Worthwhile to Convert Oil Boiler to Propane or Not?

rococogurlApril 25, 2012

Have just applied for Energy Audit to determine insulation and other needs. House is about 3000 s.f. in NY State. Definitely we have an under-insulated attic. I'm thinking foam.

However, I know my Weil McClain oil-fuel boiler is 20+ and will need replacement (service guy told me a few years back it had a few years of life left).

Trying to assess whether to convert to gas/propane. That would involve removal of current boiler, oil tank (possible) and placement of propane tank, trench, vent etc. I believe I understand most of the issues around that and the retrofitting that would take place afterwards. Also cleaner burning and no yearly service.

Alternative would be replacement with something like Buderus high efficiency oil-fuel boiler (what most around here seem to use).

However, there are so many variables. The fuel supplier gave me a calc of 750 gallons of propane per 1000 s.f. per year to figure propane cost at $2.29 per gallon. The math puts me at approx the same cost as this year's oil oil-furnace bill. Of course there are the global variables and a chance of skyrocketing fuel oil down the road. But I can't believe oil could skyrocket without putting so much pressure on propane that would rise as well.

So wondering whether -- big picture -- the whole fandango of changing out the entire heating system is worthwhile longterm or whether the only non-variables actually are clean burning, no yearly maintenance cost and no tank in the basement.

Any opinions would be incredibly helpful. I'm trying to get as much knowledge under my belt as possible (and navigate financing options) but I can't get a clear picture of cost/benefit for each option. This is only for our heating/hot water. We have electric for cooking.


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

SOTP, natural gas conversion yes, propane no. You are getting an energy audit. Shouldn't the auditor address this?

You should be able to find a web site that will help you make the comparison between fuel oil and propane by plugging in relative fuel costs and the efficiency of your proposed equipment. You will get a cost based on your actual fuel use rather than some gallons/sq foot figure. That will be more accurate. Again, your auditor should be able to help you with this.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 2:36PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

It most parts of the country heating with propane costs about the same as heating with fuel oil. There is not much a savings by making this switch.

Have you investigated what it would cost to bring natural gas to your house?

A 20 year old boiler is not that old. Other than the service guy's comment, why do you think you need to replace it?

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 4:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

From expensive to more expensive?


    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 4:18PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

ionized -- I haven't selected the auditor as yet. I've looked through the lists of approved contractors for our county for those with websites. I was quite surprised by the variation -- some are GCs who do audits also. Some are auditors with certain specialties etc. Ideally, the auditor should know about the boiler.

Not possible to bring natural gas onto our property. Installing propane would require a minimum 10-foot trench to the house. Been there with electric/cable and not thrilled even by that prospect. If only -- natural gas conversion has beaucoup rebates attached. Not lucky on that score.

mike_home -- just have the service guy's comment. But he's been servicing our boiler for 5 years now. So I was going by his judgment. But if I'm going for this now, I'm going for the whole enchilada. In our state, this can be financed through the electric utility with a loan billed through them and transferred to the next owner, if necessary, with low interest and no outlay. If there's enough savings, it might even pay for itself.

brickeye -- my thought exactly after I spoke with fuel people. Must say I'm leaning towards just replacing the boiler. Then again, if things get frisky in the Middle East and oil goes to $6/gallon I'll never forgive myself.

Spoke to a furnace guy who replaced the boiler for someone I know so he came highly recommended and she's very happy with it. His specialty is conversion to gas but he also can install a new oil boiler. He indicated there won't be much more efficiency with oil than what I have now though it will be smaller, easier to clean etc. He's offered to give me an estimate both ways. I got a good feeling but let's see what more he has to say.

I do plan to interview 3 auditors so any background I get early on should be helpful. But there's also a danger in knowing more than average but not enough.

So I'm hoping folks here will continue to opine.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 5:27PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Been to www.resnet.us/trade/home-energy-raters-hers-raters ?

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 8:07PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

No, but thanks for the link.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 9:33AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"Then again, if things get frisky in the Middle East and oil goes to $6/gallon I'll never forgive myself. "

Do you understand the propane market?

A significant fraction comes from refining oil.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 12:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

heat pump?

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 12:47PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

If fuel oil goes up, so will propane.

Have you thought about geothermal (if you have the yard space)? It would be an expensive initial investment, but might pay over time if you intend to stay in the home.

A heatpump would help you for 'shoulder' months, but you would still need backup heat of some sort.

Are you using radiant or floor heaters with your boiler?

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 3:25PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

My point about oil spiking has to do with keeping an oil boiler vs the switch out.

No idea about propane market but my assumption is that propane also would rise if oil spikes due to increased demand as an alternative. But many of us would be stuck.

Heat pump came up and I need to look into it.

We did a full reno 9 years ago when fuel wasn't an issue and boiler wasn't "old". Sigh.

Geothermal doesn't appear to be an option -- too expensive by all accounts.

weedmeister, we have baseboard radiators. Two zones work well and two not as well -- something that needs to be addressed in the audit and afterwards.

your comment has me thinking mike_home. best to get another opinion.

The tough part is there doesn't seem to be a clear path in terms of cost/effectiveness. Only in terms of which fuel is cleaner.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2012 at 5:36PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

You certainly can't predict fuel markets with any reliability. NG has fallen as oil has recovered from the depths of the recession. I doubt anyone would have thought the dollar would be so strong at this point with record deficits. Even still, the domestic NG is still super cheap in comparison.

The fact is that propane comes partly from oil and partly from NG. I don't understand the chemistry of it all but it maybe possible to get a greater amount of propane from NG since it has become so much cheaper. I do know that the technique of refining can influence the percentage of different products.

Either way oil and propane are roughly 5 times more expensive than NG. Anything would be better than those 2 expensive fuels. I don't think there is an area of the country (except maybe CA) where doing some kind of heat pump makes sense when you don't have NG.

If you can't do geo, you can do a Carrier Greenspeed. Sure you will need backup but if you only need that backup 10% of the time, you are saving money 90% of the time.

Sounds like you are at $5000 per season. That is pretty high. Even at $.20 a kwh, you could probably save 50% of that with a good heat pump. The install might cost you $10k but 4 year payback is pretty good.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 9:15AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

This question of boiler replacement has come up a lot lately. A Buderus oil burner with the controller integrated gives a about an 87% effeciency. A propane modulating condensing boiler can be as high as 95%. The cost of each fuel is not certain from year to year. If you are happy with fuel oil, storage of oil, and the little higher noise of fuel oil burners then stay with it. If propane is cost equal and you want a slightly higher efficient boiler then research propane boilers more. One thing to remember is if you go for an indirect water heater both boilers will run year round. If you were to choose propane then you would always have the choice to later get a gas stove, standard water heater, gas dryer, or even pipe to an outdoor grill.
Both boilers will work much better in NY than a heat pump due to possible cold winters with very low temps.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 12:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I don't follow on what's meant by backup. Right now we have a boiler that runs our heating and hot water. We replaced the hot water tank which is less than 10 y.o.

You nailed the current fuel cost david_cary. Not huge difference with propane according to our supplier despite lower per gallon cost as it appears to take more.

We can't get natural gas as there's no supply where we are.

Buderus and Viseman (if I'm spelling that correctly) appear to be the high-end replacement oil boilers du jour in this area. From what I understand, gas boilers are more efficient but if the total cost of the fuel is approximately the same then am I right to say it it seems like a distinction without a real difference?

Yes, I'd love to get the oil tank out of the basement. No question. Otherwise, the advantage is that the fuel burns cleaner?

If that's the best argument, then why go through the big deal of switching fuel? Forgive me but I'm trying to get a line of logical, compelling reasoning for an expensive retrofit. Is that possible?

I looked up Carrier Greenspeed. I'm a quick study but for the life of me don't understand WTH it is/does. We have central air and frequent power outages. Our backup generator has to support the boiler. That website is incomprehensible.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 1:55PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"No idea about propane market but my assumption is that propane also would rise if oil spikes due to increased demand as an alternative. But many of us would be stuck. "

Propane is so expensive it is not even used by POCOs for peaking power.

The use diesel, almost exactly the same as home heating oil.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 2:00PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

IIRC, the Greenspeed is a new heatpump design that has much higher efficiency numbers than most other heatpumps, something like 26 SEER(?). It can also operate effectively at lower temperatures.

Heat Pumps require a backup heat source (electric, propane, etc) when the temperature gets below it's ability to produce heat.

It would be a surprise to me for anyone to claim that oil burns cleaner than propane.

Your issue would be in trying to compute the savings of using propane over oil. You can look at current pricing and get some idea, but it won't stay that way. Then look at the cost of switching to propane (new tank and lines) versus upgrading the burner/tank. Then the 'opportunity cost' of having a gas HWH and gas appliances (if that is what you want).

A heat pump would take a lot out of your generator.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 2:50PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Responding to the propane production speculations. Propane is a byproduct of two processes. The first is cracking crude oil to get light fractions like gasoline from heavier stuff like fuel oil. The second is purification of natural gas for domestic use. Uncertainty in production from the first source is dependent on two things, the type of crude oil available influences the type product that predominates dictating how much cracking will be done. The demand for the various products also varies and influences how much cracking is done.

Natural gas-related propane production has similar characteristics. The gas supply can be rich in propane or not. Demand of natural gas naturally drives up propane supply.

If you put all that together, propane supply and price is about 4x more complex than predicting fuel oil price.

One thing I never liked about propane as compared to nat gas is that it is heavier than air. It will naturally fill depressions rather than float off. This tends to make it more of an explosion hazard.

I expect that a propane boiler would require less maintenance than oil. what is the big deal about having an oil tank in the basement? As a kid, everyone I knew had one except a very few homes that had propane. They tended to blow up, seriously.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 3:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

propane is more valuable product than heating oil. Propane and other light gasses are a valuable source of hydrogen for the refining industry. Propane is no "byproduct" it is an expensive niche product that the industry specifically produces and charges a premium for on a per BTU basis. Heavier hydrocarbons are "sweetened" with nat. gas to produce propane, there is little propane produced directly from natural gas wells. Propane will cost more to substantially more $$ than heating oil even considering the potential for a slightly higher efficiency appliance. Propane is 90,000 BTU/gallon vs. heating oil which is 140,000. Too many people are fooled by the lower price per gallon, don't be one of them.

If you're oil burner tech thinks your oil boiler (provided it's hot water not steam) is only going to last 25 years, get a new tech because he clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. Unless your boiler has been leaking and filling itself with fresh oxygenated water, your boiler should last at least 50 years, and many last well over one hundred. If your burner is cleaned and tuned and your boiler is PROPERLY serviced and cleaned with the simple addition of a hydronic heat manager (beckett, taco, and others) you will achieve a system efficiency very comparable to any of the top market boilers made currently. If you would like to milk both your wallet and the taxpayers for the purpose of needlessly replacing your boiler, well, that's up to you.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2012 at 11:42PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Met with well-reco'd heating person yesterday. His specialty is gas boilers but he also does oil.

What berlin and mike_home said is more or less what he said -- IOW that unless the burner goes bad or there's a crack in the cast iron, the boiler may not need to be replaced. That's something I will take up with the home auditor. We use our oil company tech for the annual -- he may not be the sharpest but when we had an emergency they were here within an hour.

If I choose to replace it, he installs Vissemann which I expect is like Mercedes.

Even if I don't replace the boiler he suggested installing a Tekmar control system (including electronic thermostats) which would give as much as 20% more efficiency even with the current boiler to lower the water temp slightly and have the thermostats communicate. Any experience here with those?

We discussed possible tank placement for propane -- very uphill to install a 16" deep trench across our yard and it would have to cross the septic line. Don't think I'm up for that. My choices may be narrowing.

Meanwhile, energy audit is approved. Next step is to choose a contractor. I'll throw that dart next week.

We do use propane for our backup generator. No other choice. Hurricane Irene cost $700 for fuel just for that. Evidently they refine it from gold.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 9:57AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"Even if I don't replace the boiler he suggested installing a Tekmar control system (including electronic thermostats) which would give as much as 20% more efficiency even with the current boiler to lower the water temp slightly and have the thermostats communicate. Any experience here with those?"

That is a type of hydronic system management that I mentioned, There are many brands out there, most are good. That will get you far more in savings than the few efficiency points changing the boiler out will get you - at a huge and unnecessary cost. An oil fired boiler, especially a cast iron one, is not a throw-away appliance like a natural gas or propane boiler/furnace is, it is a very rugged unit that will last decades with proper maintenance. It is designed to last; the components that attach to it and the controls, pumps, burner, etc. are intended to be easily replaceable and serviceable.

If you do insist on needlessly replacing your boiler, look to EFM for a high efficiency unit, I am not a fan of Vissemann.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 3:04AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Tekmar control systems have been in use for years now. They have been installed on both residential and commercial projects we were involved with. My understanding is that they have an outdoor reset that monitors the exterior temperature and adjust the boiler temperature to meet the heating needs. If it is cold (0 degrees) they let the boiler fire at max temperature or what ever upper limit that is set. If it is a mild day (45 degrees) that may only allow the boiler to fire to say 145 degrees and provide for a moderate heating temperature. New boilers like Buderus have the option of Logamatic controller which does a similar thing. They will make old boilers more efficient, but new boilers with these controls are even better. Apparently Buderus even makes a oil fired condensing boiler which is 91% efficient. With gas or oil boilers the lower water temperatures can only be reached with these type of boilers as condensation will occur and they are designed for this. If your boiler is good and you install a tekmar you will save money. If you need an upgrade then the new boilers will save on oil consumption, but cost a lot more to buy and install. Tekmar will also control the indirect water heater. These type of boiler controls can prioritize the hot water and fire the boiler at a much higher temperature when hot water is needed. You have a lot of choices from adding controls to your existing system, changing to a new higher efficient boiler with integrated controls, or even going up to a condensing oil boiler with integrated controls. If you are remaining in the house for years to come then maybe replacement in the long run is best. If you don't want to spend a lot of money and still want to save the Tekmar will definitely help and make the house more comfortable. I am not n HVAC contractor, but we have these systems installed on all our projects or they come with new boilers we are installing. I am sure installers can explain better than I can as to exactly how these controllers work. I have a gas fired boiler with outdoor reset built in and it worked great this winter. It is the same principle as the Tekmar and it controls a modulating condensing gas boiler.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 7:34AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks so much guys. It feels I'm starting to cut my way through this thicket.

I'm not anxious to replace boiler. For me it's about safety -- our winters are rough here and the prospect of having the boiler go in dead of winter doesn't need amplification.

berlin -- may I ask why you're not a Vissemann fan?

I've been operating on an assumption based on what the oil company service tech who has serviced our boiler for 9 years told me. He's due again next week and I can ask him how the boiler is doing.

Who is best to give me second opinion on the boiler status? What's best practice -- just to wait for it to go?

The tekmar system seems logical and he can put it in with current boiler together with surge protector for our infamous outages. He can pump system to get rid of the air, install a taller radiator in the laundry room which gets almost no heat.

Together with that and any insulation we might add, also switching out all the floods to CF now that I've found the replacement bulbs (Wal Mart is the only store in the country that carries GE Reveal R30 CF dimmable replacement bulbs if anyone is interested) I may have a path.

We are not looking to make the house perfect -- just improve the energy efficiency in a healthy reasonable way at a time when financing to do so is available and manageable.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 1:15PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"(Wal Mart is the only store in the country that carries GE Reveal R30 CF dimmable replacement bulbs if anyone is interested)"

Like "GE Energy Smart Dimmable Soft White CFL R30 Light Bulb, 65W Replacement uses 15W, 2Pk" at Amazon.com? :-)

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 2:18PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

welldone salti! Someone should inform GE. They gave me the info.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 2:27PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Boiler longevity? My dad's Crane Sunnyday first fired in 1959 when the house was new. It is still in great shape. (I don't know how many guns it has gone through.) He attributes it longevity to regular service by the same, good, company for the whole time and the fact that it is always hot because of its DHW function.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 2:27PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"...your boiler should last at least 50 years, and many last well over one hundred."

Personally, I'm not going to last another 50 years, let alone 100. So I'd wait rather than replace.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2012 at 5:16PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

After calling around I found an auditor who was able to explain exactly which tests would be made on the boiler. That way, I can get an objective assessment on replacement. He didn't recommend conversion to gas for appreciable savings, which also makes sense. Fingers crossed that I'll have some luck on this and that he'll turn out to be as good as he sounds.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2012 at 9:51AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Seeking input on HVAC replacement
I am getting ready to do a full replacement. Current...
Can you vent a cooking range into a chimney?
I know you can't vent into fireplace chimney or one...
Advice on Attic insulation
So we just finished the second year in our house and...
1 vs. 2 stage cooling? 80% vs. 95% furnace?
I'm in SoCal near L.A. (zip 91354). Two story house...
M. A.
Need help with selecting Eff Heat Pump replacement.
20 yr old American Std Heat Pump stopped working. ...
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™