Gas Conversions: The Hidden Costs

Charles-BurseyOver the years, most of us have become too familiar with the words gas conversion. Contractors are hearing that their customers have decided (rightly or wrongly) that either LP or natural gas offers a better value, compared to other fuels they have purchased over several heating seasons. The equipment marketers are also promoting higher efficiency heating equipment that is cleaner burning and offers more versatility—both oil and gas.

These manufacturer’s offer stoves, boilers, furnaces, grills—all connected to a single main gas supply. Many customers who have been told they need a new heating unit and use fuel oil, are now getting quotes from their contractors for a gas unit and the contractors have been very successful in closing the sale.

There are also rebates that are offered by the gas companies in some areas, and this too is another incentive that will help to support the sale of gas conversions. I have read that one of the New England gas companies offers a rebate in the $1000 range.

However, converting from fuel oil to gas is not as simple as it seems. Keep in mind that if oil tanks are in the basement, most communities require that they be removed (added expense). If a new natural gas line is required, there is usually a wait and sizable fee for the line and installation (added expense). If there is an existing line, it may have to be resized to accommodate the new equipment (added expense).

I have had contractors tell me that they install gas conversion burners in any oil heating equipment on a regular basis, which is most likely true. But I know that there are several issues that should be considered before making the conversion. One, for example, is how old is the unit being considered for the conversion to a gas burner? I know of an oil-to-gas burner conversion that was done on a 28-year-old heating unit for $1,200 and in less than a year the boiler failed and had to be replaced. My first thought was, why put that kind of money in a unit of that vintage? Wouldn’t a new unit with a better overall efficiency and a longer life expectancy have been the better choice?

There is something else that some might not have considered before selling a gas conversion burner, and that it the unit’s warranty. I suggest that the contractor make contact with the manufacturer to see if an oil-to-gas conversion is acceptable for a particular product. I recently discussed this issue with a major boiler manufacturer, and I was told that an oil-to-gas conversation would void their boiler warranty. I was also reminded that if I read most any manufacturer’s installation manual, it would clearly state: SUITABLE FOR NUMBER 1 or 2 FUEL ONLY.

If you do decided to install a gas conversion burner, I would first give the make and model of the equipment being converted to the supplier and order a factory-specified burner for that particular unit. Why? This takes out the guess work during the installation, such as settings, and the performance will more likely to be trouble free. Provided the application is available—and It might not be! Again, based on the age of the equipment being converted.

Keep in mind also, that there is a big difference in the 138,000 Btus of heating value found in fuel oil and the 90,000+ Btu’s found in the gas products. Contractors are also noticing that several gas equipment manufacturers are now offering combination hot water and heating wall hung boilers that will provide instant heat and hot water at 90% + efficiency.

By the way, I’m told that in 2015 we will soon be reading more about the efficiency of oil heating equipment increasing to 90% in order to meet the Energy Star ratings, and as an added FYI I’m hearing that natural gas is expected to increase in cost by 20% during this coming heating season.

Charlie Bursey began his long career in the oil heating industry in 1963. He has delivered coal, kerosene and oil and serviced heating and cooling equipment. He has also managed service departments, worked for a manufacturer and currently works with F.W. Webb, Warwick, R.I. He is a recipient of the Association of Oil & Energy Service Professionals’ prestigious Hugh McKee Award for making an outstanding contribution to the fuel oil industry; having had an understanding and cooperation with his/her fellowman; and having unselfishly aided the industry in education and related activities.

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  1. Charlie,
    Great article about gas conversions. Another major expense (added) is the venting. I have found most conversions require a liner per NFPA #54. Oil venting only requires a draft as specified by the manufacturer. Gas venting has to adhere to the venting tables.
    Again, thanks for the article. Good job!
    Curt Reynolds
    White Mountain Oil & Propane
    North Conway, NH

  2. Mr. Bursey,
    with all due respect you hear a lot of things but no facts. I have coverted hundreds of oil fired equipment from oil to gas and all my customers couldn’t be happier. Fewer I mean a lot fewer service issues and no issues with delivery of product to the equipment, a lot less moving parts that fail ie: oil burner, leaking oil tank, clogged oil lines, drys, soot,ect. So I will continue to convert as many oil fired units to gas as possible.

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