Oil-to-Gas Conversions

In the heat of the summer, high oil prices have many people turning to other sources of heat for the winter.

For thousands, that means changing from oil to natural gas to heat their homes. So far this year, National Grid is reporting a 43 percent increase in New Hampshire and Massachusetts customers making the conversion.

WBUR's Fred Thys reports.


[Sound of kitchen in the Morales family's Norwood home ]

FERD THYS: Michelle Morales doesn't dare wait until her tank gets empty before calling the oil company; not because she is afraid of being cold, but because she is afraid of the bill that would come if she had to refill her entire 275-gallon tank.

MICHELLE MORALES: I wait until half a tank. I never go below a half a tank, because I don't want to have a huge fill.

THYS: Morales and her husband started to think about switching to natural gas last December, when filling half a tank cost them more than $300.

MORALES: And then it went to 4, and then it went to 5-something for a half a tank.

THYS: Morales needed to replace the 50-year-old oil burner in her Norwood home anyway, so she thought she might as well get off oil altogether. She is among an increasing number of people who are converting their boilers from oil to natural gas.

John Isberg, of National Grid, says the company has seen a dramatic rise in conversions in Massachusetts and New Hampshire this year over last year.

JOHN ISBERG: For the first seven months of 2008, we've had approximately 4,300 customers switch from oil to natural gas, vs last year, roughly 3,000.

[Sounds of workers fitting pipes in the Morales' basement.]

THYS: In Morales' basement, National Grid workers are connecting the pipes that will fit into the new boiler.

The conversion costs: Morales says she and her husband are paying $6,800 to install a new gas boiler, and $1,500 to connect the house to National Grid's lines. And that doesn't include the cost of removing the old oil tank. That's an extra $300. Eric Murphy, one the National Grid guys getting the pipes ready, says the whole installation takes two days.

ERIC MURPHY: Then fire it off, and everybody'll be happy.

THYS: Despite the high cost up front, there could be significant long-term advantages to converting to natural gas. Neil Gamsen, of the Energy Information Administration, says last winter, heating a home in the Northeast with oil cost, on average, $866 more than heating it with natural gas.

NEIL GAMSEN: Heating oil was about $2000 for the period of October through March, compared to natural gas about $1130.

THYS: In spite of a 16 percent increase in the price of natural gas, this winter, the cost advantage of gas over oil is expected to grow. The Department of Energy predicts the average cost of heating a house with oil in the Northeast to be $2,900, while the cost of heating the average house with gas is expected to be $1,580.

But the comparison isn't really that simple. That's because the average house in the Northeast heated with natural gas is found in the Middle Atlantic states. The average Northeastern house heated with oil is in New England, where, as we know, the winters are colder.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys.

This program aired on August 11, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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