Gas vs. Electric Heating

Written by Gary Foreman stretcher.com

fireplaceNatural gas prices are going up all the time. At what point does it make sense to replace my gas water heater (40 gallon) with an electric one? I live by myself and my July gas bill was $28. I take 1 quick shower a day, do 2-3 loads of laundry a week, and run 1 dishwasher load per week. I also rarely, if ever, use my gas stove during the summer. The same CCF usage last year cost me $11! This is already bare-bones usage. How astronomical is my heating bill going to be this winter? What can do I to save on natural gas?
Barbara
Columbus, OH

Barbara asks a question that’s on many people’s minds as we head toward winter. How will rising energy prices affect my budget and what can I do to limit the damage? Let’s begin by looking at water heaters and then follow-up with some ideas on reducing energy bills.

Water heaters

The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) says that 14% of our home energy usage is for heating water. By comparison, 44% is for heating and air conditioning. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute over $15 billion is spent by Americans each year to heat water.

Should Barbara consider switching away from natural gas? Probably not now or ever. Generally it has been cheaper to heat water with gas than with electric. In February, 2005 the Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha NE estimated that an electric water heater cost 75% more to operate than a gas heater.

But that doesn’t mean that Barbara can’t reduce the amount of energy she uses to heat water. The Rocky Mountain Institute claims energy saving techniques can reduce the cost of heating water by two thirds. The four biggest savers are:

  1. Using efficient showerheads,
  2. Washing clothes in cold water,
  3. Insulating the water heater
  4. Lowering the water heater thermostat to 120F

Combining those would reduce a bill by 1/3.

Two of the techniques don’t require Barbara to spend any money. The other two are inexpensive. Installing low-flow showerheads is a do-it-yourself type project. Barbara can put a blanket of R-12 insulation around the water heater herself. She should check the manufacturer, since some recommend against extra insulation.

Although a little more expensive, Barbara might also want to check out the cost of installing a timer on her water heater.

Heating bills

Ok, what about her winter heating bills? Should she consider replacing a gas furnace? Again, probably not.

What makes comparing furnaces hard is getting an apples to apples measurement. DOE estimates that 1 kWh of electricity is worth 3.3 cubic feet of natural gas in terms of generating heat. A common method of comparison translates everything into how much energy is needed to produce a BTU. But even that still just measures heat generation. It doesn’t take into account how efficient the heat delivery system is.

We won’t get into the formula details. If you’re seriously shopping for a new furnace or water heater you’ll need to get estimates based specifically on your own home and lifestyle. That will be better than generic estimate anyway.

Even after the current increase in prices, gas is still cheaper than electric for generating heat. And, electric prices will probably rise, too. About 20% of electricity in the U.S. is generated from natural gas and petroleum. So an increase in those prices will tend to raise electric costs, too.

That doesn’t mean that Barbara is helpless. The DOE suggests an energy audit as a good way to find out where you’re using energy. Often your local power provider will do an audit free of charge. Or you can do a simple audit yourself. An internet search will uncover instructions.

In most cases, the best thing a homeowner can do is to make sure that they’re not wasting energy. The DOE says that if you total up all the leaks around windows and doors it’s the same as leaving a window wide open. Two inexpensive ways to save energy are:

  1. Weather-stripping – an easy, inexpensive way to eliminate leaks. A $3 tube of caulking could save you quite a bit.
  2. Only heat the areas you are in, especially when there’s only one person at home. You don’t need to heat the entire home.
Central furnace vs. space heater

Yes, a central furnace will be more efficient than a space heater. But, only if they’re heating the same sized area. In most cases the space heater only has to heat one room, while the furnace will heat the entire residence. So even if the space heater is less efficient, it will still use less energy than running your furnace.

Winter energy bills will always be a challenge. Especially when prices rise and you live in a cold climate. Fortunately there are things that consumers can do to reduce their bills short of replacing water heaters and furnaces.

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36 Responses to “Gas vs. Electric Heating”

  • Mark says:

    From health industry to power stations, the use of natural gas is always on the rise. Statistics show that it is not going to slow down, at least in the near future.

  • Aldo Aldo says:

    Thanks Toasty, for your input on this subject.

  • toasty says:

    There is also some talk going on about replacing propane with electric and actually, in some regions it seems justified, especially when you consider the fact that propane water heaters lose some heat into the air with fumes. That’s because propane is almost twice as expensive as natural gas with the same energy output. As for natural gas, it will be mush cheaper than electric as long as it is actually used for producing electric. The conversion at the pwoer stations are about 33 percent efficient and that should give an idea about the costs of producing electric from natural gas.

  • Kate Kate says:

    Thanks Rob for sharing that info.

  • rob says:

    I replaced my 14 yr old Ruud power vented gas water heater with a Rheem Marathon electric water heater. Heaters both are 50 gal. Comparing my costs to run the gas heater (hydro included) with the cost of running the Marathon this being my second year of use I am $70 to the better with the Marathon last year and $60 to the better on the 2nd year again with the Marathon. The Marathon is warranted life to the owner, 15 yrs to the second home owner, guaranteed not to leak, is composed of materials that don’t rot or rust, minor maintenance required and I paid $700 for the unit. If I had stayed with a gas heater I would have probably paid the same for it but looking down the road I would have to replace it at least 3 more times before I depart this world. And lastly this Marathon is very efficient. The water temperature will lose around 5 degrees over a period of 7 days if the heater is not being used. I know the chances of not using the heater for that period is probably unheard of but it gives the example of just how well built this thing is. Check it out, lots of info on the net.

  • Kathryn Kathryn says:

    Wow! Thanks for all the handy info. I shall know where to turn when I need help with a practical matter and especially if it affects my limited resources too.

  • rob says:

    Look into Rheem Marathon electric water heaters. They are more efficient than gas water heaters and have a lifetime no leak warranty.

  • Chris Chris Landwerlen says:

    ?….thanks for the good report. blessings!

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    I agree with gas as my source into water running thorugh the rads

  • Brad says:

    It is always cheaper to heat anything with gas! It takes a lot of energy to heat a home and even more to heat a given unit of water. Per unit, there is simply more energy in natural gas. Higher efficiency, condensing furnaces can make a huge difference by wringing more of the energy out of each unit of natural gas consumed. If you still don’t buy in; think of what you are trying to do… You are trying to make something hot or warmer… When this is the task at hand, there is no substitute for using fire as your weapon of choice.

  • Barbara Alpert Barbara Alpert says:

    Hi Karen, thanks for passing that information along to the readers. That is great that you signed up for the “Weatherization Project”. It should help out with your utility bills.

  • Karen says:

    I just bought my home in June of this year and its the first place I’ve ever lived with gas heating. The water heater is energy star and less than 5 years old. The furnace is “converted” and runs on gas as well. Those two are the only gas run home appliances. It has been colder outside lately, so I expected an increase in my bill. However, my bill tripled in one month from $32 to $95. I have never been late on a utility bill in my life and there’s my gas bill sitting on the table with a check book in front of it because I want to discuss the bill *_*

    FYI I signed up for my state’s Weatherization Project. You have to be in the 200 percentile of poverty (FNS is 130%, so you may qualify even if you’re not low income). They request your tax info, deed, a years worth of utility bills, and pay stubs. I just had an energy audit done and was told action would be taken within the next 45 days. I’m exchanging a 1,200 fridge and a moldy fridge for a bigger more efficient 600 fridge. They’re hiring an HVAC specialist for me, going to properly insulate my attic, and give me new co detectors. I only need to come up with a new seal for my old hotpoint on my own (thats not gas). Even if you don’t know if you qualify for your state’s Weatherization project, I strongly suggest you try to apply. My pay knocks me out of most assistance things, but this is something I’ve managed to qualify for.

    If the local gas company hasn’t made an error in my bill, I am inking of switching my furnace to electric. I can get an electrician a lot quicker and cheaper than a certified gas person.

  • Heather says:

    It is not the expense of the gas or how much you use. It is the lack of competition in many localities that make gas costly. I have to pay a 20$ customer charge just to have an account with the ONLY gas company in this area. This rate continues to go up after “their” board decides to up the rate. I use no more gas than I ever. This is essentially extortion.

  • Alfred Alfred says:

    Hi Philly Propane, Those solar panels are a great idea! When we built a new house in the city some 27 years ago, I installed 3 solar panels to heat our domestic water. Our 2.9 thousand dollars investment was recovered in less than 3 years! May I ask you whether you know how that electricity you want to use for heating is being generated? Am I right that if it is coal or oil generated then that again is burning fossil fuel?
    Hi Thurman, you may remember me saying (on December 6, 2011) that I am glad I do not have natural gas on this acreage. Prices are going up all right, but electric heat is more expensive yet. In my opinion, solar heating is the way to go! It may cost a fair amount, but is the most economical and environmentally safe way to go. The first consideration, however, needs to be insulation! Stopping heat-loss is of paramount importance! A well-insulated house is easier to keep warm (or cool in summer) than the average home. I have added insulation to our house. Now, if I had the money, I’d love to build a place that is solar-heated with an antifreeze solution, and electric solar panels, as well as a wind-charger (depending on whether I live in a windy area) for electricity generation. There are many good magazine articles that explain how it is done. Blessings to each of you, Alfred.

  • Thurman says:

    Guys, As we see everyday gas prices are rising, I m planning to install a electric heating or solar heating systems. But I am little confuse which one to install. Anyone can suggest me which one to instal??

  • I’m all for electric heating, not because my neighbors think i a lousy tree-hugger, but i am really against using fossil fuel. I’m even planning to install solar panels in my house.

  • Alfred Alfred says:

    Hi Karuna, Yes, you are right, for keeping only one room of your 3 heated is a reduction of heat used. The above article says “Only heat the areas you are in, especially when there’s only one person at home. You don’t need to heat the entire home.” I can explain that my saying there will be heat-loss from all outside walls and ceiling, so by reducing the amount of heated wall & ceiling area you have less surface through which heat-loss can occur.

  • Karuna says:

    Hi
    I have a question: I have gas central heating and have 6 radiators in my three rooms. I usually use one room and I keep the radiators on but leave other rooms cold. Am I right in thinking that I am saving on my energy bill. Somebody told me that it does not matter you keep 1, 2, or many radiators on, as the heating is running. any comments?

  • Imran Ali Shah says:

    It seems to me a much beneficial forum. I became very much careful about heat saving either by electric or gas heaters.
    I am working on designing central heating system in my home and the fuel I want to use would be Smoke Less Coal Briquettes with the combination of natural gas.
    Any one can help me in this regard please?

  • Nick Martino says:

    I like the idea of converting to Gas from electric, except for the initial investment. I currently live with electric water heat and oil furnace. We just had gas run into our area this year so up until now the option wasn’t available (aside from installing a tank outside).

    One major reason I like the idea of gas is because someday, when natural gas becomes scarce, I have the option of doing a conversion to methane, which can be derived from renewable resources.

  • Doris Beck Doris says:

    Pat I think that the gas furnace does dry out the air because it is heating up the air and forcing that hot air through the house.

  • Pat Lambert says:

    already have gas for heating & air

  • fredllfixit. says:

    A further electricity saving —
    Instead of heating up a cylinder of water with electricity as a store of hot water as needed, I now heat water “instantaneously” as needed. To get a basinful of hot water, I extended the electric 7Kw. shower lead and head so it would reach the wash-basin. It is slightly on the slow side, the only disadvantage, but it’s plenty hot enough.To get a bathful of hot water, I use the usual immersion-heater cylinder, the full hot-load being just right for a bath, and I use ALL the hot water. I switch it on three quarters of an hour before use, and the thermostat switches it off just before that. Then I turn off at the usual manual switch.(It only heats about half the tank). So no waste there. I also substituted a much smaller electric kettle for my previous 2litre size. So making a cup of tea now wastes no hot water. ALL the hot water from the kettle is used. Co-incidentally, it now says on my Tetley tea-bag packets, “only heat as much water as you need”.
    This has cut the weekly electricity consumption from around 66-68Kw/h. to around 56Kw/h. There is no disadvantage with these changes excepting a slight wait as outlined above.
    Turning off at mains sockets all the “standby” consuming apparatus made no difference whatsoever to electricity consumption, as far as measuring it is concerned.
    Energy costs have gone up in the interim from my last posting.
    Electricity = 14p. per Kw/h.,
    Gas = 62p. per CuMetre.
    Supplier, Scottish Power. Price calculations from billing detail, it being impossible to understand their tariffs.
    Fred, Leeds, England.

  • Pat says:

    Does gas heat dry skin? Since we installed a gas furnace the inside of my nose & face are really dry.

  • Alex Petrocco says:

    I have a three bedroom house in Toronto . the area is all electric I have electric base board heaters and electric water heater . After 33 year I have replace my water heater once last year I own it I Installed it I owned the old one as well the house was built in the early 1960-64 I have the original base board heaters. I installed two electronic thermostats in the living room and the the basement big room. I also installed a timer on my water heater a insulated the tank and pipes.my question is how long does a gas water heat last and the cost and also a gas furnace. the money you save you will spend to repair and replace them in 15 years if they last. people talk about the gas and electric bill but no one adds the cost of repair service and replacements. I am a professional major appliance service tech. I know how much people spend to service there appliances,its not peanuts.

  • Alfred Alfred says:

    Thanks for these very informative comments. I would add that heat can also be saved in winter by insulating your ceiling (in the attic) and your house from the outside. Planting shade trees on the south side of your house will save on air conditioning costs in summer. I live in western Canada, and heat my home with an outside wood-burning-furnace, as we do not have natural gas on this acreage. Electricity, in my opinion, is one of the most expensive ways to produce heat

  • Gas heaters able deliver more heat BTU-wise than electric heaters.
    Take for example the portable Mr Heater ( http://electric-heaters-review.com/mr-heater-mh18b-portable-big-buddy-heater-review ), 15,000 BTUs. And what can the 2,000 Watts electric heaters do? 6,000 BTUs at their best but wast majority does around 5,000 on 1,500 Watts power.
    You just have to decide if you take the risk by using gas heater indoors. (Fire-hazard, carbon-monoxide poisoning danger, etc).
    I wouldn’t however would recommend them in garages and sheds, but never unattended.

  • HVAC MAN says:

    Heating with electricity IS more efficient when a high SEER heat pump when below the 40th parallel.

  • Gas has more potential, more BTUs I mean. Electric space heater limit is around 5000 BTUs at 1,500 Watts.
    But on the other hand gas heaters are pretty dangerous. The hazards and other safety issues and comparisons of heater types can be read on the main page of the http://electric-heaters-review.com website.

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    My parents when they bought this house back in 1965 was an oil boiler with electric heat. When i took over the house when they passed away is gas boiler with electric heat. It is a good price so it seems to me. I live in Canada where I get all seasons and can either bring up the heat for down the heat and gas and electric heat.

  • Writing Jobs says:

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  • Wha?? says:

    In what universe are natural gas prices going up? Don’t confuse the price at the pump with natural gas, two totally different products. Natural gas is at a ten year low. Electricity prices are climbing and will continue to but for the next several year I’d stick with natural gas for space or water heating.

  • Fredllfixit says:

    Addendum for admin. purposes.

  • Fredllfixit says:

    Hi, Fred calling from Leeds in England.
    Currently I am forecasted for next year to pay 5pence per Kw/h for gas and 11.5pence per Kw/h for electricity. There’s around 11.36Kw/h in a cubic metre of the natural gas from the gas grid at a calorific value of 40. Both energy supplies are via a company called “Scottish Power” who just this evening declared they were raising electricity prices by 9%. At the moment a £ gets around a $1:55.
    The era of cheap power is over, e.g. we are paying now in UK over £6:00 per UKgallon of petrol or diesel, so it makes huge commonsense not to waste ANY of that expensively acquired heat for the house.
    Around a year ago, I went on the rampage at home, checking just what was consuming power, and whether it was necessary — there were a few eye-openers!
    I couldn’t quite add up the amount of electricity being used until I checked the frige-freezer. Oddly, one wall of the fridge was warm when it shouldn’t have been.
    Turned out whoever had installed it (NOT me!) had completely blocked the ventilation for the condenser at the the back. So the motor of 300watts was working about three times as hard as it should, and the waste heat was warming the side of the fridge. Promptly unblocked.
    My ‘central heating’ comprizing a gas boiler plus radiators and circulating hot water seemed to be quite thirsty for gas. So I cleaned the cast-iron heat exchanger in the boiler with a wire brush and scraper, getting a lot of crud off it. Some improvement. Next I reduced the flue gas flow so the outside exhaust got a little steamy like everyone else’s. More improvement. Tests made for any back leak of course.
    Next I measured my gas consumption for hot water against an electric immersion heater in the same tank. Amazingly, after doing the math, electricity was a little cheaper! So I added an electric time-clock.
    But the biggest saving of all was in heating with gas. Even with the improvements I’d made, it seemed expensive. So I fitted a giant gas fire of 6Kw capacity with TWO internal heat exchangers in the lounge, and used that instead of the wastefully controlled gas boiler (I mean the on-off system they all use).
    So now I heat one room, same as before with the central heating, but much more efficiently.
    Checks show that gas consumption in summer is zero, and in winter between 6 and 9 cubic metres per week. Electricity consumption is around 66 to 70Kw/h per week throughout the year, which includes odd-times use of a fan heater in the bathroom.
    Overall result? My tot. power costs have gone down to a little over one THIRD of what they were. This included swapping suppliers and going onto direct debit payment.
    You can do it too, just ignore people who are covertly trying to sell you something (like a new “super-efficient” boiler), and those well-meaning people who write in sites like this et al as if they are gurus, but in fact are just parroting data from other sources that may or may not be right. You gotta make your own measurements, trust no-one!
    Fred, Leeds, England.

  • CE says:

    Yes , this help allot. And made my wife correct again.. :)

  • Very informative post. I’ve found your blog via Google and I’m really happy about the information you provide in your posts. Btw your blogs layout is really messed up on the Chrome browser. Would be great if you could fix that. Anyhow keep up the great work!

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