Heating Oil or Propane? Natural Gas or Wood Pellets? As heating costs rise and fall like tides under the twin moons of supply and demand, homeowners are forever evaluating their own home heating systems, asking two vital questions: "Can it be cheaper?" and "Can it be better?" Cost and efficiency are considered in this look at the 6 most popular heating fuels used across the country: Fuel oil, propane, natural gas, cord wood, wood pellets and electric.
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.