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Keeping house warm -- for less -- takes some figuring

By David MutchSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 1981

My heating contractor, Ralph Knowles, has converted me. I'm now a born-again believer that gas is the best way to heat the family home. Our decision was based on several factors:

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* Natural gas in our area (near Boston) is, for now at least, more than 30 percent cheaper than oil, calculated on the cost per B.t.u.

* The 40-year-old oil-fired boiler just removed from the house was inefficient by today's standards, even with a modern burner.

* Gas was available on our street.

* A new addition to the house, plus a modification of room use, required two new zones of heat.

We decided we couldn't afford not to decide for gas -- and for a new steam boiler.

How dramatic will the savings be?

Had we left the house at its former size, I calculate that the two changes -- the switch to gas and a new, efficient boiler -- would have saved up to 50 percent of our estimated annual fuel costs for 1980-81. That would be a saving of $650.

The savings might have been even higher, since we had the house fully insulated a year ago.

Heating a larger house now, I planned to save at least $325 a year, or 25 percent. Of course, the severity of the winter will be a factor, too.

My first gas bill, covering an abnormally cold month, now indicates I am actually closer to the 50 percent savings figure. The insulation also has made a startling difference, apparently.

Such dramatic results require a sizable capital investment, varying in amount from one situation to another. But more modest efficiencies can be gained, which I will mention later on.

Meanwhile, we are saving national energy resources as well.

The best-educated estimates about the trend of gas prices I have found add up to a set of related statements:

* Gas prices already are going up steadily, but this is good in the sense that supplies then also go up.

* Current gas supply in the US is said to be quite adequate, according to both industry and federal government sources, even with the many new users.

The recent natural-gas scare in Boston looks more and more like an anomaly of unique proportions. The shortage reflected the coldest spell in more than a century (resulting in temporary laxity in conservation), and a sunken ship in an Algerian port. Also, two gas companies now are saying their request of years standing for a new pipeline into New England should be approved. State agencies now may reconsider past refusals in regard to more in-state gas storage facilities.

* Present federal legislation would permit the cost of gas to catch up with the cost of oil by 1985, but the Reagan administration might try to accelerate the time factor.

* Unless gas use goes up inordinately, no shortage seems to loom on the horizon. Geologists now are being quoted frequently as saying there is much gas still to be found in the US. Higher prices spur increased exploration.

Given no gas cartel, given what seems to be a high supply curve, and knowing that some 90 percent of New England's fuel oil comes from the Middle East, I prefer the gas wagon to the oil "cart-el."

Obviously, each family's situation in regard to home heating is individual.

The reason is that many variables come into play:

* Gas may or may not be available.

* Some families have limited funds for new heating equipment and borrowing costs are high.

* Some heat by hot air, some with steam, and others with hot water -- or even combinations of the three. Each situation is individual.

* Many conserve with wood or coal stoves or with solar systems. We added a fireplace insert that burns either wood or coal.

* The amount of insulation and the efficiency of equipment in homes vary widely.

* Some people are afraid of gas.

Heating experts often recommend that the first expenditure should be for adequate insulation, which can bring dramatic savings. Then questions of fuels and more efficient equipment can be examined. Those who want to, or must, stay with oil can consider a better burner, a new boiler, an automatic flue damper, or other changes that may be recommended by progressive heating contractors.