Natural gas, like oil and coal, is a fossil fuel. It is formed when organic matter (like the remains of plants and animals) gets compressed under the earth over a long period of time. Homes that are heated with natural gas are connected to a “main,” a system designed to consistently and reliably meet the home’s gas needs.
Fuel Unit: Therm
Fuel Heat Content per Unit: 100,000 BTUs
1) Cost. Natural gas is (relatively) abundant right now, making it a cheap fuel source.
2) Availability. When the home gets “connected” for natural gas, you don’t have to worry about refilling a tank or monitoring fuel levels.
1) Environmental Impact. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and as such is not a renewable resource. Using natural gas increases one’s carbon footprint. Additionally, there has been increasing concern over the methods used to extract natural gas from deposits in the bedrock beneath residential areas. Specifically, the use of “hydraulic fracturing” is being closely evaluated for its detrimental impact on drinking water and the natural environment.
Wood pellets are made from the by-products of the wood industry. Wood pellets are manufactured in several “grades,” with each grade suitable for homes, power plants and additional uses. The low moisture content of wood pellets ensures a higher efficiency, and fully automated pellet stoves require less attention than a cord wood stove or fireplaces.
Fuel Unit: Ton
Fuel Heat Content per Unit: 14,000,000 BTUs
1) Low maintenance. When compared to cord wood appliances, pellets are low maintenance. They do require some work (see below).
2) Cost. Generally speaking, wood pellets are less expensive than fuel oil, propane and electric and they are fairly comparable to cord wood.
1) Some labor. Heating with wood pellets does not require the same amount of attendance as cord wood, but there still is some work involved. Automated wood pellet stoves typically feature “hoppers” which can hold a large amount of pellets that get automatically fed into the stove at intervals dependent upon the thermostat setting. This hopper must get refilled (sometimes daily, in colder climates), while the by-product must also be emptied.
2) Availability. Although the use of wood pellets as a heat fuel source is on the rise, it does not guarantee that wood pellets are readily available in all locations. Before committing to heating the home with wood pellets, be sure there is an affordable source that can offer reliable delivery.
3) Expensive repair. There are many more moving parts and high-tech components in a pellet stove than there are in cord wood burning stoves. When these parts go, it can be expensive to repair and the unit may be inoperable during this time.
More info: Pellet Fuels Institute
Photo Credit: Fireplace Village
Heating oil — also know as “oil heat” and “No. 2 heating oil” — is most popular in the northeast, where natural gas is not as abundant and propane historically has been priced higher. Heating oil is produced during the refinement of crude oil, along with gasoline. Generally speaking, heating oil prices tend to drop when demand for gasoline increases.
Fuel Unit: Gallon
Fuel Content Per Unit: 138,690 BTUs
1) Options. Typically, a home in a region where heating oil is a prevalent fuel source will have more than one option when it comes to picking a supplier. Competition is always a good thing. Ask around to see what your neighbors use. Pricing may vary a bit, but look into delivery charges, reliability and quality of service.
2) Safety. Oil heat is both non-toxic and non-explosive. Unlike kerosene, which burns, heating oil is first vaporized before it gets burned. This is achieved within a sealed, safe chamber. Accidents involving heating oil are virtually unheard of.
3) Efficiency. Many oil heat appliances have efficiency ratings between 83% and 95%. With proper maintenance these appliances can last up to 30 years or more.
1) Cost. Fuel oil tends to be on the expensive side. This type of fuel is also market driven, so the costs can fluctuate.
2) Service. Unlike natural gas or electric, a home running on fuel oil requires regular delivery, the frequency of which depends upon consumption.
3) Environmental Impact. As a fossil fuel, heating oil is not renewable. Use of these fuels increase one’s carbon footprint.
More info: Oil Heat America
Photo Credit: seattletimes.nwsource.com.
Hardwood is like the grandaddy of heat sources. Wood heats a home through a fireplace or wood-burning stove, both of which require venting to the outdoors. Wood-burning appliances have increased in efficiency over the years, but they are still considered among the least-efficient means to heat a home.
Fuel Unit: Cord
Fuel Heat Content per Unit: 22,000,000 BTUs
1) Sustainable. Wood is a renewable energy source, provided the trees used for firewood are harvested in a sustainable manner.
1) Labor Intensive. Heating with wood is not a “set it and forget it” affair. Fires must be tended to regularly. Wood must be order (or chopped), stacked, dried and hauled to the stove or fireplace for use.
2) Low Efficiency. The low efficiency of fireplaces and wood stoves has generally been an accepted trade off. However, high efficiency models are available in both types of wood-burning appliances.
More info: Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association
Photo Credit: HBPA
Similar to Fuel Oil, Propane is a by-product of both natural gas processing and crude oil refining. Propane is a gas, but when compressed for transport and storage it becomes a liquid — hence the moniker “LP” or “liquid propane.” Like natural gas, propane is mixed with an odorant to help detect leaks. For home heating purposes, propane gets stored in a tank that must be refilled regularly.
Fuel Unit: Gallon
Fuel Heat Content per Unit: 91,333 BTUs
1) Options. Typically, a home in a region where propane is a prevalent fuel source will have more than one option when it comes to picking a supplier. Competition is always a good thing. Ask around to see what your neighbors use. Pricing may vary a bit, but look into delivery charges, reliability and quality of service.
2) Efficiency. Many propane heating appliances have high efficiency ratings.
1) Cost. Propane is one of the more costly fuel options. This type of fuel is also market driven, so the costs can fluctuate.
2) Service. Unlike natural gas or electric, a home running on propane requires regular delivery, the frequency of which depends upon consumption.
3) Environmental Impact. As a fossil fuel, propane is not renewable. Use of these fuels increase one’s carbon footprint.
4) Safety. Propane is denser than air, so a leak in a tank that is stored in a basement, for example, with result in the sinking and pooling of gas into an enclosed area. Contact with a pilot light or open flame can result in a fire or explosion. While storage units and propane heating systems are designed to the highest safety standards, this risk still does exist with this kind of fuel.
More info: Propane Council
Photo credit: MRP Photo/Tom Robertson
Heating the home with electricity is the most efficient option available. It also happens to be one of the most expensive. Electricity can be used to run a furnace or boiler and heat a home through baseboards and room heaters. Although far less common due to their expense, electricity can also run a geothermal heat pump.
Fuel Unit: KiloWatt-Hour
Fuel Heat Content per Unit: 3,412
Clean. Electric heat does not produce by-product. (Electricity is generated in a number of ways, however. Some of these methods include the burning of fossil fuels, while others involve wind and solar. Investigate where your electricity is coming from to assess just how “clean” this heat source is for you.)
Efficient. Electricity is considered the most efficient way to heat a home, because heat is not lost in the process.
Cost. Although electric heat is considered efficient, that does not mean it’s cheap. Electricity does not pack a big BTU punch per fuel unit, making it a costly way to heat one’s home.
Photo credit: Wikipedia