Alan “Lindy” Linda

Freelance Writer

Let’s compare fuel costs. LP (liquified petroleum gases) is varying quite a bit, depending upon whether you summer fill, own your own tank, lease, etc. I figure cost at pennies per Btu. (I use pennies; it breaks down more understandably.) Let’s do the price at $2.35 gallon, or 235 pennies. You get 92,500 Btus per gallon. 92,500 divided by 235 gives you 394 Btus for your penny.  Most gas furnaces now are probably 90-plus efficient.  So 394 at 90 percent efficiency gives you a final 354 Btus for your penny. Summer fill, tank size, own vs. lease–these all change the math. Summer fill at a buck-forty, do your own math.

Number 2 fuel oil is around $2.75 a gallon. Number 2 at 275 pennies per gallon is  140,000 Btus. 140,000 divided by 275 gives 509 Btus, times a normal 80 percent efficiency, so you end up at 407 Btus for your penny. 

Let’s look at natural gas, which you folks using it have gotten some news about the price going up–and this excuse they’re providing reminds me of an old saying: “Figures never lie, but liars always figure.” (Sorry, but good grief.) They’re saying that they have to raise prices  because last winter people needed more and wholesale gas cost more, so…..  Natural gas bills can be quite complicated. Here goes, from a bill in Waterloo, Iowa.

First comes a list of various charges: Pipeline transport charge. Gas supply charge. Basic service charge. Capital investment charge. Delivery charge. Energy efficiency charge. Income tax adjustment. Gas franchise fee. When the dust settled, a hundred-dollar bill last year is now a hundred-and-fifty. Natural gas users are complaining, but they shouldn’t be. The math: This actual bill was $112.00, or 11,200 pennies for 88 therms, which is 100,000 Btus times 88 or 8,800,000 Btus, divided by 11,200, or 785 Btus per penny, and assuming a 90 percent furnace, 707 Btus for your penny. They can complain all they want to. They’re still the best deal around.

(Natural gas is measured in different ways. A Decatherm, 10 times 100,000 Btus. An MCF, or a thousand cubic feet, each cubic feet being 1,000 Btus. A CCF, one hundred cubic feet. A Therm, or 100,000 Btus. Finally, just a CF, a cubic foot.  A current New York Mills bill takes simplicity to an extreme: GS:  7,600.00; cost $68.63. A bit of work here is necessary to find that the charge is for CF, or cubic feet. 7,600 x 1,000 divided by 6,683 pennies produces 1,100 Btu for a penny. Local folks are not getting hit with price increases. According to a person involved in the utilities department, several years ago they had a chance to buy into the pipeline that supplies them. They did so, even though they were criticized severely for it at the time. That and some very astute long-range contract pricing means New York Mills has got some of the cheapest gas around. Kudos to them.

Those of us who don’t have natural gas have to wrestle a very slippery bit of arithmetic to find a winner. First, my opinion: Keep it simple. Avoid too many moving parts and electronic controls. Gas furnace. Oil furnace. Air conditioning. Simple. And lowest cost going in. Yes. I admit. I’m not in the business of selling HVAC stuff to make a living. That’s my disclosure statement. But it also means that I do not have a horse in this race, not even an inexpensive one. My suggestion: Spend money on insulation: no moving parts.

However, should you choose to wrestle this arithmetic, you might choose off-peak electricity (I’ll use REA figures, which by the time you add in fees and tax and stuff, is about 6 pennies per off-peak kilowatt (Or a bit more, depending upon some pretty fuzzy multipliers that they have control of.). A KW is 3413 Btus, so if you’re using straight resistance heating on off-peak, like electric baseboard (good because no moving parts) or an electric plenum heater (not quite so good because control issues can cause headaches), you get 3413 divided by 6, or 569 Btus per penny. 100 percent efficient.

Yes, the off-peak resistance heat just mentioned compares well, but remember, you have a significant up-front electrical wiring investment to recover, likely in the thousands, and you still need a back-up unit. (There is yet another situation whereby you do not need a backup unit. It’s called storage. It is simple, and it can long-term save you money, but requires a sizeable up-front cost.) Finally, you get those favorable off-peak rates because they can shut you off when it’s very cold. But what I really hate is them shutting off my AC when it’s also very hot! You can bring in your back-up unit when it’s cold, but there isn’t one for hot.)

Finally, most HVAC personnel will recommend an air source heat pump, and it will sound good because “it’s only a little more money” than straight air conditioning. Here’s where things get complicated. You need off-peak. Plus, you can only get the really high efficiencies with air source stuff by combining it with very high efficiency back-up furnaces, and this is where the KISS rule  is broken. These heat pump, plenum heater, furnace, electrical wiring combinations can look good, but will completely ruin any savings at the drop of a hat when they break. I know. I’ve been on both ends of this. I’ve had it happen to me. And I’ve had to repair it for others. 

I hope you find all this interesting.

(Lindy’s interesting book, The Prairie Spy: Who shot the dryer…. Is available on Amazon)