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June 13, 2008

Fuel Selector Helper

The price of home heating oil is so high that even electric radiant heat has become a lower cost alternative across much of the country. The prices of propane and natural gas have also risen. You may have a decision to make: do you replace some or all of the fossil fuel you're burning for heat with electricity (even just by topping off with inexpensive electric space heaters). Obviously the answer depends on both what rate you expect to pay for fossil fuel this winter and what you expect your electric rates will be.

The charts below are meant to tell you whether it's worth thinking about making a change. If the answer is "yes", then you need to ask how much your saving are likely to be to determine how much capital you're willing to spend to go electric; a spreadsheet for that'll be in an upcoming post an estimator for annual savings in now available here. These charts already take into account the different energy values of different fuels and the average efficiency of each fuel. It is assumed that you burn oil, natural gas or propane in a furnace and pipe the heat around your house. The first three charts assume you use electricity either as baseboard heat or in a space heater. The next three charts assume that the electricity powers a geothermal heat pump – an alternative mainly available to us rural folk. Since geothermal electric heat is much more efficient than radiant electric heat, it breaks even with oil at much lower oil prices or higher electric rates but, of course, has a higher capital cost to get into than radiant heat.

Here's how to use the charts:

  1. Guess what rate you're going to pay for oil, natural gas or propane this winter. For the sake of example, let's choose $5/gallon for oil and use the chart immediately below.
  2. Trace over to the right from that fuel cost until you hit the blue diagonal line.
  3. Look at the electricity cost straight below where you hit the diagonal line. In our example, that would be a little past $.15/kWh.
  4. If you pay less than this for electricity, you ought to consider switching. If you pay more, then it's not worth switching unless and until oil gets even more expensive.



All calculations are based on this US Energy Agency spreadsheet.

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