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question - saving money with oil furnace
Old 07-15-2008, 10:00 PM   #1
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question - saving money with oil furnace

I am still smarting from my many oil bills from last winter and hearing my furnace running in the summer is like rubbing salt in the wound.

I have a water heating unit called "boiler mate". It seems to be connected to my hot water heating boiler unit in the same way as the four heating zones are.

Am I understanding correctly?

When the furnace is running it has water inside of it and some sort of minimum temperature that it must keep the water at in case a zone calls for some water to be circulated. That means that even if nothing needs heat the furnace will keep the core water amount heated and will burn oil.

The boiler mate has a take full of water and a minimum temperature that it must keep that water at. When the temperature falls below the minimum it asks the zone pump to send water from the boiler and has some sort of heat exchanger that heats the hot water tank water.

So when I do not need hot water (most of the time) the boiler mate is keeping the tank hot just in case. And when the boiler mate does not need any heating the furnace is keeping its internal water hot just in case.

It would seem that if I got a separate electric hot water heater with a tank it might save money in the summer if I could shut off the furnace. In the winter I might be better off with the boiler mate since it can piggy-back off the oil heating. I was thinking about replacing the boiler mate or getting a second electric water heater hooked in in a way that I could use one or the other.

Does any of this seem like it would help? Are there issues with leaving the furnace or the the water heaters off for half of the year - gumming up or something?

At this point it seems that electricity is cheaper than oil, but I figure that the price of electricity will probably catch up in the near future.

I was also thinking about adding some electric baseboard heating units in the hope that they would subsidize the oil heat and reduce the oil consumption during the winter. However, this would be capital expense and would probably look crappy.

I also briefly searched on tankless water heaters but I live in new england and it said that tankless works better in warmer climates and that a whole house unit needed to be propane and I don't have a good spot to keep the tank.

Any thoughts on how to cut the oil bill going forward?
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Old 07-15-2008, 11:22 PM   #2
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Is oil heat really more expensive than electric?

Need to understand that for part of it.

-ERD50
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Old 07-16-2008, 09:23 AM   #3
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Most water heaters have a temp setting device. Does this beast? The lower you set the water heater temp, the less it has to work to keep the temp up. I keep mine set to where I can shower with virtually no cold water turned on.
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Old 07-16-2008, 07:36 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ERD50 View Post
Is oil heat really more expensive than electric?

Need to understand that for part of it.

-ERD50
oh my! I sure hope so! My last top off was around 600 bucks for a two month period with no increase in useage and the prices have gone up since. I paid a paltry 4.20 a gallon for that fill up. I admit that was a little high in usage compared to years past but the average temperature was less also. This year I am going back to my pellet stove until I can get a heat pump installed.....those kind of bills just don't fit in my budget!

(post post admission....my furnace is a bit old but from some other past threads talking about oil heat, I heard some folks share that they were spending upwards of 5K for their annual oil needs!)
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Old 07-16-2008, 07:54 PM   #5
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Many people are going with the tankless water heater. I don't know if that would work for you. Here's a good article about how they work.
How Tankless Water Heaters Work
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Old 07-16-2008, 08:04 PM   #6
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I can't add anything to the water heater conversation - but I can tell you we had our old furnace replaced 3 years ago. We were told we could expect about a 30% efficiency improvement. I didn't believe them. I ran the numbers not too long ago for the amount of oil used for 3 years before and 3 years after the upgrade. We, in fact, have seen a 31% reduction in oil usage.

I also live in NE. Last year was horrible. Our oil bill was probably $1200+ less than what it would have been - had we not put in the new furnace.

I don't know how old your furnace is - but you might want to talk to someone about what you might see for an improvement, if you upgraded your furnace itself.
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Old 07-16-2008, 08:06 PM   #7
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Oil heat is expensive. One reason is that the oil furnaces are generally not very efficient.

Here's a very good calculator for comparing heat sources.
BuildingGreen.com - Fuel Cost Calculator

I'd recommend you use the calculator above to get an idea of just how much more/less expensive electric heat would be for your home. If you've got the money available and electricity is cheaper, you might want to convert to electric heat for your whole house, rather than just think about the water system.

When you use the calculator, note that with baseboard heating elements you get 100% efficiency, while with an electric heat pump you'll get approximately "225% efficiency." That's true as long as the heat pump is able to wextract heat from the air (down to approx 40 deg F. outside) Below that, you'll be using the resistance heaters already built in to the air handler, and these will be 100% efficient. This calculator isn't sophisticated enough to figure out the % of time you'll be on resistance heat. you'd have to estimate that.

Getting back to your question: I'm not familiar with the setup you are describing. It doesn't sound very efficient if you are using you inefficient oil furnace to heat a transfer fluid which then goes to your hot water tank. They do make oil-fired water heaters, but they are expensive, and you are locking yourself into oil-fired heat. If you don't have room for a propane tank, consider an electric water heater and get rid of the whole furnace-linked system. When that thing breaks down you're gonna have some big bills.

You don't happen to be on a well for your water, do you? Lots of home in New England are, and sometimes the wells are very deep (over 600 feet). If this is your situation, you might have a GREAT opportunity to install a relatively simple geothermal electric heat pump. It is absolutely the cheapest way to heat and cool (select that option int he fuel calculator link provided and you'll see). Normally these systems are fairly expensive due to the need to install a large "ground loop" of piping to exchange heat with the soil. However, if you have a very deep well, the system can use the well casing for the same function, just taking the water out of the bottom and dumping it back in at the top. It is not a common setup. but it is something I looked into at one time. Again, the well has to be very deep.
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Old 07-16-2008, 09:55 PM   #8
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I bought the furnace about 18 years ago when I moved into the house. I thought I might replace it so I asked the guy doing the tune up last fall and he said that it was not much less efficient than a new one would be and that I should keep it.

He did work for the company I buy the oil from

I suppose a second opinion is in order. I could ask the guy who installed the first one since he does not sell oil. When he set the furnace up he said something about putting in smaller jets to same oil but I bet the tune-up guy has replaced them by now.

Maybe I can take the average of the guy who wants to sell oil and the guy who wants to sell a new furnace and get a fair answer.

***

I may turn the heat down or just get an electric water heater. The worry about turning the heat down is whether my dishwasher will be hot enough.

***

I do have a well, but when we put the new pump in it they dragged the hose across the lawn and I would guess that it is less than 150 feet deep. One of my friends was talking about building a house with geothermal heating at the july 4th party. I will ask her more about that.

***

I think that when I am ready to fire or when the housing market improves I will sell my current house and build a smaller, more energy efficient house with lots of old age ready furnishings, maybe in a lower cost of living area.

Thanks for the replies.
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Old 07-16-2008, 10:44 PM   #9
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If you are planning to sell the house within 5 years, I doubt there's anything you can do that would result in a good payback.

Zathras and waltwill8 both have geothermal systems, maybe they'll chime in. Here's where we discussed these things last: Geothermal Heat Pump If you don't have room for a propane tank, I'm guessing that you probably don't have room for the extensive space needed for a horizontal ground loop on your property. If your well is really just 150 feet deep, you can't use the single-well method. You could, however, drill as second well and use one well as the "input" well and the other as the "dump well" for the system. This works very well, especially if your water isn't too hard. Drilling that second well can be expensive.

Probably more than you wanted to know. Good luck.
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Old 07-17-2008, 06:25 AM   #10
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If you are planning to sell the house within 5 years, I doubt there's anything you can do that would result in a good payback.

Zathras and waltwill8 both have geothermal systems, maybe they'll chime in. Here's where we discussed these things last: Geothermal Heat Pump If you don't have room for a propane tank, I'm guessing that you probably don't have room for the extensive space needed for a horizontal ground loop on your property. If your well is really just 150 feet deep, you can't use the single-well method. You could, however, drill as second well and use one well as the "input" well and the other as the "dump well" for the system. This works very well, especially if your water isn't too hard. Drilling that second well can be expensive.

Probably more than you wanted to know. Good luck.

Our payback was <4, but that was with the huge oil price leap last year. Otherwise it would have been about 5.

He could probably run the numbers himself. Get an accurate record from the oil company of how many gallons a year he is using. Have to new furnace people (not the oil people) tell him what efficiency gain he can expect if he went from his current Model xxx to Model yyy and then do the math.

The thing is, a new furnace might help his resale when the time comes - particularly in NE. So even if he is only staying in the house another 3 years - it might be worth consideration.
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Old 07-17-2008, 09:30 AM   #11
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I don't think my furnace is the same setup as yours: mine is an ancient oil burning furnace and somewhere in the bowels of this furnace it also supplies my hot water. There's no separate hot water tank that I can see.

The emergency shutoff switch for the furnace is at the top of my basement stairs, near my kitchen and bathroom. So, for the half of the year I'm not using the furnace to heat my house, I keep the furnace shut off via that emergency shutoff switch. I turn it on a few minutes before I need hot water for anything, then shut it off again. It only takes a few minutes to get piping hot water, and it saves the furnace from cycling on and off all day when I really don't need it. It might sound like a pain, but it's really no inconvenience at all, since that shutoff switch is very conveniently located near my kitchen and bathroom.
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Old 07-17-2008, 09:59 AM   #12
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Joe - the setup you have is a good one if you have cheap oil, a high efficiency oil unit, and a very long heating season.

Running it when you're not in the heating season is extremely expensive.

An electric HWH would be jumping from the pan into the fire. They're expensive to run, VERY slow to recover (about twice as long as a gas HWH or your current oil burner) and are generally a bad choice unless you just have no way to supply gas to where you need your HWH to be.

A separate tank gas HWH plumbed in-line with your existing setup with a set of valves that would allow both the oil and gas tanks to provide HW in the winter, and gas only in the summer would be ideal.

One side tip for limpid lizard. Unless your WH has very poor insulation you're not saving a lot by keeping the temp turned down. What you might be doing is allowing bacteria, molds and fungus to grow inside your WH because the temperature never gets hot enough to kill them. Similarly unless your dishwasher can heat its own water, you're probably not killing off the bacteria on your glasses and dishes.

Legionella grows very well in water heaters kept at temperatures below 110 degrees. It seems to affect electric heaters more than gas. I saw one study that showed about half of WH's evaluated were contaminated with legionella, primarily from keeping the temperature too low.
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Old 07-18-2008, 12:01 PM   #13
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I got one of those on demand hot water heaters and can now shut off my oil burner off season. Unfortunately, propane went up too, so I have no idea how much I'm saving...
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Old 07-18-2008, 09:52 PM   #14
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After hearing everyone I think I will look into replacing the furnace, but make sure that I do a true cost benefit analysis and ROI calculation.

I called the company run by the guy that put it in originally (he was just starting out back then) and asked for info, but they have not called back for two days.

I am in the country and would have to have a propane tank delivered. I cannot picture where it could sit without being an eyesore, so I will rule that out.

If the stand-alone electric is not efficient then it does not sound good either.

I will try to see if I can turn the heat down this winter. I worry about the old cat, but he is having health problems and will not be with me forever. Another thread showed me some cat caves that would help him stay warm.

I may look into getting one or two supplemental electric wall heaters so the cat could have a spot to keep warm in. I have a stand-alone one but I am afraid to leave it running when I am not home.

Thanks again for all the advice.
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Old 07-19-2008, 07:42 AM   #15
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Living in the country in NE doesnt give you a lot of options. I dont think a heat pump or geothermal would work well for you there from a cost benefit basis, but you might look at a heat pump with a furnace with backup electric strips in it for the milder days, and that could provide cooling in the summer too.

If your electric rates are cheap, an electric tankless might work for you but its going to need a new dedicated 220v run. Supplement the oil burner with some electric strips like you said. Maybe look at having a pellet stove installed.

The electric tanks are just so slow to recover...a 40/50 gallon can take 2 hours to fully recover. There are some really high end electrics with faster recovery and super high efficiency rates for insulation and lifespan but man, they're costly...
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Old 07-19-2008, 10:05 AM   #16
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I have a similar setup, but with propane. I have radiant heat in my basement and master bath, so a propane boiler heats a large tank of water. That tank of water also provides hot water out of taps so I have to keep the boiler on year around.

I looked into a tankless water heater but the quote was over $3000. I haven't calculated it out but the payback would seem to take forever. Tankless is relatively new here in the US so I'm hoping costs will go down and/or it will get better, so I may reconsider later. I guess I need to measure my summer/early fall/late spring propane usage and guess how much it would be with tankless. Until recently I've only lived here part time so I couldn't make a good measurement.
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