Oil-to-propane furnace conversions growing
Fed up with the burdens of heating oil, homeowners are increasingly
ready to dump their old oil tank and make the switch to higher-efficiency
By Jeffrey Lee
Whenever Justin Isaacson's customers have a
problem with their fuel oil furnaces, Isaacson has a quick response ready: "I
tell them right away, ‘Get rid of it, and go to propane,'" he says.
As oil-to-propane boiler conversions become increasingly popular in the Northeast,
a similar trend is spreading in the forced-air heating market: Contractors and
homeowners are switching away from fuel oil to gain efficiency, comfort, and
reduced maintenance with propane or natural gas furnaces.
Isaacson, owner of Ike's Heating and Cooling
in Nevis, Minnesota, says some customers make the switch when their oil furnace
is at the end of its lifespan, but others are switching preemptively to reduce
their energy costs and their carbon footprint.
"The efficiency of the fuel oil is so low,
comparatively speaking," Isaacson says. "And the maintenance that is required
is going to be considerably more with the fuel oil, just because it's such a
dirty fuel and so they're maintenance-intensive."
The Oil Burden
The move away from heating oil furnaces is
already virtually complete on the new-construction side, according to survey
data from Home Innovation Research Labs. Just 1 percent of furnaces installed
in new homes in 2015 were fueled by fuel oil, compared with 9 percent each for
propane and electric, and 82 percent for natural gas.
There are pockets of the country where oil is
still relatively common, but using the fuel comes with some significant
burdens, notes Jim Lowell, product manager for furnaces at Trane. Storing an oil tank in the basement can be
smelly and messy. Leaks can cause expensive contamination. And the tank, oil
pump, and furnace all require annual maintenance. "Whereas a typical gas
furnace, you don't have those issues," Lowell says. "You've got to really love
your oil furnace to want to hold on to it, I think."
While a leaky oil tank or malfunctioning unit
might be the final straw, many homeowners upgrade to propane to attain higher
efficiency and improve the comfort of their homes. Whereas a typical oil
furnace achieves 80 percent to 83 percent annual fuel utilization efficiency
(AFUE), up to about 90 percent in a very few units, condensing propane furnaces
can easily achieve efficiency of 95 percent to 98 percent AFUE.
"You've got to really love your
oil furnace to want to hold on to it, I think."
"That kind of efficiency can definitely impact
a consumer's decision if they want to really be efficient and have the greatest
impact on their energy bills," Lowell says. Isaacson says proactively upgrading
to a propane furnace can pay back in about five years. If the old furnace needs
to be replaced anyway, propane furnaces often cost the same or less to install
as an oil furnace, providing immediate ROI.
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A Comprehensive Upgrade
The pure efficiency of propane furnaces is
just one of the benefits of switching. Pros say several other factors can also
impact the decision:
Ultimate control and comfort. Oil
furnaces are like a light switch: They're either all on or all off, says Eddie
Beverly, area manager in Asheville, North Carolina, for Ferguson Heating and Cooling.
Propane furnaces, on the other hand, can
operate like a dimmer switch, with features such as two-stage gas valves and
variable-speed blowers that control the temperature very close to the set
point. That feature is particularly effective for homes with zoning, where only
one part of the house requires heat.
In fact, some homeowners who have furnaces in
uninsulated attics and are concerned about condensation freezing are upgrading
to noncondensing propane furnaces, even though they have a similar efficiency
level as oil furnaces. "You can get a better fan, you've got better controls,
and it's still a better furnace," Beverly says. Plus, an 80 percent efficient
gas furnace is about half the price of an oil furnace with the same efficiency
level, he says.
many oil furnaces, gas furnaces are generally air conditioner–ready, and most
can easily be paired with indoor air quality products such as humidifiers,
dehumidifiers, and air cleaners.
And propane itself offers the flexibility of
fueling other appliances in the home, says Ron Boland, energy consultant at Bernville
Quality Fuels in Reading,
Pennsylvania. When homeowners want to upgrade their clothes dryer or kitchen
range to gas, or add a standby generator or pool heater, they'll already have
the propane systems in place to fuel those amenities.
Simplified installation. Oil
furnaces are typically vented one way: up, through the chimney. That can be a
problem in older homes, where the furnace exhaust has deteriorated the
chimney's terra-cotta liner or if the chimney is starting to lean, Boland says.
Condensing propane furnaces can be vented through the side wall, with
inexpensive PVC pipe.
Gas furnaces can also be installed in
virtually any direction, making it easier for dealers and installers to stock
just a few SKUs.
No electrical upgrades. Gas
furnaces use the same voltage as oil furnaces, so there's no need to upgrade a
home's electrical panel or generator, Beverly says. Switching to a heat pump,
by comparison, could require a new 200-amp panel, which could cost up to $2,000
Maintenance and warranty. Today's
gas furnaces are practically bulletproof, Lowell says. Trane's new S-Series, for instance, uses stainless steel primary
and secondary heat exchangers to improve reliability and provide a lifetime
warranty on the heat exchangers. "You put something like that in front of a
consumer who's having to do regular maintenance on their oil furnace, and it
can be a pretty enticing proposition," Lowell says.
That's especially true when that
low-maintenance upgrade is coupled with the energy savings of a high-efficiency
unit and the comfort of precise, variable-speed warmth.