December 1, 2007

Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen


For a civilization that is losing sleep over global warming, why is heating oil so expensive?  Now that most of Ely has our oil furnaces purring away to keep us warm, many of us have come to the realization that keeping warm this winter is going to be considerably more expensive than last year.  Currently, fuel is going for $3.40 a gallon.

Meanwhile, the corrupted Consumer Price Index claims the cost of living is only up 3.6% for the last 12 months.  Now maybe if you are Bill Gates your household costs went up 3.6% in the last year, but for those of us in the real world this 3.6% increase is more like what we have seen every month for 2007.

A few places in town have alternatives to fuel oil.  Wood is still relatively true if you are lucky enough to have 40 acres or a friend who is a logger.  With a good woodstove or a fireplace with heatolators you can cut your dependence on fuel oil a lot.  If you have money to burn you can buy one of those outdoor wood stoves and kiss goodbye to fuel oil completely.  Also, if money is not a problem you can look into an off-peak electric heat furnace. 

However, if you are like me, you donít have a pile of money to throw at this new reality.  When you look at the average household in Ely you realize that most are retired and on fixed incomes.  Most retired people realize the CPI is a joke and has become a sneaky way to limit social security increases.  Seeing the cost of heating their home go up by 50% is bringing those with fixed incomes down to a serious choice Ė heat or food.

With a lame duck administration we can expect no help.  It does not help matters that the other political party, which is in control of Congress, continues to refuse more oil drilling in our own country.  And so we continue to see monthly increases in the price of oil and watch the dollar being slowly destroyed because of sending mountains of dollars abroad to pay for oil.

I do have a partial solution to help stop the hemorrhaging of your home budget.  It is an alternative that even those on a fixed budget can manage.  We have done this for two years now and found it has helped a lot.  Our solution is to use electric space heaters.

As empty nesters, we now have three childrenís bedrooms that are empty.  I have a study that I seldom use, since I have an office that serves me better.  It makes little sense to keep those rooms at 72 degrees.  I was curious to see if it made sense economically to turn down the thermostat on our fuel oil furnace and use space heaters in the rooms we really use Ė namely the living room, kitchen and our bedroom.

Traditionally, electric heat has been the most expensive heat you can have.  Even propane is cheaper.  However, with the mega-inflation of Petroleum this last couple of years, things have changed.  In Ely, the cost of residential electricity is 7 cents a kilowatt.  That price includes the fuel surcharge that is added on as well.  One kilowatt is equal to 3,413 BTUs of heat.

Now a gallon of fuel oil has 139,000 BTUs of heat, but our furnace is only 83% efficient, so that lowers the BTUs down to 115,370.  115, 370 BTUs equals 33.8 kilowatts of electricity, which equals $2.37.  Now anytime that fuel oil goes above $2.37 a gallon it is cheaper to heat with electricity.  Currently, fuel oil is $3.40 a gallon.  Some experts think it is going to hit $4.00 a gallon this winter.  At $4.00 a gallon for fuel oil, electric heating is 41% cheaper.  At $3.40 a gallon, it is 31% cheaper to heat with electricity.

There are a lot of different space heaters on the market.  We bought the new style that has digital controls.  That way you can set the thermostat of the space heater to whatever temperature you want.  When we are home we set out space heaters to 67 degrees.  When we are not home we set it to 57 degrees.  I donít recommend those quirky dial thermostats.  They are impossible to set accurately. 

Now we seldom use our fuel oil furnace.  Last year we bought one tank of oil.  Of course, donít use extension cords or buy a cheap space heater that does not have good safety features.  If you have a pet, get the type that turns off when it is knocked over.  Use common sense.

Now we save money by not heating the rooms we donít use.  They still stay warm enough to be protected from freezing.

Now we are saving money and helping to lower our nationís addiction to oil.  Most electricity in Minnesota is produced by domestic coal or nuclear power.  Hopefully, after the next election we will get a President and Congress that will really push our country toward alternative energy.  The biggest change must come in transportation and heating.  I honestly think the solution is electricity.

Electric/gasoline cars that can go 100 miles on battery power before needing to power up the gas engine could seriously cut our oil consumption.  Most drivers would be able to do their daily commute without seeing their gas engine turn on.  During the night when our generating plants have tons of excess capacity, our electric/gas cars could recharge.

Having houses switch to off-peak electric heating would also save us from buying foreign oil.  The best off-peak furnaces heat up bricks during the night and then disburse that heat all day as needed.

While we are waiting for inflation and our government to lower the cost of energy it is up to us to do what we can now.  I hope this column can help some people avoid the horrible decision of having to choose heat over food or medical care.


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