Calculating comparative heating costs
I live in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada and have basically two choices for heating my home: natural gas, or electric. My home has been heated with natural gas since it was built about 30 years ago. I recently did a calculation comparing electric space heating to natural gas to see if it might be worth switching. I was interested in comparing both cost, and greenhouse gas emissions. Here is what I found out. These results are specific to my home and my region.
|Electric (per kWh consumed)||Gas (per kWh consumed)||Gas (per kWh used)|
|CO2||0.0055 kg||0.2 kg||0.33 kg|
There are many units of measurement for energy (ex kWh, GJ, BTU, Therms, etc). For ease of comparison, I’ve used kWh for both electric and gas, even though gas is more commonly quoted in GJ. Notice I’ve included two columns for gas. The one with values “per kWh used” takes into account the efficiency of my gas heating system. Electricity is inherently 100% efficient (or close enough that system losses are negligible). This isn’t true of combustion based heating systems. Some of the energy consumed simply goes up the chimney and never heats your home. Even if a gas furnace were 100% efficient, gas heating systems tend to route heating ducts through non-living spaces like crawlspaces and attics, resulting in additional losses that electrical space heating systems don’t experience. I estimated my gas heating system efficiency at around 60%. Electrical CO2 emissions in the above chart were determined by referencing the data at Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) which gives CO2 emissions for major power companies around the world. You can search for your power provider and see exactly how green your power is. My power provider is BC Hydro. CARMA data shows BC Hydro currently emits 285,620,000 kg of CO2 per year and produces 52,400,000,000 kWh of electricity. Thats 0.0055 kg/kWh.Combustion of natural gas produces around 58 kg of CO2 per GJ. One GJ is equivalent to 277.8 kWh. Therefore combustion of natural gas produces about 0.2 kg of CO2 per kWh consumed. I divided this by my estimated efficiency of 60% to get 0.33 kg of CO2 per kWh used.Costs in the above table are based on actual statements for my home over one full year (total cost divided by total kWh consumed). This is more accurate that relying on figures quoted by gas or electrical companies which may not include hidden costs. To get gas cost per kWh used, I divided the gas cost per kWh consumed by my estimated efficiency of 60%. These results indicate that for my home, heating with electricity is best in terms of CO2 emissions and about the same in terms of cost. Installing a more efficient gas furnace would likely bring the cost per kWh of gas below that of electricity, but the CO2 emissions would still be much higher. A better alternative could be to install a ground source heat pump. This would be even more efficient than straight electric heat and would produce even less CO2 per kWh used. This is something I’ve been considering. The main barrier is the large capital investment.
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Experimenting with electric space heating
Empirical data always trumps calculations, so I performed a simple experiment over a couple of consecutive winters to test the theory.
My home was originally built with a natural gas furnace and forced air heating system. In the winter of 2006/2007 I heated my home “normally” with my gas furnace (plus the heat from electrical equipment in my home). In the winter of 2007/2008 I turned my furnace off completely and heated my home entirely using electric space heaters. I do not use significant electric power outside the home (no Christmas lights for me) so it’s a reasonable assumption that all my electrical usage ends up as heat inside my home. What little gas usage is shown in the second chart was for my hot water heater. The reason I compared only winter months is so that I could be certain all the windows and doors were closed for both tests.
The data below shows the results of my experiment.
These first two charts show average continuous power consumption in kW. I determined the average power consumption in each month by taking the total energy consumed in kWh and dividing it by the total time in hours. Power is a more useful measurement than total energy consumption because, in theory, the temperature difference you maintain between the inside of your home and the outside should be directly proportional to your continuous power consumption. The two charts seem to indicate strongly that heating my home with electricity is more efficient than with gas. It clearly required less power to maintain the interior temperature in the winter of 2007/2008. However, these charts don’t tell the whole story since the temperature difference being maintained could have been different between the two years. The data can be normalized by looking at the temperature difference (T_inside – T_outside) per kW of continuous power consumption. The average outside temperature during each month is provided on my gas statement, and I monitor the inside temperature myself. Here is a plot of temperature difference per kW of continuous power consumption for both winters.
Â°C/kW is technically a measure of the thermal resistance of my home’s building envelope. It should be roughly constant over all months since it is a property of the materials and geometry of my home. However it isn’t constant in the chart. The reason is that there is an additional heat source, solar, that I haven’t accounted for. Solar input power is the reason both lines rise at either end of the chart. Higher solar input in these months results in less power being required from electrical or gas sources to maintain a given temperature difference.
To reduce solar effects that might vary from one year to the next, lets compare the data in December. Using only electric heat, I could maintain a temperature difference of approximately 4Â°C/kW. Using mostly gas heat, I could maintain a temperature difference of only 2Â°C/kW. Therefore, my above estimated gas heating efficiency of 60% was actually high. This data seems to indicate a gas heating efficiency of less than 50%.
My total energy consumption and cost for these two consecutive years agree with this assessment:
|12 months ending May, 2007||12 months ending May, 2008||Change|
|Gas consumed||24393 kWh||2522 kWh||-21871 kWh|
|Electricity consumed||10900 kWh||19765 kWh||+8865 kWh|
|Total Cost||$1973 CAD||$1616 CAD||-$357 CAD|
I was able to replace the loss of 21871 kWh of gas consumption with only 8865 kWh of additional electrical consumption. Assuming similar temperature differences being maintained in each year, that indicates a gas heating efficiency of only around 40% compared to electric space heating. Note then that my “real” cost of heating with gas (without replacing my furnace) is around $0.1075/kWh (that’s kWh into my home and not up my chimney) compared to $0.071/kWh for electric. Note also that the $357 difference represents about an 18% savings and more than covered the cost of the space heaters I purchased.
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Replacing my current gas furnace with a higher efficiency gas furnace would likely make heating with gas more economic than heating with hydro. However, taking into account the capital investment of a new furnace, the additional greenhouse gas emissions, and the fact that gas prices are rising faster than hydro, I will happily continue heating my home with electric space heaters for the time being.
Having made that decision, my only gas appliance in the house is now my hot water tank, which is also a horribly inefficient beast with an open chimney and a continuous pilot light. Converting that to electric will not only reduce my water heating costs, but will also allow me to cancel my gas account saving me about $120 per year that the gas company bills regardless of whether I consume any gas. I’ve devised a plan for converting my current tank to an electrically heated one on a timer. Expect that project to be posted soon.
I converted my gas hot water tank to electric. See how I did it here: Convert your gas hot water tank to electric.
96 comments on “Comparing natural gas vs electric heating”
Any considerations to additional hydro power necessary to support all power requirement from BC residents if everyone were to convert? How does additional dams impact carbon footprint and eco system? These seems to always come up as questions when I’ve discussed this topic with others. Let me know what you come up with. DJ
I have no hard data to base an opinion on, but it seems probable to me that in terms of just getting a given amount of energy to your home, the mining, refining and distribution of fossil fuels account for much more damage to ecosystems and a much higher carbon footprint than hydro dams and electrical distribution. When power lines break, they don’t leak electricity into the environment ;-). I say build more dams (if it means a reduction in fossil fuel use). If I’m mistaken, I’d be glad for someone to point it out.
Aside: BC hydro currently has surplus capacity, selling much of it’s electricity across the border to supplement coal fired power plants. A coal fired power plant cannot change it’s output quickly enough to match daily fluctuations in demand the way a hydro plant can. Therefore, during peak hours, they buy electricity from BC hydro. During off-peak hours, BC hydro buys back coal generated electricity from them (at a much lower rate, which they are happy to accept since they have no way of getting rid of the excess power otherwise). So in BC, if you are using power during peak hours, it’s likely hydro generated, and during off-peak hours it’s likely coal generated. Because BC hydro can sell electricity to the states for more money than they can sell it to BC residents, they are actively campaigning for BC residents to reduce their electrical use during peak hours.
Hi Rob, I am reading this excellent work from the UK where non hydro electricity is 3x the price of gas but i can see that the overall efficiency of the gas is around 50% . But for me the clever idea is to use a air/air heat pump when my boiler packs in. These are now up to a cop ratio of over 5 ( ie 1 unit of elec = 5 units of heat ) at 7 deg C outside/ 20 deg C inside and will work down to the likes of -15 C. The cost is a fraction of a boiler and a DIY job. Why would anybody fit central heating ? Ken
I agree if you can afford the initial capital expense a heat pump is the best way to go. I live on a river delta where drilling is easy and the water table is only a few feet below the surface so a ground source heat pump makes more sense than an air/air heat pump for me. I believe they achieve even higher COP values than air/air since the ground is warm (relatively speaking) year round. – Rob
I grew up in an electrically-heated house, with electricity supplied 100% from coal. Our CO2 emissions were probably be about five times that of gas!
If a surplus amount of hydro or wind is available, then electric heat is probably the way to go. If thermal plants are the source, then it is probably undesirable. Nuclear is a possible exception as there aren’t direct CO2 emissions anyways and the plants are so inefficient (both thermodynamically and in terms of fuel burnup) that it doesn’t even really matter.
The only “bad” thing about electric heat is that is destroys energy quality. It is like grinding up steak in order to make hamburger. Electricity is a very useful form of energy, using it for such rudimentary tasks as space heating is probably undesirable if it is coming from thermal power plants that are only 33% efficient.
In the places where thermal plants provide electricity, it would be nice to have a district heating network to utilize the waste heat from electricity production for space heating. This is done in Denmark and a few other areas of Europe, and the use of electricity for heat is highly discouraged in places where a district heating connection is available.
I live in Mississauga Canada, 2 years ago I singed up for a price protection plan for my natural gas, big mistake. I am paying almost 3 times the amount current natural gas price. I can’t get out of the contract until it is over. So I decided to heat my home with electric. I only use two space heaters and let the sun shine into the home and it’s all good.
I am trying to figure out where can I find information on different electric heating system,
we have a wood sotve in the basement that I use yearly but getting tired of the hard work.
I pay 250$ a bush cord, I need three a year also we have a gaz stove in the livingroom.
I find gaz and oil have gone up more than electricity, so I am looking for different company in elctric heat but donÃ¨t know how to find them.
Can you help me
BC imports about 15-20% of it’s electrical needs and is increasing its need faster than supply, but has vast reserves of easily accessible natural gas in the basin.
The inefficiency of the electrical plants and damaging footprint I feel put us in an awkward situation on options.
I too look forward to more clean mega projects, be it solar, hydro, wind, wave, or geo.
Good writeup but for me in New West, my gas setup seems a cleaner option considering our current souces of electricity overall – I may be wrong, I am no expert by any stretch
I believe the CARMA website given in the article above shows actual carbon emissions for different power plants, taking into account where they import their power from. Considering only carbon emissions and ignoring other forms of damage to the environment, in BC, electricity is most certainly a cleaner choice than natural gas. That statement is based on data from the CARMA website. I suspect electricity in BC is less damaging to the environment in other ways as well, but I don’t have the data.
Also, as noted in one of my earlier comments, BC hydro has surplus capacity. They don’t need to import electricity to meet BC demand. They do so only because it’s more profitable. They export power during peak hours (meeting all of BC’s demand and then some). They import power during off-peak hours when demand is low. This is because coal fired plants in the states can’t adjust their output fast enough to meet daily fluctuations in their demand, so they are willing to buy power from BC Hydro at a premium during peak hours and sell power back to BC hydro at a discount during off-peak hours. That way they only need to product a constant power output themselves. BC hydro loves this relationship since they can “buy low and sell high”, making more money per kWh than they do selling electricity to BC residents.
I have been using natural gas for my home for the past month. I do have central heat in my home to. I’m not sure yet which will be a higher cost, electricity or natural gas? I live in Tennessee and I have heard different stories about what to use. I need help! Which one will save me money, electricity or natural gas? HELP!!!
See my other post http://www.iwilltry.org/b/projects/make-the-switch-to-electric-space-heating/ for information on how to determine which method of heating will be least expensive. Good luck.
Seldomly ducting are install in cold space such as attics, and they are insulated (required by building & plumbing code) if ducts are to be install in unheated space. Ducts in crawlspace can be insulated, but isn’t necessary because crawlspace needed to be heated (building code) to prevent moisture/mold. And, heat rises therefore the energy will be contribute to the building heating.
Many high efficient condensing furnace are rated at 95-97% efficiency.
Furnace rebate grants from the federal & BC government can be up to $1630.00 for 95% efficiency or better.
The grants can be up to $10,000
Geothermal is a good alternative, but the initial cost is quite prohibited. However, it could be a good alternative in new construction if the soil or large body of water nearby is favorable
Converting from gas heating to electric baseboard heaters isn’t exactly cheap as you have calculated, because the power service may need to be increase, meter, service panel, new wirings to accommodate baseboard heaters.
IMHO, the best upgrade cost would be air source heat pumps because the average cost is about $2000-$4000 more than electric baseboard conversion thanks to the $1,850 rebate. Air source heat pumps energy usage is around 50% of electric baseboard heaters.
And, a swap for a high efficiency condensing furnace is the next best option if you are concern with the environment and an energy miser.
Your Gas vs. Electric heating comparison is not a fair comparison.
A fair comparison would factor in the cost of new constructions verses conversion/upgrade of all heating methods. Gas/electric price fluctuation/graphs, maintenance, up time a viability, and total cost of ownership over the lifespan of the appliance.
I thought it was reasonably clear in the article, but the purpose of my comparison was to evaluate only two specific options: continuing to heating my home with my current gas forced air system (no construction/upgrade required… it’s already installed) vs switching to electric space heaters (no construction/upgrade required… they just plug into the wall). Given that the savings in the first year alone were more than the cost of the space heaters (about $230), calculating total cost of ownership over the lifespan of the appliance seemed unnecessary.
I’m not by any means saying that heating with electricity is always cheaper than heating with gas. Nor am I saying that heating with electric space heaters is the best overall option for me. There are other options such as a higher efficiency gas furnace or a heat pump that would be cheaper in the long run. But those are bigger decisions for another day (if you are renting, they may be decisions you don’t have the authority to make). This article is concerned with a simpler decision: to buy a set of electric space heaters or continue to heat with the current inefficient gas furnace. For me it was a no brainer. Electric space heaters are cheaper and have a smaller carbon footprint than my current gas furnace.
As a final comment, I would like to illustrate more clearly how heating crawl-spaces wastes heat even though that heat rises as you pointed out. There is a 3ft crawlspace under the first floor of my home. Its outside walls are insulated just like the rest of the home, but its floor is a concrete slab in direct thermal contact with the earth below. All the heating ducts for the first floor run through this crawlspace. The return ventilation to the furnace vents directly into this crawlspace (no return ducts). When the forced air system is running, the crawlspace is warmer than the living space above it. The crawlspace dissipates heat through its outside walls and also into the concrete slab. Using electric space heaters on the first floor instead of forced air, the crawlspace is about 5 degrees C cooler than the living space above it during the winter months. This is not cool enough to cause condensation or mold (I check regularly) but it reduces the heat dissipated into the slab and through the outside walls significantly. For this reason, even a 100% efficient forced air furnace could not heat my home as efficiently as electric space heaters.
We are in the beginning stages of renovating several rooms in our two story house (Ontario, near Lake Ontario)… presently heating with forced air electric (installed with house built in 1985)… we are now being pushed to convert to gas as we are being told that we will able to pay back the cost of the switch to gas within two years, saving as much as $400/mnth during the winter months off our bills… we have an electric water heater as well… our water pressure at certain taps is not good while others are adequate+… which had lead us to look into the Ipex Aqua water distribution system (which apparently recently is no longer being manufactured) this tankless hot water method was intrigiung and seemed to be more efficient than our present system)… we have a fireplace insert (non-efficient 1980’s Odette)… and would like to install another fireplace in the bedroom/bathroom reno once we get that underway…
so… I am getting all sorts of reports for and against gas vs electric and like usual cannot determine which is the way to go!… I thought allergy wise the electric heating was better than gas? dunno
If you can afford the capital investment, a high efficiency gas furnace will likely save you money over its lifetime. I don’t know about $400/month, but that’s possible depending on the energy requirements on your home. For comparison, I have a 2600 ft^2 two story home and my energy bills peak at about $200/month in Jan/Feb (all electric heat at around $0.07 kWh) when the outside temperature averages about 18Â°C below that inside.
If total cost over the lifetime of the system were your only concern gas would be the way to go. As for other factors like allergies, carbon footprint, etc, you’ll have to decide for yourself what’s important to you.
I am considering switching to electric baseboard heating from gas furnace too and found your comparison very helpful! However, I have heard some disadvantages with electric heating.
Some people say that houses with electric heating are lack of air circulation, resulting high humidity in the house. Have you had any concerns with it? Have you observed any condesation or molds problems?
Some people say that it is better to keep a constant indoor temperature in the house for electric heating because it takes longer to heat up. With forced air system people usually lower the temperature when leaving for work. Was your comparison done with a constant temperature or programmed?
Last question, are you using 110v heater or 220v? I am thinking of upgrading my panel and wiring in my house to support 220v electric baseboards. This will be a renovation cost. However, it is ok if I can get a quieter, cleaner and maintenance-free heating system.
Thanks in advance for your time!
The amount of water in the air won’t change whether you use electric or gas. Humidity is therefore only affected by temperature. The colder the air, the higher the humidity. If the air gets cold enough, the humidity will reach 100% (the dewpoint) and the water will condense. It is not reduced circulation that causes condensation, but uneven heating. For example if you place all your electric heaters away from outside walls and windows there will be a strong temperature gradient, with outside walls/windows being much colder, and there is danger of condensation. If you place your electric heaters intelligently to produce an even temperature throughout your home, you won’t have any problems.
I agree with keeping a constant indoor temperature for electric heating. I experimented with timers on some heaters, but the power requirements are much higher for this to be effective. For example, if you need 5-6 kW continuous power output on a cold day in winter, you would need 10-12 kW of power output if you want to turn the heaters off for half the day. For a properly insulated and weatherproofed home, the savings by setting back your thermostat for some period of the day are almost negligible. The thermal mass inside a home (walls, furnture, etc) stores heat and releases it slowly when you turn off your furnace. So the temperature should not drop significantly during the 8-10 hours you might be at work. It just makes more work for the heaters when you turn them back on to pump all that heat back into the walls and furniture.
I was using 110V heaters. I used many relatively small ones (about 750W ea) for even temperature distribution and to avoid drawing too much current from any one circuit. I have another article where I talk more about my actual setup: http://www.iwilltry.org/b/projects/make-the-switch-to-electric-space-heating/
I live in Vancouver, B.C., close to you. With the new 2 tier electrical rate and the planned electrical rate increases in the near future, would you still go with electric over gas?
Even at BC Hydro’s old rates an analysis based on lifetime cost alone would favor installation of a high efficiency gas furnace. But there are other considerations besides lifetime cost, namely capital cost, payback period, and environmental impact.
With BC Hydro’s new scheme, electric heating is still cheaper for me than my old gas furnace, so I will continue to heat with electricity while considering other options. I likely won’t move back to gas due to environmental concerns. But I am considering a heat pump, and I will continue to invest in reducing energy consumption through better insulation, weatherproofing, solar projects, etc.
Thanks for posting your experience. I find this kind of sharing of information very useful…
I’m looking into something similar. I live in the Puget Sound area and have been remodeling my house by finishing my basement. This will add nearly 900 sqft to my house, and I had been planning on replacing my 25-year-old natural gas furnace to accommodate the extra air volume and to get better efficiency.
However, looking at natural gas rate increases over the last several years compared to my electricity rate increases, it seems that natural gas is becoming less cost effective.
So, over the past week, I’ve started investigating electric heat particularly in terms of cost of heat and cost of installation. I started thinking maybe I could try using several space heaters to supplement my gas furnace. But my search has been leading me to think a better option may be to get a heat pump (air, rather than geothermal for installation cost reasons).
It seems from my initial research, that with our reasonably mild winters, my older gas furnace would only be used maybe two months out of the year (the break even point seems to be when the outdoor temp gets to just above freezing, 2-5 degrees C). The rest of the year it seems I could easily get by with just a heat pump and it would cost less than natural gas.
You mention that you have been looking into a heat pump, I was curious what you might have found in your research.
Thanks again for your post.
Hi Kevin, unfortunately, I haven’t done much research into heat pumps at this point… too distracted with other projects.
Hi Rob, I live in Kimberley, BC and am presently doing a major reno/rebuild of our existing house. I am also challenged with trying to determine the best long term solution for heating our house. We have instaled radiant infloor heat on all levels and also have a masonry wood heater. Due to large fir trees on the south side of our house in our neighbours yard we do not receive enough southeren sun to consider solar hot water. My plumber and I cannot decide if its better to go with an on demand boiler, electric verses gas on a stand alone boiler which would be gas. I had not considered the heat pumb option but am now wondering if this is something I should be considering? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
I wish I had some insight that could make your decision easier, but there will be a lot that depends on the specific details of your home. On-demand is preferable, but costs can vary significantly depending on the home (gas ones usually need to be located on an outside wall, and electric ones could require upgrading your main panel and may require a preheating tank). My preference for water heating is a very well insulated (ie around 1ft of insulation) electric stand-alone tank. This is relatively cheap and if you add enough insulation, it approaches on-demand efficiency. You can use regular fiberglass building insulation around the tank.
I live in quebec and am converting my duplex to a two story house. I am completely gutting the place and have a chance to change from my electric baseboard heaters and electric stove to natural gas. I am confused about how expensive this will be and want to make the right choice for the environment as well. The winters are extremely cold here, and I cook a lot and have always thought a gas stove would be more efficient…..Any advice?
There is a lot of chat about electricity vs natural gas. One point I will raise: You are assuming that BC Hydro’s electricity is coming from their hydro facilities 24/7. That is incorrect. There are periods of the day (or night) where is it less expensive (read profitable) for BC Hydro to buy electricity from either the States or Alberta (Wholesale Markets). BC Hydro exports large amounts of electricity to AB during the day when prices are high and BC Hydro buys electricity from AB when it is cheap (at night). One point to remember. Cheap electricity means coal-fired generators running 24/7.
Hi Doug. I didn’t make that assumption. My understanding is that the Karma data on power company CO2 emissions is based on all the power sold by a particular power company (regardless of whether they produced or imported it). If that’s not correct, let me know. Current data on BC Hydro from http://carma.org/company/detail/1688 shows less than 6% of the power they sell is generated from fossil fuels, the rest being hydro.
I’m well aware that BC Hydro buys/sells power from/to other power companies. My understanding is that mostly they export power to the US. They export power during our peak demand (ie they have enough capacity to meet all BC’s needs and then some) and import during minimal demand. A hydro plant can change it’s output almost instantaneously to meet changing daily demand. A coal fired plant can’t, so coal fired plants in the states run at a relatively continuous output, buy extra power from BC Hydro during peak demand and sell their excess power back to BC hydro during minimal demand.
Actually, cheap electricity usually means Hydro. Producing power from coal costs more.
The amount of energy you consume for cooking will be negligible compared to what you consume for home heating, so I suggest you base your decision on home heating alone. From a cost standpoint, a high efficiency (90% and up) natural gas furnace will almost certainly be cheaper than straight electric. From an environmental standpoint, electricity is probably better if it is hydro generated. A heat pump is an even better solution. Its capital cost is the highest, but the operating cost and CO2 emissions are the lowest. You should be able to determine the exact costs for all these options for your particular house in your particular region. I can only generalize.
My best advice, since you are completely gutting the place anyway, is to ensure that the building envelope is well sealed and to design for the lifetime of the home. Most builders only design for around a 10 year payback when they insulate (ie the cost of insulating will be paid back in energy savings over the first 10 years). But most homes exist for much longer than 10 years. If you design for a 25 or 50 year payback, you will end up spending a lot more up front on insulation, and paying a lot less over the years on home heating.
Thank you very much for your research and for publishing your findings here.
We moved into a house in Abbotsford 3 years ago that had a gas fireplace as its sole gas appliance and everything else was electric. When I inquired of Terrassen gas at that point I was told I would need to pay $10/month for a connection fee (for the privilege of being able to actually purchase gas). When I asked Terrassen what it would cost to buy the gas to run the pilot light for my fireplace, they estimated it would probably cost another $10/month (their numbers) So I found myself in the situation where I would have to pay $240/year for the privilege of being able to actually turn on the fireplace. I decided that I would simplify my life, leave the gas disconnected and “fire the gas company” putting the $240/year towards electricity. With 100% of the electricity I purchase becoming useful heat, I don’t have to think about furnace efficiency. Additionally we have the ability with baseboard heaters to control every room individually. So the bedrooms are a little cooler for comfortable sleeping (and since they are empty most of the day) and the living spaces and bathroom are a little warmer.
One of your commenters asked about air circulation and moisture. For $26 from Home Despot I was able to purchase a de-humidistat that controls the bathroom fan (90CFM) and there is another dedicated fan in the main hallway to promote air exchange. Some work with weather trim around doors made the house quite tightly sealed. We have an EnerGuide rating of 71 in a 31 year old house (as measured by thehousewhisperers.ca .
Thanks for your excellent work. I’m encouraged as I read your articles and see that many of the same thoughts I have had are represented in your research and experiments.
I wish you success in all your experiments as I can clearly see you intend these experiments to benefit those around you.
I’m building a new duplex, sidexside, total 2970 sf on 3 levels, each unit with it’s own systems. I am wondering what to put in, gas furnace in the 4′ crawlspace to main level only, and electric bboards on 2 and 3rd floors, or bboards throughout. I am intrigued by your experiment, and see that electric is more efficient and cheaper to install, and each room is controllable.
Some say gas will become more $ in the future here in BC, I don’t know.
I’m a fit 63 and will probably live here til I can’t manage the stairs! 10 years, I guess, so I”m not looking for something that will ‘pay off’ over 20 or 30 years.
Heat pump on this tiny 33 lot doesn’t leave much room. Don’t like the noise or expense of the installation either.
Many thanks in advance for any thoughts you have…..
Looking at the economics over the first 10 years alone, electric may seem the best choice due to reduced installation cost. However, over the lifetime of the heating system, a high efficiency gas furnace or heat pump would almost certainly be more economical. My personal feeling is that builders have a moral obligation to design for the lifetime of the home, regardless of how long they expect to live there themselves and regardless of what the building code says is the minimum requirement. When it comes to new construction, the most important consideration is not the heating system but the insulation and sealing. Unlike the question of how to provide the heat, the question of how much insulation to use (effectively how thick to make the walls) is a decision that must be made up front. “Minimum recommended R-values”, according to my calculations, are generally based on a payback period of about 20 years. The lifetime of the insulation is effectively the lifetime of the home, which could easily be 40 years, in which case it will cost you less over the lifetime of the home if you double the recommended R-values.
If you are worrying about CO2 emission you have to calculate how much CO2 produced during production and delivering per kWh to your house otherwise it’s useless
I agree the carbon footprint of natural gas is more than just that from burning it. I’m not sure how I would go about calculating the amount of CO2 produced from it’s production and distribution, but in my case it is a moot point since the CO2 produced from burning alone is already significantly more than that produced from the use of hydro generated electricity. Thanks for the comment.
I live in Vancouver and have been using electric fan heaters since the price of natural gas escalated in the early 2000’s. The 35 year old split level house is a with 1100 sq ft on the lower floors & 650 upstairs bedroom. I have mainly one heater at the bottom of the stairs to the upper floor set at the 800 watts. Last 2 months Hydro bill was quite high 4709 kW.h = $392.00. I did a comparison of Hydro usage charge $0.08270 kW.h (over the 1376 base kW.h) and Terasen gas$4.953 per GJ = $0.01782 kW.h. The difference is $0.065 kW.h. I’m back on gas now.
I’ve been planning to build a new house soon and was looking at heat pumps, but the large capital cost and ~5-7 years payback period, has me thinking gas furnance and upper floor electric heating/AC. Put the money saved into better insulation or if the gas price increase add on a heat pump later. Thanks for the report.
Hi Rob, I was just wondering. My wife & I have just purchased our first home (a townhouse) which is using electric heat throughout, but natural gas for the water heater, and non-efficient (heatless), fireplace. We don’t use the fireplace (and really have no desire to), and have turned off the pilot light. I think I want to cut Terasen gas out of the equation and go with an electric water tank with plenty of insulation (your suggested 1 foot thickness), or electric tankless system. What do you think is the wisest choice? And is the wisest choice also the cheapest choice? Thank you.
I have two other friends in exactly that situation. In my mind it’s a no brainer. It’s my very strong belief that a well insulated electric hot water tank is the wisest choice both financially and environmentally. It comes close to tankless efficiency at MUCH less capital investment (even buying a brand new electric tank rather than converting the existing gas one as I did) and it allows you to use a timer to heat your water during off peak hours, saving you on electricity if/when BC Hydro starts billing different rates at different times. Also, tankless systems are simply not scalable. If everyone used them, the peak electrical demand each morning would be ridiculous. Hot water tanks allow the electrical demand to be spread over the whole day reducing the need for more dams/power plants simply to meet peak loads.
Also, if your hot water tank is located inside your building envelope, and you heat your home with electricity anyway, you will effectively get tankless efficiency 8 months of the year since what little heat escapes from your well insulated tank will simply heat your home, offsetting electricity you would otherwise consume anyway for the same purpose.
If you do install a super insulated hot water tank, I would love it if you send me a picture to post on this site. Cheers.
Thanks Rob (and all the thoughtful commentors), I was discussing our recent renovations + our upcoming conversion to insulated electric water tank with some friends not familiar with the specifics. It helps to have all this data at the ready.
Hello Rob et al.
What a find this website is! Thank you for all of this information and debate. I am thinking of purchasing a home on the island which is currently heated by oil (Gak). I was considering an air to air heat pump, but I think for the temperatures there and for the amount of heat I use here in Richmond, the initial investment might be overkill. I was leaning towards electric baseboard heat as a main source. There are other things I can do to decrease my heating needs, such as insulate the floors and basement. I will look at a woodstove for the coldest days and for island evenings with a glass of wine and a good book! 🙂
I am also going to be building a garage and was considering adding solar to electric panels to this. I still need to do some research, but I’m hopefull this will help my overall costs. Does anyone here have any experience with solar panels?
I am curious to hear about this.
You recommend a heat pump and a gas furnace as an ideal combination, esp for new constructions. My questions is why not a heat pump and an electrical furnace instead? The latter is going to be used minimally anyway. Thanks
I don’t think I stated anything in particular as an “ideal” solution for new construction.
A heat pump likely offers the minimum cost over the long term and has the lowest environmental impact, but the highest capital cost. Electric heat has probably the lowest capital cost but the highest cost over the long term. A high efficiency gas furnace is somewhere in between. The ideal choice depends on what’s important to you (capital cost, overall cost, environmental impact, etc). I didn’t even mention hybrid systems (heat pump plus gas backup, or heat pump plus electric backup) or oil, or wood, or any number of other possibilities, but they are all viable depending what’s important to you.
My goal in writing this article was never to suggest what is the ideal system for new construction, but only to show that using simple electric space heaters can be an economical retrofit for anyone with an old inefficient gas furnace.
I really miss B.C. $10 / month fixed rate is dirt cheap. I used 4 GJ of gas last month here in Alberta, and my bill was more than $60 – $40+ being from fixed costs. I’m definitely getting rid of gas. I have thought about it for the last week, and it just makes sense. Doesn’t help that a house less than 2km from mine blew up yesterday from natural gas.
Based on current pricing is it cheaper to heat with electricity or natural gas? I live in the Okanagan & have 1 free standing gas heater and 1 space heater downstairs. We also have baseboard heating. The gas units are about 10 years old and not high efficient. We use 2 portable electric dehumidifiers up & down to keep humidity in check & these throw off some heat as well. Without upgrading anything, what balance do you suggest for operating electricity vs gas through the winter months??
I think current pricing in BC, including taxes and fixed fees, assuming an average winter consumption is around $0.08/kWh for electric and $0.043/kWh for gas (assuming 100% efficiency). To get true cost per kWh in the home, divide by the efficiencies. Electric heaters can be considered 100% efficient. Your dehumidifiers can actually be considered more than 100% efficient… probably around 150% (see my post http://www.iwilltry.org/b/heat-your-home-with-a-dehumidifier/ to understand why). Without knowing your specific gas heater, I can’t say what it’s efficiency is, but let’s assume it’s 80%. Then your real costs are:
Dehumidifier = $0.08/1.5 = $0.053 per kWh into the home
Electric heater = $0.08/1 = $0.08 per kWh into the home
Gas heater = $0.043/0.8 = $0.054 per kWh into the home
So for lowest cost, run your dehumidifiers as much as you want and heat with gas. If you know the real efficiency of your gas heater use it in the above calculation for more accurate results.
Excellent data. I put my house on electric when I purchased it with a fuel oil furnace. I hoped I had made the right decision. I compare my cost to similar houses of my friends and it is better. I wonder Rob are the space heaters that you used are on 110v or 220v. I am under the impression that 220 is a lot more economical than 110.
I can’t think of any reason why there should be a difference in economy between heating with 110V vs 220V. To put 1 kWh of heat into your home will consume 1kWh of electricity and the cost of that 1 kWh of electricity is the same regardless if it is 110V or 220V. I don’t see why anyone would expect there to be a difference. Perhaps it is the cost of the heaters themselves? You need much fewer heaters to heat your home if you do it with 220V since each heater can output more power. So if you are building from scratch, 220V is probably cheaper. But the cost of the electricity is the same.
Living in Prince George , we have a lot of power outages. I have a wood burning fireplace for those times, some have been at least 4 days. I do have a gas hot water tank, in those times all the family comes here to have a hot water shower. Some of the people on wells, have no water at all, and can’t even flush their toilets during that time, because, apparently they rely on electriity, I think you need to consider all options and leave yourselves versatility, no matter which may be cheaper or more efficient at the particular time.
Here’s how I look at gas vs electric heating.
Imagine that you could make 2 almost-identical copies of the universe. The difference is that in universe-A you use a high efficiency gas furnace to heat your house while in universe-B you use electric baseboard heat. Assume now that over the course of a year 1 MW-hr of energy is required to heat your house.
In universe-A, the gas required to produce 1 MW-hr of heat will result in about 200 kg of emissions.
In universe-B, one extra MW-hr of electricity has to be generated somewhere. Since the universe’s are identical then over the year there is the same amount of sun for solar power, wind for wind power and water for hydro power in each universe. Nuclear reactors typically run at full power so there is the same amount of nuclear power in both universes as well. The only thing that we can do to get the extra 1 MW-hr is to use more power from a source where we control the fuel supply. As the electricity industry currently operates in most jurisdictions around the world, this means burning more natural gas, oil or coal. The cleanest of these, natural gas, results in around 500 g of CO2 per kW-hr of electricity generated. The dirtiest, coal, results in closer to 1000 g per kW-hr. As a result, my universe-B emissions probably lie somewhere between 500 kg and 1000 kg of greenhouse gases.
So, my universe-B, heated by electric baseboards, results in 2 to 5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than in universe-A which was heated by natural gas. In this line of reasoning, it does not matter whether I live in BC or not. What is important is that, in a given electricity trading area, there are fixed generation resources (wind, solar, hydro, nuclear) that are always maxed out and fossil-fuel based resources that are used to make up the difference between demand and the fixed supply.
My blog article: http://ponderterra.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/can-energy-efficiency-be-bad/ has more information on the issue of gas vs electric heat.
Great comment… and article. I agree with your assessment except for a couple minor points:
1. I don’t believe it is true that fixed generation resources (wind, solar, hydro, nuclear) are always maxed out. BC Hydro, for example maxes out during peak demand, because they sell electricity to the US. During off-peak hours, BC Hydro basically shuts down their generators and instead buys back coal based electricity from the US. This is done because US coal fired power plants cannot adjust output fast enough to match changes in daily demand. The coal fired plants operate at a fixed output, buying hydro power from BC hydro during their peak demand and selling coal power back during off-peak hours. This is a somewhat moot point though since the net effect is the same: any additional electrical usage effectively results in more coal being burned, regardless of whether you live near a hydro plant in BC or a coal plant south of the border, and regardless of whether you consume electricity during peak hours or not.
2. For a complete analysis of carbon footprint, you must compare dollars to dollars, rather than just MWh to MWh. If you have options at your disposal that result in greater greenhouse gas emission reductions per dollar spent than installing a high efficiency gas furnace, then you may be better off installing cheap space heaters and spending the money you save on other carbon offset strategies. For example, removing my inefficient gas furnace and installing cheap space heaters saved me a significant amount of money which I chose to spend on additional insulation and other strategies for reducing my own energy consumption. I suspect the net effect has been a greater return (both in reduced carbon emissions and dollars saved) than if I had installed a high efficiency gas furnace.
I agree with the conclusion of your article… when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, it’s really all about the negawatts.
By maxed out, I only meant over the period of a year – I assumed that short-term planned fluctuations would average out. I would not at all be surprised if they varied the hydro generation during the day for various reasons. Do you have any references that describe BC Hydro’s strategies for doing this? I’ve looked but cannot find anything.
Here are a couple of other relevant sites that you might find interesting:
BC Hydro has a graph of real-time flow data for their BC-Alberta and BC-US interties that can be found at: http://transmission.bchydro.com/transmission_system/actual_flow_data/. The BC-US flow bounces around quite a bit so it looks like some of the demand fluctuations during the day are handled from imports (oil and gas generation would be my guess).
The Canadian Electricity Association has an informative document called Power Generation in Canada which can be found at: http://www.electricity.ca/media/pdfs/backgrounders/HandBook.pdf. Figure 4 on page 8 shows how Ontario handles demand in terms of what order different power sources come online. In Ontario the order is Hydro, Nuclear, Coal, Oil, Gas, Peaking Hydro. I would really like to see similar data for BC.
An interesting additional thought:
Incadescant light bulbs are considered inefficient. This is because there is so much heat generated by them. If your using electricity to heat your house anyways then all your “inefficient”electronics and lights become almost 100% efficient because any heat they put out takes load off of your electric heater. So by going the CFL Route, which contain mercury, your not doing anybody any favours. You said you live in BC. Our power is hydroelectric so there is even no CO2 released by combustion
I agree with your conclution.
I have not read all the comments so I hope I won’t be ripeating what someone else wrote.
My 1945 house has a 25 year old large addition, 1100 sq. ft old and 2200 sq. ft are newer.
Twentyfive years ago I opted for electric heating in the addition because of costs, I did the wiring myself installing a thermostat in every room always dropping the thermo setting to 15C when not using a room, two rooms are constantly set at 15 C. as I use them on sunny days only, my house is super insulated so that on sunny days the room tempwill reach 25 C. or more.
In 25 years I have spent $ 0.00 on repears or maintainance. Estimating $300/ yr times 25 is $ 7500.
to clarify my last comment, $ 0.00 were spent on the electric heating system. My $ 300.00/ year estimate excludes the purchase of a new gas boiler for the old part which was $5500.00 with removal of the old cast boiler, new maniflod, new chimney liner and, gas line Internal only and outside air pipe for cleaner combustion.
Excellet site and wanderful comments from all. We do need this type of info much more. I have been doing these recommendations since first I bought my old house here in Vancouver 3 years ago. It’s a 60 year old cottage style one story house and I basically paid for the land. I first double glazed the old wood windows with 1/16″ clear plastic glass sheets, resurfaced the floor with used but nice wood floor with good underlay and do use a dehumidifier since beginning. I totally disconnected myself from gas company and pay average 50$ a month for my electricity which is used for everything. I have slowly reduced the temperature inside from 20 to 18 and this year to less than 15 degrees all winter. I use only one small electric heater which is one of those with fake fire display and more importantly it is a mobile one. So we, My wife and I, actually move it when it is needed, though most of the time it is located in the living room. To reduce the consumption we do turn it off during sleep and during day when we are at work. So it is basically used a few hours of evening when we are home. That means inside temperature fluctuates between 16 to 12 during night when temperatur falls. But it really doesnt’ bother us and actually feels great to snug in. One trick we use, which we have learned from our cultural background in middle east is to use a large bed spread to put on top of the heater and sit around it by using it to keep our lower body actually it sometimes even hoter than we can handle:) This is a great trick, because the heating area has been step-wised in the sense that where we are sitting it is above 20 degrees, and as you get farther in the living room it gradients out to 15.
As a side note, I just received a letter from Fortis BC, the new owner of Terason Gas, that they are basically threatening, politely of couse, to disconnect my gas meter if I don’t activate it again! Of course in the name of safety!! These sleezy business practices really is outrages. What had from very beginning turned me off on gas is the running fees they would charge you for just previlage of having the option of using it! And consider that gas price has been kept depressed in the market as long as I remember, but not for the consumer. So, no, thanks you. I prefer to pay my hard earned money to BC hydro, at least it is not polluting the environment as much.
Thanks and keep up the good site.
Thanks for the comment and for your support. I received the same annoying letter from Fortis. Like you, I’ll be happy if they remove my gas meter. I have no use for it. I’ll continue to put my money where it pays back the most (increasing insulation and weatherproofing) while using space heaters and considering other options like a ground source electric heat pump. I don’t know if you have tried it but for anyone willing to tolerate 15 degrees C or lower room temperature during the winder I highly recommend an electric mattress pad. Turn it on 30 minutes before you go to sleep and getting into bed will be a divine experience (the colder your house, the more divine the experience), and the electrical cost is nothing compared to heating your entire home. It is a wonder to me that all beds are not thermostatically controlled by default. It is such a simple solution to put the heat where it will be most useful (at the point of contact with people) instead of where it will be least useful (under windows, usually)… but I guess the average person wants their home to be the same temperature everywhere, regardless of cost or environmental impact.
Hi Rob, Thanks for this excellent analysis. Now three years later has there been any major change to this analysis? Would you still be happy to switch to electricity? I face a slightly different challenge. Currently the ducting takes up much needed headroom in a low ceiling basement. I can rearrange to fix this somewhat, but also furnace and surrounds takes up a good chunk of useful floor space – would be nice to claim this back too. Basement is unfinished so no problem to pull wires to all the rooms. If electric still more efficient, and still a preferred green option then it is pretty much a triple win (third is more space) to get the service upgrade and go electric, versus buying a new high efficiency furnace which I’ll need in the near future. The only issue I can see is I’d be removing the ducting and therefore removing the possibility of easily going with a heat pump in the future.
Three years later I can definitely say my heating costs with electric space heating are less than they would have been using natural gas with my old furnace. My operating costs would likely be even lower if I installed a high efficiency gas furnace, but it would be several years for the capital investment to pay back (while the capital investment on portable electric space heating paid back in the first year). If/when I choose to make a bigger capital investment, it will more likely be in a ground source heat pump and radiant floor heating (fortunately the layout of my home with a 3ft crawlspace under the main floor makes this relatively easy to install), but in the meantime I will stick with electric space heating and continuing to improve insulation and sealing.
Hi Rob and all,
This is exactly the information and discussion I have been looking for. Any feed back on my situation would be helpful. I live south of Seattle but figure our fuel cost and winter temperatures are similar enough. We have been heating our 1944 800 sq feet. (74 sq meters) home with electric baseboards (2) and one wall fan heater. Most of the time it is only the main living baseboard heater is heating our home. The other two only heat the bedrooms when needed (turned up 20 min before retiring). Recently we have started to look into heating our the main areas home with a gas fireplace instead of the baseboard heat. The hope is to reduce our heating cost and make use of the empty and useless fireplace.
Any feedback is appreciated.
Without knowing exactly what kind of fireplace you have I can’t say for certain, but I suspect you would probably end up paying more to heat with your gas fireplace instead of your electric baseboard heaters. Fireplaces are typically very inefficient at heating a home since most of the heat simply goes up the chimney. Some older models will actually have a negative effect. They heat the room they are in but they end up cooling down other rooms due to air infiltration to replace the air drawn up the chimney. If your fireplace draws inside air to support combustion, it’s a good bet it’s not going to be very efficient. Usually, gas fireplaces are designed to look pretty… not to heat your home. Also, if you do not already have a gas account, getting one will likely cost you around $140/year just for the subscription fee, no matter how little gas you consume. Good luck.
Best discussion I’ve heard. Thanks.
I was faced with an $11/month gas fee regardless of use plus the cost of a new furnace and duct work estimated at $5000+. I’ll go with electric baseboard heat.
I am going to try oil filled radiaters this Winter. Live in NW Illinois and am SOOOOO tired of the natural gas bills!!! Excellent website!!!!
Allthrough BC may have surplus capacity, the rest of Canada doesn’t, and has to rely on nuclear and thermal powerplants instead of transporting clean hydro power through powerlines… therefore I don’t think it is enviromentally friendly to heat with electricity. At least not directly, without heat pump.
For comparrison, electricity in our country costs 0.08â‚¬/kWh (0.11CAD) at low tariff (22:00 – 6:00) and 0.16â‚¬ (0,22CAD) throught the day. You are really lucky to have such low energy prices!
It’s arguable whether gas or hydro is worse for the environment. There are so many indirect effects to be taken into account. However, what isn’t arguable is that consuming less of either IS good for the environment. I agree 100% that heat pumps are the way to go. As well as improving insulation and weatherproofing (a dollar spent there will usually pay back quickly in reduced energy consumption).
It certanly is arguable, allthrough I think hydro is better for the enviroment. But I think we shouldn’t “waste” electricity as such complex energy form of energy to heat our homes, because we can’t power engines or computers with natural gas and therefore we have to convert it to electrcity with poor eficiency.
We would have consumed less fossil fules, if everybody used gas to heat their houses with, let’s say, 90% efficient gas furnance and used all electricity from renewable resources for industry and comunications. What we do now, look something like this: we consume all renewable electricity for heating and burn gas with 35% efficiency to generate electricity to power industry.
You’re still lucky in Canada, because gas is generally cheaper than electricity, if you have 90% efficient furnance, and it’s nothing unusal to have such “high” efficiency – condensing boilers have efficiency arround 100%. Here in Slovenia, gas is so expensive that it’s cheaper to heat with coal generated electricity, even if you have 100% efficient oven, and heating oil is even more expensive, so that you can heat with electricity day-round (through low and high tariff) and you still save money.
Solar water heating systems have been proven in Passivhaus, but recently become on par with comparable BC residential heating systems, especially in high efficiency new construction. It works by utilizing the surplus summer heat and storing it in an insulated container below the slab floor, then circulating that heat through radiant floor pipes.
The capital cost of 12 solar collectors (24m2) and a seasonal solar storage underground tank (15m3) is under $15,000. in Vancouver – to provide nearly all the domestic hot water for showers and cleaning, plus the radiant floor space heating. Once installed, the system is maintenance free for decades, plus the solar heat is clean and renewable.
I think once people know that the asymetrical solar supply/heat demand problem has been solved with annualized storage, and that it is reasonably cheap, it should become very popular in Canada, like it is in Austria.
Hi, are you still happy with the project result considering that Elec price has gone up and Gas down compared to 2 years ago?
I’m still quite happy with the results. Even at today’s prices, there is a cost savings for me to heat with electric space heaters instead of my old natural gas furnace. My utility bills reflect that. They may be higher than when I first switched to electric but they are still lower than before I switched to electric. Furthermore, I have estimated the capital cost and likely annual savings from alternatives like high efficiency gas or electric heat pumps and based on my energy needs, the time till payback for such systems would exceed the likely lifetime of the systems. I’ll re-evaluate from time to time, but for now I’m confident that sticking with electric space heating is the most cost effective solution for me. Other people’s energy needs and opportunity cost may vary so these results don’t necessarily hold true for everyone.
If you want to do annualized energy storage with a 15 m^3 storage tank you had better be starting with a very well insulated and sealed home. You cannot expect to achieve this just by spending $15000 to add a storage tank and collectors to an existing home. Some simple high school physics shows why:
Water has a specific heat capacity of about 4 kJ per litre per degree C. 15 m^3 is 15000 litres. Thus the heat capacity of a 15 m^3 storage tank is 4*15000 = 60000 kJ per degree C, or in more useful units, about 17 kWh per degree C. Lets be optimistic and assume you are able to heat this tank up to 90 degrees C during the summer. Let’s also assume the tank is perfectly insulated so no heat escapes until you want to release it into your home. Thus you have about 70 degrees C of useful temperature drop with which to heat your home (after that the water drops to room temperature of about 20 degrees C it cannot be used to heat your home). So the total energy available is 70 degrees C * 17 kWh per degree C = about 1190 kWh. My heating requirement for December and January alone is about 4,600 kWh. Thus a 15 m^3 storage tank might heat my home for a few weeks at best. This is assuming no additional solar input during those weeks but that is what “annualized” storage is all about. It’s also the stark reality in Vancouver where a sunny day in winter is a rare exception.
Incidentally, even if your home were insulated and sealed well enough that 1190 kWh of annualized heat storage could get you through the winter, that is only about $85 worth of electricity at current BC hydro rates. A savings of $85/year is not much pay back for a $15,000 investment. You’d be much better off putting your money in the bank and using the interest to pay your electric bill.
I’m not disputing that there may be a positive return on investment in solar heating solutions, but where there is, it most likely does not result from “annualized storage” but from continual collection, storage and release of solar energy, year round.
I applaud you for your excellent “thesis”, and the research time you put into this article.
I am currently working on a basement suite and was uncertain whether to go the gas fireplace or electric baseboard route for heating purposes. The walk-out basement suite is about 700 square feet, and it is an ICF system (insulated concrete forms). I currently have a gas fireplace upstairs that heats my living area, but after reading your article, have concluded that baseboard heaters appear to be the way to go.
I am not sure how or why you seem to think heating with electric baseboard is better maybe it is the rates in BC but here in Ontario it is no way to go. High electric use is penalized and the deliver costs are tied to the amount of daily use. I just got my bill for the month of Jan. (which was not that cold this year) and it was just over 600 dollars and we froze keeping the heat below 16 C all the time. There is no way I can believe any one can go with baseboards the heat generated at the board maybe 100% efficient but that is not what matters what matters is the heating of the space and baseboards are terrible for heating large spaces efficiently.
I have compared my heating costs to that of my father, are houses being both similar in size and age, and I spend 1000 dollares more per year then he does heating both his home and water with natural gas. So here in Ontario heating with natural gas seems to me to be the way to go. Even with a high capital lay out with $1000 in saving per year it will pay back in 6 to 8 years depending on the system used.
I didn’t say heating with electric baseboards is better. I simply said that space heating MY HOME with portable electric heaters is less expensive than heating with my existing (30 year old) gas furnace. I verified this over two consecutive winters and my annual bill continues to be lower now using electric space heating than it was with natural gas. I agree with you that my annual bill would be lower still if I installed a high efficiency gas furnace. But the capital lay out would not pay back quickly for me. My hydro bill has never exceeded $200/month here in Vancouver. My total annual energy bill over the past 12 months was just under $1200. If you’re paying $600/month to heat your home through an Ontario winter, I expect your payback period after switching to gas would be much shorter than mine, and I fully recommend it if you’ve determined that to be the case. Good luck.
My husband and I just moved into our house April 2011 (vancouver Island). It is a fairly old brick home, but has had just been upgraded/renovated…windows furnace etc. We have never used a oil furnace/boiler before and were just wondering what is the most efficient way to run it? Should we keep it at a steady temp. all day and night long? or should we turn it off when we go out/house warms up, and turn it back on when it starts to get chilly/we get home? I would assume that it would cost more money to turn it off and then have it work harder to warm back up, but we have heard so many “opinions” from other people. We do have a wood stove, and we use that for our main “late afternoon/evening heat but we use teh furnace in the mornings and the early afternoon (if needed) We have an 1130 Litre oil tank that was dipped @ 30” when we moved in, and it is already empty! seems kind of crazy to us, as it costs between $1300 and $1400 to fill it. ~help~
And thanks in advance for your input! 🙂
I don’t know of any heating method where it is ever more economical to keep a home at a constant temperature. The rate of heat loss from a home is proportional to the temperature difference between the inside and the outside. Suppose it is 10 degrees C outside. Then it will require twice as much oil per hour to maintain the inside at 20 degrees C as it would to maintain it at 15 degrees C. If you have a lot of thermal mass in your home, you may not see a big improvement by turning the furnace off for part of the day since the temperature inside won’t drop significantly and thus the rate of heat loss from the home won’t decrease significantly. So it may not help very much but it certainly won’t hurt.
A possible exception to this rule would be heating systems that operate inefficiently until they get “warmed up”. I’m not too familiar with oil furnaces, but I suspect this is not the case and you will see an improvement from turning off your furnace.
Hello Rob and the rest of you readers. I live in saskatchewan canada, where it usually gets pretty cold out for a good part of the winter. -25 to -40 deg f in not uncommon. that being said, the temp difference is quite high. I have been looking into electric heat as an alternative. much like rob, my old furnace, and less than well insulated building, had my furnace running a lot. with an unheated crawl space and low efficiency furnace, my first year was about $3500. i couldn’t believe it. something had to be done. since those bills drained me, i was left with a less cost investment like space heaters. (just picked up one for $15). and i only heat the areas that i occupy. so my total cost dollars – maybe my carbon foot print – is less. A friend of my mine said to me when i was deciding to replace a NG furnace “whats wrong with the old one?” “nothing is wrong with it” i said, ” I just want a more efficient one”. he said, “until it breaks down, spend the money on insulation and stuff then when you have to get a new furnace it will be ready”. we could go with “heating system” instead as alternatives are available.
1) my first comment is great article.
2) my second comment is baseboard heating. I personally don’t like baseboard heaters as they stratify the heat. the convection style of heat moves the up the wall, to the ceiling, and as that space heats up, moves down to the upper body part. the idea of a space heater is that it “blows” the heat around and I believe uses the heat much more “efficiently”. if anyone knows about stratifying heat – it sits on top -at ceiling level- where its usually less insulated and not much help. I believe anyone with baseboard heat would benefit from a ceiling fan, turning so as to drive the air down the walls – not on top of you – so as to circulate the heat created. also to set at lower speed(not slow speed) as to feel less draft/windy.
3) with old gas and wood burning, oil burning, cloths drying, gas water heaters, all draw cooler outside air into building. the electric space heaters do not. with the building not being well insulated, fresh air replacement is not really a problem. second perk for electric. for me.
4) those of you thinking about space heaters, really look into the benefits of gas heat, as to putting more strain on electrical utility’s. our electrical lineman said “if everyone went electric, there would be no way we could keep up to demand”. in ontario where there are peak charges, that sort of thing, changing life styles would only benefit all. IF YOU DO want to go with space heaters – i would suggest, and am currently installing baseboard style thermostats to operate them. as opposed to the dial on the units themselves. better control can be achieved and with digital accuracy !!! even heat.
5) last thought – I am REALLY, REALLY pondering the idea of insulating the floor and installing electric floor heat mats. what scares me is the total output of heat from floor might not be enough to keep the whole building at a comfortable level. during very cold periods, extra heat will probably be needed. I would assume it to be much like a water floor heat system ! kkeping the stratification to a minimum ! water system – heated with electricity !!! electric boiler !!!!! it costs how much???
😀 anyone with any experience on the electric floor i’d sure like to hear from ya. Cheerz
Opps – forgot one thing:
does anyone know of some new spaceage electric element that produces more heat per kw than any other available unit. please don’t tell me about the amish quartz wood grain heater that heats for only $.09 an hour, for only 350 plus shiping and handling. OMG and they are allowed to place an ad in the paper. No i mean a real new or old element that produces more that 5k btu / 1500w. are the ceramic style more effective than wire element? everything i’ve looked at this winter says all are the same. lastly regarding radiant electric. everything says they are spot heaters, yet they are widely used in the gas heater trade??? any thoughts. wow my brain hurtz. :s
Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately your question is a bit like asking if there is a kind of pipe that will produce more water out one end than you put in the other. It’s impossible for any electric element to produce more heat per kW of electrical power than another. If you put 1kW of electrical power into a resistive element (any element), you will get 1kW of heat out. There certainly are elements that will draw more than 1500W of electrical power and thus produce more than 1500W of heat (I have a 220V, 4kW heater for example), but 1500W is near the maximum power that can safely be drawn from a single 15 Amp 110 Volt AC circuit. That is why residential space heaters do not exceed 1500W.
While you can only get 1kW of heat from 1kW of electricity, you can get varying degrees of comfort from 1kW of heat depending what you do with it, as you have identified in your comment about base board heaters and stratification. Radiant heating tends to provide more comfort per kW of heat since it heats you directly, allowing you to feel more comfortable at a lower ambient air temperature.
I am considering moving into a 1960’s bungalow with electic baseboard heat (Ontario).
Should I be afraid??
This article was very enlightening. It seems pretty comperhensive.
I live in southern Ontario (Toronto area) and I was always
under the impression that gas was a much cheaper way to heat.
I know this article is all about money savings, but I got a new gas two stage furnace
(upgraded from mid efficiency gas)
and my home is defiantly more “comfortable”. The heat is more “equalized ?” I was,t expecting this.
It is too early for me too see how much money I will save .
This article has convinced me to heat my garage with an electric heater when I need it. ( was considering gas unit installed $$$-capital cost)
This post was one of the factors that convinced me not to use natural gas but electricity for heating.
Now my question is baseboard heaters or space heaters?
Baseboard heaters cost a lot to install so I wonder why people use them instead of space heaters.
What is their advantage?
The only advantage of baseboard heaters that I can think of is that they have a more “polished” look to them. They’re designed in. No cords, no tripping over them, etc. There is no efficiency advantage. In fact, because baseboard heaters are invariable placed adjacent to exterior walls, they are less efficient, conducting more heat into the wall and in turn to the outside. Baseboard heaters are also much less likely to be “zoned”. Often a single central thermostat controls all baseboard heaters while each space heater will have its own thermostat. For a more efficient “built-in” alternative, consider electric radiant floor heating.
Here is something of note: Electric prices have gone up a lot more than gas, which has declined in price; also this “test” is of a single man who goes into and out of his house once or twice a day perhaps? If you looked at the average family living in a house of average size things will be HUGELY different. Here’s my reasons: I’ve got a 2000 square foot house (includes basement) And I’ve got kids and a boarder living in the basement. Lots of doors opening lots of bathroom fans on and bigger space perhaps and all of it needs to be heated. Sure if I was a single guy I’d put my feet up on a space heater and watch tv all night or read a book, heating just that room, then heat the bedroom, but I’m afraid under normal use a house would require a lot more BTU hours and I LOVE my radiant heat! It costs no more than $80/month under equal billing including LOTS of hot water and gas stove. The boiler was $6500.00 but worth it now and in twenty years when hydro will be like 40c/kwh!
Baseboard is the worst electric heater you can buy, but the cheapest one.
Floor radiant heating is good, but have a lot of downside (too much heat on the feet, cold draft).
The best heater is a radiant heater install on the wall. Then a wall convector is also very good.
Ask me if you need more detail on this.
I live in Quebec, just bought a 2700 sqft house that has mostly natural gas radiant heating (and some electrical baseboards) with a 15 year old furnace.
My options right now seem to be:
– get a more efficient gas furnace
– convert to an electric furnace.
What are the up and downsides of those options, also considering that I was told that the current chimney needs retrofitting with a cost of about $2,000.
Any insights would be very helpful as relevant information is hard to come by.
I may be a few years late in finding this thread, but it have a question about your blog on how to convert a gas hot water heater to 110 volt electric.
Why couldn’t a person just use a conventional electric hot water heater wired to 110 volt? Wouldn’t that just reduce the wattage by 3/4 ? I know this is a simplification. Thanks
Yes you could do that. I’m not certain whether the existing thermostat would function properly at 110V but you could certainly connect 110V to one or both elements and put it on a timer as described in the article.
Whether it makes sense to do that will depend on your circumstances. If you have an existing inefficient gas hot water heater already, the conversion to electric is much quicker and cheaper than buying and installing another hot water heater. If you already have an electric, there’s not much to be gained by switching from 220V down to 110V (except you can use a cheaper timer).
using a portable 110v heater plugged into the wall would have more resistance in the chord than a 220v baseboard, costing more therefore to operate. There may also be a danger in the chord becoming worn over time. It might be more efficient to replace the chord with one made of 14 or even 12 guage wire.
Hi Alan. Resistance in the cord doesn’t change the cost to operate. The heater itself is just a resistance, afterall. The Watts “lost” in the cord still go into your home in the form of heat. The cost per kWh of heat into your home is the same whether the heat comes from the radiator or the cord (or your TV, or a light bulb, or a computer, or your fridge/freezer, or any electrical appliance for that matter).
I find Robs article over the top. Over the top as in it makes no sense as 0deg F to 70degF in a house of equal volume, window area, insulation, yadayada as is the case with him being in his house. Heat loss is heat loss is heat loss. The energy in trying to maintain is measured the same, in a more practical semse, GJs or gigajoules. If a house with 70 gegrees of differential from out to in needs 50000 BTU, it needs 50000 btus no matter what the energy that is being used has as a calorific value. Efficiencies are the keys here, both in the efficiency of the house and its enevelop and the efficiency of the heat source. The amount of heat to make the house 70 degrees is equal. Rob has got something out of whack, I know not what but….. Perhaps the name of the website has a reflection on the process. IWillTry.org may be an offshoot of the Suzuki Foundation for all I know and I would assume it is an environmental movement in some form. Its president probably flies to all of his out of town meetings much like Sir David of Suzukiland. Give me natgas any day to BC Hydro fees. In fact within three years, natgas will be at a 44% discount from Hydro, efficiency to efficiency GJ to GJ. Take it or leave it
Did you really read the article? You say “efficiencies are the key” and I agree with you on that. In the very first paragraph I explained that my 30 year old gas furnace is not very efficient, while electric space heaters are inherently 100% efficient. I also agree that the amount of heat to make the house 70 degrees is equal, but with a natural gas furnace, not all the energy I “consume” (ie the energy that I measure at my meter and that I pay for) goes towards heating the house. Much of the energy escapes up the chimney, gets radiated into my unheated garage where the furnace is located, or heats up my crawlspace unecessarily (which, though inside the building envelope, still results in greater heat loss through exterior walls and into the ground). Electric space heating doesn’t suffer from any of these extra heat loss paths.
What seems over the top about that? If you’re comparing electric space heating to heating with a modern high efficiency gas furnace, then yes, natural gas will certainly be cheaper (not counting the installation cost). But that’s not what I was comparing in this article.
By the way, I’m just a guy and this is just my personal website. It’s not an offshoot of anything. When you leave a comment (or insult), you’re talking directly to me. No need to talk about me in the 3rd person. Oh… and I hate flying.
This is a great thread-I found it very useful. I’m actually living in rented space in Ontario (utilities included) and am trying to reduce my carbon footprint and help out the Earth by using less of the 1980s era furnace (the thermostat to which I have control over) and more electric. To do so I have two electric space heaters that I move around the home when I can.
I wanted to ask you if you have any safety concerns or recommendations regarding electrical space heaters beyond the normal positioning of the units away from walls/flammables , positioning the cord appropriately , not putting anything on top of the heater, not doing anything foolish, etc. Specifically you had mentioned that it is not worth it to turn off your electric heat if you’re going away for the day/leaving the home for awhile. Do you leave your space heaters on when you leave the house? I have been in the practice of turning them off when I leave strictly out of an observation of best safety practices, though I doubt there’s much risk involved.
The one thing that’s caused me to be more wary / extra vigilant with this practice happened early in the fall of this season when I went to plug-in one of my rotating standup space heaters for the first time since the previous winter . Luckily I was closely observing the unit when this happened: I could see through the vent in the plastic paneling of the unit that a small flame had lit inside of it around a main wire, and was creating the familiar toxic smell of electrical burning. I waited to see if it would go out for about a minute , no more, and it seems to be slightly progressing ( though it remained no larger than a candle flame) , so I unplugged the unit and retired it permanently . (I’ve since bought an infrared space heater with a fan to replace it.)
My concern is that I have no clue what would’ve happened if I WASN’T THERE to unplug the unit . All space heaters nowadays come with an automatic overheat shut off that I presume would have engaged . I wonder how long it would’ve taken to engage though, and if the unit could have caught on fire in any significant fashion prior to it engaging.
Presumably the components of space heaters are coated in some form of fire retardant, or are flame-resistant. But if there was enough of a preliminary flame started, I would have been concerned that despite the electrical shut off , some flames may have left into the nearby surrounding area , perhaps catching something else on fire…
Now it’s possible I’m worrying for nothing , or that I should have only used a better space heater (the one that I had , as I mentioned was a rotating standup heater, made mostly of plastic , and made in China-though most electric space heaters are). I was hoping to get your take on this since you are more intensely involved in the process of electrifying your heat than myself ( I still allow the gas furnace to engage during peak electrical hours partially because I don’t want to kill my landlord’s electrical bill – peak kilowatt hour price in Ontario is now $0.18 ), and I presume that you must leave the house at points and have thought of this safety issue.
What’s your take on it, and what do you do to protect yourself?
You’re definitely not worrying for nothing. Leaving an electric space heater unattended can be dangerous. All the usage precautions you mentioned are important. Other than those there is one serious design problem I’ve found (and it is probably the underlying problem that you observed). The problem is that the built-in thermostats on all space heaters I’ve seen rely on a mechanical contact switch that opens and closes to activate and deactivate the heating element. Every time the switch opens and closes there is a small arc. Over time this degrades the contacts to the point where they barely make contact at all and then you can get some serious arcing and burning. I believe that thermostats on cheap space heaters are simply not design for prolonged, continuous use.
Like you, I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of my heaters when it began arcing badly and then began to burn in a manner similar to what you described. I had the same wonder about what would have happened had I not been home. Probably nothing, but it certainly seemed a risk not worth taking. On disassembling the unit, I realized the problem. I immediately disassembled all my space heaters and modified them to bypass the built-in thermostat. Now they simply run continuously whenever they are turned on. To regulate the temperature of my home I simply turn on more or fewer heaters as needed. It’s fairly easy to anticipate how many heaters I need, knowing that my home warms about 4 degrees C for every kW of power (ie I know that if it’s 10 degrees C outside on average, I need about 2000W inside to keep the temperature at 18 degrees C).
I have also tried solid state thermostats that plug in line between the heater and the wall and will turn a heater on or off with no physical switch and thus no potential for arcing. Try a google search for “indoor temperature controller” if you are interested. They work great but are a little pricey.
I also only use oil-filled metal radiator style heaters. I believe these are safer than convection style heaters with fans for several reasons. They are heavier and less likely to get tipped over. They don’t have as high a surface temperature (relying on a large surface area instead of high temperature to transfer the heat), they are metal so less likely to catch fire themselves and they are silent. After bypassing their cheap thermostats they are likely as safe as any permanently installed electric baseboard heater (except for the tipping over problem, but it’s hard to imagine how one might get tipped over in my absence).
Bypassing a thermostat isn’t difficult. I’ve been meaning to post some instructions on how to do it. Of course it’s important not to bypass the thermal switch that protects against overheating.
Even without bypassing the thermostat you can decrease your risk by operating an electric space heater with the thermostat always turned to the maximum position. This will result in the least switching and prolong the life of the thermostat contacts. Often the on/off switch has a few positions (off, low, med, high). It’s safest to use this switch to regulate the heat output and leave the thermostat knob set to maximum.
Congrats for this article, it is VERY interesting indeed. I found it looking for some information on the internet about the heating market in Canada.
I write from Europe and I work in a company that manufactures low consumption, highly efficient electric heating systems (radiators, towel rails and unvented water heaters). We are developing the products to enter the market of North America and I believe your conclusions in this article are very good.
Keep it up!
I live on Vancouver Island
My Fortis gas bill per month is. $175.00
The actual charge for natural gas. 28.00
Monthly charges,Delivery, storage, surcharges, GST, PST, carbon Tax, .aditionsl storage charges for 3rd party and transportation
Conclusion owning a pipeline is a licence to print money with the blessing of the government
I live in Ladner in a 2400 sq ft house built in 1969. It never had a built in furnace. The original owner used a small wood stove in the bottom floor and also built a mammoth brick chimney with 3 flues in the middle of the house. There are two fireplaces. I installed 2 energy efficient wood stoves into the fireplaces. This works fairly well for me downstairs except for the cost of firewood and stove maintenance. I use oil filled radiant heaters by my desk and in the bathroom which I am happy with. Now I am considering replacing the downstairs wood stove with a natural gas fireplace insert and perhaps an electric fireplace insert upstairs reasoning that the heat from my unit will also warm the upstairs, There are electric baseboard heaters in 3 rooms upstairs. What do you think of my plan? Thanks, I certainly enjoyed reading this thread.