I recently read the article about the possibility of bringing natural gas to Juneau in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). I was at first surprised because in this day and age, burning fossil fuels seems to be a political crime. I read it as objectively as I could and as someone who has invested 25-plus years in the HVAC business (oil, gas and electric systems) I thought I’d try to clarify a few things.
Converting a home heated with electric baseboard to gas is the most expensive conversion there is unless you choose to use a room or wall heater in hopes of heating the whole house, much like using a wood stove. The result is the same: very warm in the room with the wall furnace or room heater, much cooler everywhere else. To sufficiently heat the entire house evenly you’re looking at a boiler with a hydronic heating system or a furnace with a forced air ducted system. In either case, this is a significant investment and will cost well in excess of the $6,000 estimate in the article. You can (most likely will), easily double or triple that estimate and accordingly delay the return on investment.
High efficiency gas-fired equipment will soon be the federal minimum standards for residential heating equipment in northern states. It is already the minimum in the EnergyStar program. That means you will be required to install furnaces or boilers that are so efficient they actually produce condensation. The industry term for this is “condensing boilers or furnaces.” Typically, these are appliances that are 90 percent efficient or more. They will use PVC plastic piping for an exhaust system in place of the all fuel pipe you are used to seeing on your wood stove or oil-fired boiler or furnace. PVC is very cheap so this must be good right? Maybe. When you have a condensing furnace or boiler in your garage, there is little to no residual heat in your garage. So if your garage isn’t heated, you’ll need to either heat it or insulate the flue pipes from freezing. Simple, right? Well, in most cases if you replace an oil-fired boiler with a condensing gas boiler, you’ll run the flue (exhaust pipe) and the air intake pipe (if used) horizontally through an exterior wall. The exhaust comes out as steam which can damage the siding on your house if considerations aren’t taken and is easily affected by high winds, which can shut your heating system off when you need it the most. The exhaust pipe has to be sloped back to the appliance so the condensation can run through a second heat exchanger inside appliance and then it exits either into a gravity drain or into a condensate pump so the waste water can be directed to an approved location or drain. These condensate drain systems are very susceptible to freezing, and if they fail they shut the heating system off. All of this on top of an appliance that can cost $3-$6,000 before it’s installed. So once again, the $6,000 generalization doesn’t apply here.
I’m all for natural gas, I’ve installed thousands of these systems. But please don’t read an article written with broad generalizations and jump on the band wagon. I spent three years proving to coastal Alaskan residents that heat pumps work in Alaska. Electricity in most of Southeast Alaska is clean, renewable and it works. I sit in wonder why a company like Avista would invest in LNG and a natural gas distribution system instead of finding a way to promote the use of heat pumps. The majority of the heat pumps installed in Southeast Alaska in the last few years use technology that drastically reduces the demand on the electric grid, especially when compared the use of electric resistant heat. It’s now a proven that heat pumps can supplement or replace oil, electric or propane-fired systems, and you’d be hard pressed to find a new construction project that is using fuel burning equipment. So maybe the City Assembly and the Council on Economic Development should look at the upcoming heat pump study being produced by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center before promoting natural gas in Juneau. It’s time for Juneau to start thinking forward.
Former Juneau resident