Heating options for the coming cold

Trent Ernst, Editor


In case you missed it, the amount you’re paying for natural gas went up in July.

In case you missed it, the amount that you’re paying for natural gas will be going up, quite substantially, next year, too.

And the question becomes: at what point does switching to a different form of heating become not just an option, but actually saves you money?

Let’s take a look at some of your options for reducing the cost of your heating bill.

A few months ago, I discussed the Nest thermostat, which learns when you are about the house and when you are away, and adjusts the temperature down when you’re not at home.

But you can also reduce the amount of natural gas you use by using a more energy efficient heating system.

The majority of houses, says Randy Gilbert, use an Olsen Furnace, which are 85 percent efficient.

Gilbert knows a lot about the furnaces here in Tumbler Ridge. It was he, after all, who supplied the furnaces to the town back when it was built.

Gilbert, who is starting a new business in Tumbler Ridge doing furnace and hot water tank installations and repairs, says that for people looking to upgrade, the most affordable option is a 95 percent efficient single stage furnace. “That’s the most economical one for your value.”

However, for people with more money, or looking for something even more efficient, he recommends a variable speeds, two stage furnace. “What that does is it runs on a percentage of the total heat the furnace can put out. Let’s say it is only minus five out. The furnace kicks onto high fire, the motor kicks in and it will run like that for up to 15 minutes. But it senses the discharge temperature, too. So if your house isn’t that cold, it will cut the amount of gas it is using back and run longer at a percentage of the maximum temperature, which keeps your house at a more even temperature.”

So, if the current furnaces are 85 percent efficient, and the new ones are 95 percent, how does that translate to real world costs? According to the Natural Resources Canada Website, the way to calculate savings is to subtract the current efficiency of the furnace from the new furnace, then divide by the new furnace efficiency.

In this case, that means we subtract 85 from 95, to get 10, then divide that by 95 to get 0.105.

Now, we multiply that number by the average cost of your heating bill. Here we must do a bit of math. The average amount of natural gas used to heat a home in Alberta is 129 GJ. The price per GJ in Tumbler Ridge is $9.505. The total cost of heating your house is $1226.15. If we multiply that by 0.105, we discover that the savings of a 95 percent efficient gas furnace would be $129/year.

If your furnace cost, say, $2000 to replace, it would take about 15 years for the furnace to pay for itself at the current prices. Most people, when calculating pay-back on these systems, calculate a 20-year payback, so at the end of 20 years, you’re in the black by close to $1000.

However, the cost of natural gas is, as mentioned, on the way up, which begs the question: is this the best option?

What about replacing the gas furnace with an electrical one?

Considering that electricity only costs $0.068/kilowatt, it would seem that using electricity would be cheaper, but the amount of heat generated per kilowatt is only a fraction of that per GJ of natural gas.

Using the Natural Resource Canada Website Home Heating Cost System Calculator, the cost of heating the average home in Tumbler Ridge would go up over a thousand dollars to use electricity rather than gas.

Let me say that again: if it costs you $1200 to heat your home now with natural gas, and you moved to electrical heating, it would cost about $2250 to heat your house next year. Natural gas prices would have to climb a lot before using electrical heat became feasible.

Gilbert says that’s getting better than it used to be. “Back quite a few years ago, I did a comparison of natural gas versus electric. At the time, it was about 2.5 times more expensive at the time. I know someone who installed an electric furnace, and he got the shock of his lifetime when he got his heating bill.”

So, electrical doesn’t seem to be an option here in Tumbler Ridge. So what’s a penny-pinching resident to do?

Something that bears investigating is the concept of ground source heating. An study by Green Edmonton showed the cost of installation was high, but the cost of operation is low. It is estimated that it costs about $800/year less to operate than natural gas.

But the cost of installing a ground source heating unit is typically well above $10,000.

But, with savings of $800/year, this type of unit would, theoretically, pay for itself in less than 15 years.

However, this technology is not easily found in the Northeast and has not been tested in our soil.

The cost of upgrading your heating system runs into the thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars. And the initial investment can prove to be a barrier to entry. Fortunately, there are some small things you can do to reduce the amount of energy you use to heat your home. More on that later.