Some ways to provide automatic heat to a home include electric resistance, geothermal, solar, heat pump, natural gas, propane, and heating oil. In areas where the outdoor temperatures and the electricity rates aren’t severe, heat pumps may have the lowest life cycle cost; especially if the ductwork can be eliminated. For this post though, we will compare burning properties of natural gas, propane, and fuel oil.
The video below (includes a link within it if you want to see propane) shows different fuels being tested in order to determine how easily they burn. Many people are surprised when they find out that jet fuel extinguishes a lighted match. The higher flash points of diesel fuel and fuel oil make it safe enough for tank storage in enclosed spaces like basements.
Even though fuel oil must be placarded as “flammable” when more than 1000 pounds (roughly 140 gallons) are transported according to D.O.T. regulations, it may really be a combustible liquid when it is classified according to its flash point. Years ago, if a loading facility was strictly fuel oil, it was common for oil truck drivers to smoke a cigarette while loading his truck.
Even though fuel oil and diesel fuel are basically the same thing, one of them burned a little and the other did not. The only difference between the two fuels I can come up with is that fuel oil does not need a cetane rating on its MSDS.
Natural gas was not tested in the video above. As far as its burning properties are concerned, it is the most dangerous of the three. If fuel oil or diesel fuel leaks a little, the worst thing that can happen is contamination of the surrounding area. Leaks are expensive to clean up for sure but its vapors will not ignite with a spark or match when in confined spaces unless it is really hot.
After watching the videos, you should understand why why you may have seen an oil tank close to an oil burner but never a propane tank next to a propane/natural gas burner. This also illustrates why fuel oil explosions in the news are usually misclassified but a two second search would turn up plenty of (natural) gas explosions. It makes you wonder why it is so rare to see gas to oil conversion marketing campaigns.
Electric water heaters are the second most common, the least expensive to buy, the easiest to install, and have efficiency ratings of 90% and higher. So you may ask, “what’s the problem?” For an explanation, here is an excerpt from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
"More U.S. households use natural gas to heat water than any other fuel source, and about 40% use electricity. A small percentage use propane or heating oil. Typical water heaters in the U.S. are electric resistance or atmospheric natural gas tank water heaters. Electric water heaters typically have Energy Factors (efficiency ratings) of about 0.9, while gas ones will be rated about 0.6.
The energy factor is based on site energy use, which is the amount of energy your water heater uses. However, it takes about three times as much source energy (this includes the energy needed to generate and distribute a fuel) to deliver a unit of electricity to the site as gas, since only about 1/3 of the fuel energy that enters the power plant reaches the house. The rest is lost due to inefficiency at the power plant and the power lines. Therefore, an electric water heater that appears to be 50% “better” than a gas one (0.9 Energy Factor versus 0.6 Energy Factor) actually uses much more source energy than the average gas water heater."
Some power plants are still coal fired which aren’t exactly as clean as natural gas or oil. When source energy is considered, Electric Resistance water heaters are only about half as efficient as gas and oil fired water heaters. These water heaters are used every day in all sorts of climates. If “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” is being caused by mankind’s inefficient energy use and pollution, why not be consistent and ban them like incandescent light bulbs?
There have been too many useful products that have been phased out already because of politically motivated science. With the incandescent bulb, any energy that is not used as light winds up as heat. This is good inside a home in winter but not so good for stage lighting. Let people decide for themselves based on their own needs or wants and not on junk science.Am I complaining? No! So does the common electric water waste more energy than the common lightbulb? My guess would be Yes. Don’t tell the powers that be because they create enough mischief on their own.