it into the building but in the summer, we could take the heat that’s in the building and dump it back to the ground.
That means you wouldn’t have any outside condensers. The condensers for air conditioning last 10 years because they’re exposed to the elements. We could really have a magic box that would pull heat up out of the ground and dump it back into the ground. And that’s the inevitable way that we’ll have to be heating our houses.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. And I think – my husband and I took a trip to Iceland this past winter and the entire country is heated by – heated, electrically powered by geothermal.
RICHARD: But they sit – right.
LESLIE: Granted, they sit on 3,000 volcanos or 300 volcanos.
RICHARD: Right. Yeah. They …
TOM: That helps.
RICHARD: That’s unusual because they literally are sitting on a steam pocket of so much thermal energy below them that you could just sort of drill a hole.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. That it’s such a viable source for them.
RICHARD: Yeah, that’s right.
LESLIE: But I think, following their example, you don’t have to be in a specific type of location here in the United States to try to access geothermal heating.
RICHARD: That’s right. Yeah.
LESLIE: I think there’s so many different formats to how you can put those pipes or those coils, what you might call them, into the ground.
RICHARD: Right. Right. Right.
LESLIE: That whether you’re in an urban environment or rural, you can really make it work for you.
RICHARD: I’m really excited. This year on This Old House, on our second project, we’re going to be showing, finally, geothermal. We showed how to drill the boreholes and sort of – we’re going to run pipes down 380 feet – two different boreholes – fill it with antifreeze and then glycol. And then where that pipe is, we’re going to fill that with a grout that makes it transfer beautifully.
So, this homeowner will be able to get their heating and cooling system, for the rest of their life, really, for the cost of running just a pump. It’s a compressor and a pump. But the cost to heat that building, we project right now will probably be a thousand bucks or less for the whole building.
RICHARD: And that’s a whole paradigm shift about how you could heat a building, you know? And it also means you’re not going to be subject to the vagaries of supply and demand of gas or oil. That’s always going to be volatile.
The important thing we’ve got to realize is there’s a fixed and finite amount of oil and gas available underneath our feet. And we have the entire planet now competing for it. So it means that the price of it is going to continue to go up even faster than we’ve seen it, I think, historically.
I think we’re in a really exciting time to be in the energy business, in my opinion. It’s a scary time for homeowners, on top of the recession. You’re still watching the cost of fuel keep going up and up and you have no control of it, yeah.
LESLIE: And you have no control over it.
RICHARD: So, we’re going to keep on looking for alternatives and we’ll keep on trying to share them.
TOM: Good advice. Richard Trethewey, the plumbing-and-heating expert on TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
RICHARD: Great to see you guys.
LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.