Chapter 4: Oil Heating Versus Electric Heating

When you look at oil heating versus electric heating, it’s important to understand how electric power works.

The Basics of Electric Heating

Efficiency is a two-sided issue. Within a household electric system, all incoming electric energy changes to heat energy. At this level, it’s 100 percent efficient.

However, electricity usually originates from power plants with coal, gas or oil generators. Only about 30 percent of the fossil fuels used are actually converted into electricity. Less common sources of electricity are nuclear plants, wind farms and hydropower plants — which use water.

Only about 30% of the fossil fuels used are actually converted into electricity.

Electric Resistance Heating

An electric heat versus oil heat comparison must examine respective heating methods. Electrical systems incorporate either resistance heating or heat pumps. Resistance heating comes in two forms: forced air furnaces and zonal heaters.

Electric furnaces have blowers that send cool air over several heating elements. Warmed air travels through supply ducts to the house, and the air loses heat during this journey. Cooled air comes back to the furnace in return ducts. These ducts are sometimes part of a home’s central cooling system. One thermostat typically controls the heat for the entire house, so heating is often uneven.

Zonal heaters are more efficient than forced air furnaces because each room has an independent thermostat. Since zonal heaters don’t use ductwork, heat also doesn’t escape along the way.

Electric baseboard heaters are an example of a zonal heater. Each has a heating element within its housing. Another zonal format is the wall heater, which typically sits within interior walls. A fan moves air through the heater, while a reflector sends heat back into the room.

Though is it not common, some resistance heaters permit thermal storage. These make use of electric companies’ differences in rates between day and night — electricity is more expensive during peak daytime hours.

Electric thermal storage heaters collect electricity at night, when rates are lower, and store it for later use. Heating elements usually rest within heat-storing ceramic components.

Electric Heat Pumps

Air-sourced heat pumps move warm air from one area to another. In cooler weather, a pump brings warmth from the outdoors to inside the home since even cold air contains heat energy.

The process reverses itself for cooling — the pump sends warm air from inside a house to the outside.

People who live in mild climates have more success with traditional heat pumps because efficiency drops significantly in regions where temperatures go very low. However, some modern heat pumps work well even when temperatures are below freezing. While standard heat pumps are either off or on, newer models have variable speeds.

When a house reaches a satisfactory temperature, contemporary motors have the option of continuing to run slowly. This helps to maintain continual warmth in very cold weather.

Though many air-sourced heat pumps use ductwork, mini-split heat pumps don’t need those conduits. Another air-sourced variation, a reverse-cycle chiller, heats and cools water. These systems often work in tandem with radiant floor heating.

Geothermal heat pumps work by moving heat between a ground or water source and a house. Installation costs are higher, but they are more efficient and less expensive to run.

The Electric Edge

In an electric versus oil heat price contest, electricity comes out ahead. Heating a home with electricity is less expensive. For winter 2014 to 2015, the average cost of using electric heat was $960. For the same period, heating oil costs averaged $1,851.

For winter 2014 to 2015, the average cost of using electric heat was $960. For the same period, heating oil costs averaged $1,851.

Another advantage is that electric heaters are available for either whole houses or individual rooms. This makes them useful for heating additions or seldom-used rooms.

Electric furnaces are also very safe, as they don’t produce dangerous gases as by-products. There is no combustion in electric heaters, so the chance of a home fire is remote as well.

In the oil versus electric heat debate, however, oil sometimes gets the upper hand. Electric heaters are significantly less efficient than their oil-burning counterparts are, and the air that’s delivered is also cooler than in oil systems.

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