Trained Eye

 
 
 

Electric Vs Gas Furnace

Question:

I have a question for my mother. 

She is 76 years old, lives in a 2-story house with oil forced air heating, and needs to replace the furnace.  The big decision is whether to go with a forced air natural gas furnace or an electric forced air furnace.  If she decides on gas, I think she has decided to go with a high efficiency one, as the cost is only about $200-600 more, and with mid-efficiency she would need a chimney liner ($650) and combustion air intake vent ($200).  She is leaning towards electric, as gas would have a certain amount of gas fumes and explosive properties, is not as good for the environment, and would involve the trouble of the gas company installing a gas line on her property. The electric furnace is about $1000 more than the gas furnace, when you take into account getting 200 amps. electrical service and connecting it to the furnace.  

Currently electricity and gas are about the same cost, but some people she has talked to still think she should go with gas because people perceive gas as being cheaper than electricity. Also it has been suggested that when she eventually wants to sell her house it may be harder to sell with electric heat.  Some news lately says that gas will become very scarce in the future, and electricity will be easier and cheaper to obtain.  Do you have an opinion about the difference between electric and gas forced air furnaces?  Could you reply as soon as possible as winter is coming soon and my mom does not have a working furnace?

Thanks.

Answer:

There will be much debate about your excellent question in the coming years. There are many reasons for this discussion, one being the recently signed Kyoto agreement by our government. There will be further initiatives by our governments to reduce air pollution and emissions to meet these new standards. Converting some of our reliance on natural gas fired heating systems to electric heat may be a method employed to help meet these goals.

If your mother’s main concern is environmental damage, electric heat will eliminate the minimal emissions from a high efficiency gas-fired furnace. Electric furnaces have no emissions, but construction of large-scale hydro dams also have an environmental impact, that should be considered. Installing a high efficiency natural gas furnace, regularly serviced and maintained, will also reduce the current pollutants exhausted by her oil furnace, considerably. Either choice will make a significant change for the positive, as well as reducing energy consumption, further helping the environmental cause.

Cost is always a consideration when upgrading systems within a home. I am glad to see that you have considered all the upgrades required in your calculations, including upgrading the service panel to 200 amps. I assume from your question that the Gas Utility will install the underground supply piping and meter at no cost, or this may raise the cost of the gas furnace option. Life expectancy of the furnaces and maintenance costs should also be factored in.

Most natural gas high efficiency condensing furnaces have a life expectancy of around 20 to 25 years. They require regular maintenance, cleaning and annual service. They also have many controls, igniters and safety devices that may require replacement before the end of life of the furnace. Safety should be a minor concern, as modern furnaces of this nature may have a sealed combustion chamber and many safety features to prevent any combustion products from entering the home.

Electric furnaces have several heating elements that replace the combustion chamber and heat exchanger in a gas-fired appliance. These are safety protected by over current devices, circuit breakers, in the electrical panel and may have other minimal safety controls. These furnaces require minimal maintenance, as they have no burner to clean and adjust, and no chimney or flue to inspect and maintain. Electric furnaces may also have a life expectancy that exceeds that of the natural gas equivalent. Therefore, overall maintenance costs of an electric furnace should be considerably lower, over the life of the unit.

Comparing the cost of natural gas as opposed to electricity, in the long term, is difficult to impossible to predict. Currently, natural gas costs may be lower, but not to a large degree. I have been hearing the arguments that electricity would be cheaper that gas for decades, but that has only occurred occasionally, for short periods of time. In Manitoba we have very low Hydro rates, compared to the rest of North America, but will that change in the future, as has happened elsewhere? This is even more uncertain, since Manitoba Hydro acquired Centra Gas. I imagine that a single, publicly regulated utility for both Hydro and Gas will strive to maintain reasonably comparable costs for both of their products. If privatization occurs, as it has many other places, anything may happen.

I believe that no person can accurately predict the foreseeable future in relation to rising natural gas or electricity costs and an overriding monetary benefit of either system for heating your mother’s home. There should not be a major problem with selling the home in the future because electric heat was chosen over natural gas, or vice-versa. Making a choice based on your mother’s personal needs, financial resources and environmental concerns, at the current time, should be at the heart of your decision.