Dear PoP – It’s Starting to Get Cold Questions

Photo by PoPville flickr user ianseanlivingston

“Dear PoP,

I’m ready to sign a lease on a super cute little bungalow in DC, but it’s heated by oil. I’ve never had to deal with this, and have no idea how much it’ll cost. The internet only gives me the price per gallon, and I need more info.

Anyone out there heat their homes with oil? How big is the house and how much oil do you use on average per month? Or how big is your house and how much did you pay per winter to heat your house? Thanks for any help your readers can give!”

We touched on home heating here but does anyone have specific experience using oil? How expensive is it?

And in other home heating questions:

“Would solar water heaters work in DC? Or is there not enough sun light? I can’t believe they haven’t caught on globally.”

35 Comment

  • I had oil heat in my rowhouse when I lived in baltimore. I can’t remember how many gallons our tank held but we had a medium sized three bedroom rowhouse and we used approximately one full tank – to 1 and a quarter during the cold months.

    I want to say to fill up our tank was about $350 – 400. However, a word of caution check out your lease. I know there are leases out there that depending on your landlord they may require you (regardless of how much you use) to leave the tank atleast half way full when you move out.

    Also I would shop around the oil companies ahead of time (like now) so that way you can get the best deal possible.

    • Do you mean 1 full tank during ALL the cold months, or each month (meaning multiple tanks)?

      If it’s $350-$400 x 2, 3, 4, or 5…then that sounds crazy expensive.

  • Heating oil in the norm in New England, but not the rest of the country. I think the price of heating oil fluctuates more than NG. For last few years, oil has been more expensive to heat with than NG.

  • I can’t speak to current costs, but I can recommend (if you’re the one in charge of the account with the oil company) that you sign up for a locked-in rate plan, instead of paying market rate and having on-call delivery. If you’re a rate-locked, scheduled customer, you will be first priority in emergency refill situations. Also better for budgeting, since you’re not faced with a $600 bill when you have to fill the whole tank.

    • ah

      The other thing to do, perhaps better than locking in what could be a high price, is to get a monthly payment plan set up. Oil gets delivered 300-400 gallons at a time. So you could be looking at a $1000 bill. Not good. Instead, get a contract and ask for a monthly payment plan to spread out the cost throughout the year.

  • The house I rented for a few years was heated by oil and it was very expensive. When oil prices soared a few years ago, it cost over $800 to fill the tank the first time. We had to get it filled at least 2 more times in the next 6 months. Also, if you forget to read the meter every so often, and the tank runs out, you won’t have heat or hot water until they come and refill your tank, which sometimes takes days if it is the weekend or a holiday. So I would not recommend a house heated by oil. So many problems.

  • Not trying to be a smartass but- Have you asked the Landlord this question? It seems like something they should know.

    • Why ask the landlord when you can email Pop?

      • I’ve asked ever landlord I have ever had starting my sophomore year of college what the average utility bill costs in cold weather months. 10 years later I have never gotten even a remotely accurate answer from any of them. Chances are PoP readers will get this guy an accurate ballpark figure and the landlord will purposefully lowball or cite how much he paid when he lived in the house in the 1980s.

  • Thanks for the replies, all.

    FYI, I did ask the owner of the home, and got a pretty cagey reply…something like oh, they come and fill it up, I have a contract, the amount changes, etc.

    The owner’s attitude plus having such a huge range of $$ when it comes to heating is giving me pause, so I asked here to try and at least ballpark it.

    I don’t plan on signing anything until I get some answers from the owner, and will definitely ask exactly how big the tank is, and also ask to see the bills to know how many times it was filled up last winter, to at least try to estimate based on today’s prices.

    Keep the info coming, thanks to all!

    • Why don’t you ask the neighbors, they likely have oil and a similar sized house. I’m sure they’ll be honest. If not call a few oil companies and see if they can give you average bill figures for homes in the area.

      • ah

        Here’s the problem: You face two major variables that no one knows:

        1) Heating oil costs–they can go up or down a lot
        2) Winter temperatures–same.

        And, unfortunately, the two tend to move in tandem. Cold winters lead to high HHO prices.

        Of course, this is true of natural gas as well.

  • I had oil heat when I lived in NC. I don’t think it necessarily costs more to heat a house with oil than with gas, but having a house on oil heat which is so old fashioned could also be an indicator that the house is poorly insulated. Might be worth checking.

    You could also say you’ll only rent the house if the oil tank is at least half way full when you move in…

    Also, when we got our oil tank filled up, it kicked up a lot of sediment in the tank which occasionally clogged our furnace and made it fail(annoying) or once actually filled the house with black smoke (scary). So, a tip: if you do rent this house, make sure you aren’t actually running the furnace when it’s filled – would be worth it to turn the furnace off or way down that day.

    • Heating a house with oil is not “old fashioned”, GeorgiaAve… sorry to say. Many homes in the Northeast and throughout the country heat their homes with oil, due to the fact that many houses on specific roads and cities are not hooked up to gas lines.

      Oil can be considerably more expensive now, given the price of oil these days. You’ll probably only have to fill up the tank once (for the whole year), depending upon what temperature you keep your thermostat on. If the house is well insulated (good windows, sealing, etc), you can keep it at about 67-69 degrees every day and night and feel perfectly comfortable. Anything above that, and you risk spending more in oil to heat the home.

      • It’s old fashioned in as much as no one with a choice would buy new oil equipment for home heating. The furnace costs more, and the energy costs are roughly 3x as much as gas or electric.

        • Whoops. Make that 2x.

          • ah

            What?!? This is highly inaccurate.

            Electric is more expensive for heat.

            Oil and gas, long run, have similar prices. Any differences you see between the two result from short-term fluctuations and the fact that high-efficiency oil furnaces are not as available.

          • I’m not so sure about that. Whenever I’ve rented a place with gas my bill was twice as high as it was when I rented a place with electric. My roommate and I once switched to space heaters because we couldn’t afford the gas bills.

  • I had oil heat in a house in college park 2 years ago and we had to have the tank filled 3-4 times and we went with a cold house for the last couple months because it cost a lot to fill. I believe it was around 300-400 each filling(i believe our tank was 100gallons). I would not recommend it, it was nothing but a headache but if you do get it do not sign a contract with Griffith oil I had nothing but problems they lied about delivering a then were awful when I tried to terminate the contact. Had to call them at least 10 times to finally have it terminated.

  • The energy department forecasts winter heating costs for different fuel types. You can see the chart in this pdf. The upshot is that oil is significantly more expensive. Here’s the forecast household expenditures by fuel type for the northeast. Obviously, it doesn’t tell you exactly what you’ll spend, but it gives you an idea of how oil compares to gas and electric.

    Natural Gas: 1153
    Oil: 2201
    Propane: 2682
    Electric: 1485

    • ah

      No, it does not. That has no adjustments for house size, location of house, etc.

      People with bigger houses are going to use more efficient forms of heating, such as oil and gas. So of course their expenditures are going to be higher.

  • On a little bit of a different note, the previous owner of my house switched to gas (yay), but I still have the oil tank with oil in it. It’s about a quarter full. Anyone know of any way I can get rid of the oil? I know DPW will haul the tank, or so I’m told.

  • Bear

    I lived in a three bedroom townhouse with oil heating for a couple years. The first winter I lived there we spent about $1200 on oil heating (from about Nov/Dec to Feb/Mar), and the second was a little more than that. We didn’t keep the thermostat very high at all but the house had a lot of windows and wasn’t well insulated, so I’m sure we were losing heat. They offer payment plans so you can estimate usage and spread payments over 6 months or so. That said, Petro was a pain in the ass to deal with.

  • No, you’re incorrect. You can use this handy excel spreadsheet from DOE to calculate it yourself. Fuel Cost Per Million Btu works out to the following:
    Fuel Oil – $24.46
    Electric air source heat pump – $14.42
    Natural Gas – $13.52
    Propane – $29.58

    And thats using $2.75 per gallon, which is quite a bit lower than the current price. If you use $3.40, fuel oil works out to $31.43.

    Heat pumps are significantly more efficient than any furnace.

    • That was supposed to be a reply to Ah.

      • ah

        Did you read note 6? It’s referring to heat pumps that don’t have a second-stage heater, which are good only for heating when it’s above 40 degrees outside.

        In DC you can’t get through a winter (warmly) with one of those. So you’re looking at either second stage electric heat or gas heat to give you enough, at which point you have to look at the cost of electric heat from a furnace, which that chart shows is even more expensive ($33.21) than oil, natural gas, or even propane.

        • No, you misread it. “Below is a procedure for determining an adjusted HSPF for your location for an air-source heat pump that uses only electric resistance heating as the auxillary heat source.”

          That’s not a heat pump with no second-stage, it”s a heat pump with an electric second stage. I’ve been through 20 winters with them.

  • I’m from new england and i’ve had oil heat my entire life, except for the 4 years i lived at college. I would never live somewhere that didn’t have oil heat. Whenever i go into someone’s house that doesnt have oil heat i cam immediately tell the difference just by breathing the air. Oil heat gives you a much more comfortable temperature overall than any other form of heat. With electric or gas the air will be dry and stuffy all the time and you will be really hot and then really cold suddenly because the heat doesnt spread as evenly.Also, if you have a good oil company, they can set up several different zones within the home with separate thermostats that run on timers. You can keep the thermostat set at 60 degrees while you are sleeping or while you are at work, and also in all the rooms you dont normally use, like a guest room or formal dining room. Then, you put the thermostat at 70 degrees in the rooms you use most often like the living room or bedroom, only during the times you are in them. If you know you always get home at 5:30, you can time the thermostat to come on automatically in your bedroom at 5:00 so its already warmed up by the time you get there. Its a little bit of an investment up front to install the technology, but you will save a lot in the long run. Also, I agree that you should try to set up a fixed price plan and also a service plan. Make sure you have the boiler cleaned before the start of the heating season (it might be too late for this now, most people do it in the summer months) but the price of this cleaning might be included in the cost of a yearly service plan. If you are on a fixed price plan, the computer system calculates when you need your next delivery based on degree days, so they will always fill up your tank before you run out – i never had to call my oil company for refills and i never ran out unexpectedly. If you don’t go with a plan and pay COD you will pay a cheaper price but are probably going to get into a jam during the really cold days when no one is available to come fill the tank at the last minute.with any type of heat you should definitely make sure you have the most up to date energy efficient system and also make sure all of your doors and windows are sealed properly so the energy does not escape.

    • ah

      The fuel has nothing to do with the quality of the heat. If you’re breathing the heat generated by gas or by oil then you need to get out of the house immediately. An oil-fired furnace or boiler provides the same heat from combustion, heating the house either through forced air

      You are probably referring to forced air versus hot water, which do have different “feels”, and oil is more frequently (but not exclusively) used with hot water systems. Likewise for zoning of rooms, which can be accomplished on either a hot water or forced air system, and can use either gas or oil as fuel.

  • I have a solar water heater, and so do my parents. Both work pretty well, though I have a supplemental on-demand heater that does a lot of work. And in Montgomery County, last year at least, the tax breaks worked out to about a 50% discount on retail and installation.

  • Get the name of the company that has filled the tank in the last year or two, they should be able to give the cost over last couple years.

  • Hey everyone:

    Thanks so much for all the input. I did find the name of the company that filled the tank, and got enough info to realize that the cost is gonna be way too high for me to handle. So no cute little bungalow for me. 🙁

    I’ve been looking at apartments like crazy and have found some pretty decent deals, so here’s hoping the right place is waiting for me soon! Thanks again; I really appreciate all you PoP-ians for helping me avoid a serious $$ pitfall.

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