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Heating Costs: Fuel Oil or Natural Gas?

written by: Faith Oh•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 7/21/2010

The old debate regarding how you heat your home in the winter is still a concern for many home owners. Should you use fuel oil (also called heating oil) or natural gas? Are heating costs cheaper with fuel oil or natural gas? Read on to find out more.

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    As homeowners around the country strive to find ways to live more economically, many begin to wonder - are heating costs cheaper with fuel oil or natural gas. Before that question can be addressed, let's first take a look at each type of fuel.

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    Fuel Oil or Heating Oil

    Fuel or heating oil comes from refined petroleum (or oil for short), which is a fossil fuel. Other forms of fossil fuels are natural gas and coal. The use of fuel oil in home heating is fast becoming outdated as people increasingly switch to environmentally cleaner ways of heating their homes. Fuel oil is more common in the northeastern part of the United States. Fuel oil is one of the products of the fractional distillation of crude oil during the refining process and produces sulfur deposits when used. Thus if you use a fuel oil heating system, you will need to clean out the furnace each year to remove the sulfur deposits and soot that collect in the furnace and the chimney. This means that you will have an annual cleaning service provided by an appropriate company, except of course you are an expert and can do it yourself.

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    Natural Gas

    Gas Furnace Replacement Parts 

    Natural gas, also a fossil fuel is a colorless odorless gas that is commonly found around petroleum deposits. This is then pumped from the ground to the surface through an elaborate distribution system of pipelines. It is the gas used in cooking. Since natural gas is odorless, it is mixed with certain chemicals that give it the characteristic smell perceived in cooking gas and therefore makes it safe for home use. Natural gas contains mainly methane (CH4) which produces carbon dioxide and water vapor when it is burned, thus making it a cleaner fuel and an attractive one for home heating.

    With recent emphasis on environmentally friendly energy systems, natural gas furnaces have increasingly become popular for home heating. It is the common fuel of choice in the mid western United States. In cities and suburban areas this is no problem because of existing gas pipeline networks. However in rural areas it is not the case and people often improvise by using propane supplied in propane tanks instead.

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    Which is Cheaper: Fuel Oil or Natural Gas?

    Fuel Oil Furnace 

    The natural question then becomes: Are heating costs cheaper with fuel oil or natural gas? What should be your fuel of choice be when choosing a heating system for your home? On the surface it could appear that using fuel oil is cheaper because it costs less. However you should take into consideration how much the furnace costs, as well as installation and maintenance costs. Fuel-oil-powered furnaces are usually more expensive than gas-powered ones because fuel oil is a harder fuel to burn efficiently and thus needs more complicated machinery. Fuel oil furnaces are also more expensive to maintain because of the sulfur and soot deposits as noted earlier. However, you can most likely maintain a gas-powered furnace inexpensively if you clean and or replace the air filter yourself regularly.

    Bruce Maki of hammerzone.com wrote an article in which he details a comparison of the two heating systems for his home and decided on using propane (the alternative to natural gas in rural areas). To carry out an accurate cost comparison, however, you will need to take into consideration the specifics of your own home. Pages 6 and 7 of this report found on the U.S. Department of Energy website could be helpful. There you will find a formula that will help you estimate your annual energy costs using the peculiarities of your home situation.

    Image Credits

    • Gas furnace replacement parts - Furnacepartschicago.com
    • Fuel oil furnace - Bobvila.com
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    Resources

    Hammerzone: http://www.hammerzone.com/archives/hvac/oil_furnace/termination.htm