Whenever Justin Isaacson’s customers have a problem with their fuel oil furnaces, Isaacson has a quick response ready: “I tell them right away, ‘Get rid of it, and go to propane,'” he says.
As oil-to-propane boiler conversions become increasingly popular in the Northeast, a similar trend is spreading in the forced-air heating market: Contractors and homeowners are switching away from fuel oil to gain efficiency, comfort, and reduced maintenance with propane or natural gas furnaces.
Isaacson, owner of Ike’s Heating and Cooling in Nevis, Minnesota, says some customers make the switch when their oil furnace is at the end of its lifespan, but others are switching preemptively to reduce their energy costs and their carbon footprint.
“The efficiency of the fuel oil is so low, comparatively speaking,” Isaacson says. “And the maintenance that is required is going to be considerably more with the fuel oil, just because it’s such a dirty fuel and so they’re maintenance-intensive.”
The Oil Burden
The move away from heating oil furnaces is already virtually complete on the new-construction side, according to survey data from Home Innovation Research Labs. Just 1 percent of furnaces installed in new homes in 2015 were fueled by fuel oil, compared with 9 percent each for propane and electric, and 82 percent for natural gas.
There are pockets of the country where oil is still relatively common, but using the fuel comes with some significant burdens, notes Jim Lowell, product manager for furnaces at Trane. Storing an oil tank in the basement can be smelly and messy. Leaks can cause expensive contamination. And the tank, oil pump, and furnace all require annual maintenance. “Whereas a typical gas furnace, you don’t have those issues,” Lowell says. “You’ve got to really love your oil furnace to want to hold on to it, I think.”
While a leaky oil tank or malfunctioning unit might be the final straw, many homeowners upgrade to propane to attain higher efficiency and improve the comfort of their homes. Whereas a typical oil furnace achieves 80 percent to 83 percent annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE), and up to about 90 percent in a very few units, condensing propane furnaces can easily achieve efficiency of 95 percent to 98 percent AFUE.
“You’ve got to really love your oil furnace to want to hold on to it, I think.”
“That kind of efficiency can definitely impact a consumer’s decision if they want to really be efficient and have the greatest impact on their energy bills,” Lowell says. Isaacson says proactively upgrading to a propane furnace can pay back in about five years. If the old furnace needs to be replaced anyway, propane furnaces often cost the same or less to install as an oil furnace, providing immediate ROI.
Check out our Space Heating Calculator to estimate the payback for a propane furnace upgrade on your project.
A Comprehensive Upgrade
The pure efficiency of propane furnaces is just one of the benefits of switching. Pros say several other factors can also impact the decision:
Ultimate control and comfort. Oil furnaces are like a light switch: They’re either all on or all off, says Eddie Beverly, area manager in Asheville, North Carolina, for Ferguson Heating and Cooling.
Propane furnaces, on the other hand, can operate like a dimmer switch, with features such as two-stage gas valves and variable-speed blowers that control the temperature very close to the set point. That feature is particularly effective for homes with zoning, where only one part of the house requires heat.
In fact, some homeowners who have furnaces in uninsulated attics and are concerned about condensation freezing are upgrading to noncondensing propane furnaces, even though they have a similar efficiency level as oil furnaces. “You can get a better fan, you’ve got better controls, and it’s still a better furnace,” Beverly says. Plus, an 80 percent efficient gas furnace is about half the price of an oil furnace with the same efficiency level, he says.
Versatility. Unlike many oil furnaces, gas furnaces are generally air conditioner–ready, and most can easily be paired with indoor air quality products such as humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and air cleaners.
And propane itself offers the flexibility of fueling other appliances in the home, says Ron Boland, energy consultant at Bernville Quality Fuels in Reading, Pennsylvania. When homeowners want to upgrade their clothes dryer or kitchen range to gas, or add a standby generator or pool heater, they’ll already have the propane systems in place to fuel those amenities.
Simplified installation. Oil furnaces are typically vented one way: up, through the chimney. That can be a problem in older homes, where the furnace exhaust has deteriorated the chimney’s terra-cotta liner or if the chimney is starting to lean, Boland says. Condensing propane furnaces can be vented through the side wall, with inexpensive PVC pipe.
Gas furnaces can also be installed in virtually any direction, making it easier for dealers and installers to stock just a few SKUs.
No electrical upgrades. Gas furnaces use the same voltage as oil furnaces, so there’s no need to upgrade a home’s electrical panel or generator, Beverly says. Switching to a heat pump, by comparison, could require a new 200-amp panel, which could cost up to $2,000 to upgrade.
Maintenance and warranty. Today’s gas furnaces are practically bulletproof, Lowell says. Trane’s S-Series, for instance, uses stainless steel primary and secondary heat exchangers to improve reliability and provide a lifetime warranty on the heat exchangers. “You put something like that in front of a consumer who’s having to do regular maintenance on their oil furnace, and it can be a pretty enticing proposition,” Lowell says.
That’s especially true when that low-maintenance upgrade is coupled with the energy savings of a high-efficiency unit and the comfort of precise, variable-speed warmth.