(updated May 2022)
Pour une traduction française de cet article, visitez la MaisonSaine.ca.
Converting to Natural Gas or Propane hybrid systems – Yes , but their is a critical deadline
Confusion and panic – let me sort this out for you.
In the fall of 2021 several Quebec municipalities started moving towards banning residential heating with oil, then the Quebec government overrode them all and decreed a provincial wide rapid phase out of oil. Despite its noble ecological objectives, this is a highly contested decree both in its objectives and application. For instance, the Decree imposes drastic expenses on single family homeowners with oil heating while ignoring the much larger pollution problem of multi-family housing using oil for heating – heavily penalizing individuals that can not afford to pay more for heating while cutting back on only a tiny fraction of the provincial pollution problem. The cost/benefit analysis is out of line.
For details of the debate and how they could have made this ecological move in a less ideologically political and more intelligent manner, you can click here to read my letter to Municipal officials written prior to the Québec arbitrary override decree.
Secondly, the Decree creates a unique class of citizens, those who currently heat with oil, and forbids them to install cost efficient natural gas or propane dual-energy systems that are perfectly legal for their next-door neighbor to install. I would love to challenge that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – if I could find an interested law firm.
Residential oil heating is responsible for less than 1% of all GHG in Québec. Totally banning residential oil heating will do very little for atmospheric pollution while putting a great financial burden on tens of thousands of homeowners. Promoting hybrid energy, even with oil, could have almost the same ecological results with no penalty to homeowners while helping to keep the Hydro Quebec electrical grid stable in the winter. That is why I call it Green Washing and political grand standing, not ecological necessity.
Separating truth from sales pitches
Let’s leave my critical opinions and my 44 years of experience in energy efficient construction aside – and take a look at the factual constraints, as well as the opportunities that homeowners with oil heating have today. Many contractors are misconstruing this legislation to get you to make changes you may not need or want to make.
The Corporation des Maitres Mécaniciens en Tuyauterie du Québec (CMMTQ), Québec’s professional association for heating and air conditioning contractors, has been negotiating with the government to try to round off the sharp corners of this ill-conceived legislation, and trying to get the real answers to its members as well as to consumers. If you read French (or know how to use Google Translate, or the more efficient www.DeepL.com translator) you can get their explanation here. Also, you can download the official government decree itself here – Le décret en français .- The decree in English.
The Important summary
Some contractors are saying that you can no longer replace an existing oil tank so you have to change your whole system now. That is simply not true. Oil tanks are specifically left out of the decree. The drafters of the decree considered that forcing the rapid replacement of oil tanks added an environmental risk of pollution due to spilled oil.
You can change the tank now or later with no restrictions from the Quebec Decree. Your homeowner’s insurance policy is probably the controlling factor when it comes to when to replace an oil tank. So, if you have an oil system that works beyond the January 1, 2024 restriction date in the decree (see below), you can have and/or replace an oil tank throughout the life of the system both before and after that date. No one wants oil tanks to get old and leak.
If a contractor tells you that you have to change the whole system just because you need a new oil tank, that is simply not true – direct him to the CMMTQ to get straightened out.
Can I install a new oil heating system (furnace or boiler)?
After December 31 2021 (last December) you cannot install an oil burning heating device in any new construction of small residential buildings.
After December 31, 2023, you cannot install a new oil burning heating device in any existing small residential building.
Also, after December 31, 2023 you cannot replace an existing oil heating appliance with a device which burns natural gas or propane, even hybrid (bi-energy) systems. Your neighbor who never had oil, can freely install such a system, and even get government subsidies to do so! This is the clause that I feel runs against the charter of rights and freedoms, which is supposed to guarantee the same opportunities for everyone.
Before December 31, 2023 you can do what you want – although a new oil furnace is probably not the best option financially. See below for opportunities you can take ONLY before this date.
How long can you keep an existing oil heating system?
There is nothing in this decree that will prevent you at any date from using an oil heating system (household heat or hot water tank) that is in good working condition.
The catch is, can you keep an existing system in good working order? YES, you have the right to maintain, even replace most of the working parts of a system, including motors, detachable pieces and controls. What you cannot replace are the two critical parts of a furnace, boiler or hot water tank, the combustion chamber and the heat exchanger. It is generally considered that the working limit for these systems is 20 years for heaters and 10 years for hot water tanks. In field practice it has been found that the furnaces and boilers can last much longer than that when part of a dual energy or tri energy system, because the are used for only a few days a year – they don’t wear out.
Can I convert my oil furnace or boiler to a hybrid system using natural gas, propane or wood pellets?
Hybrid systems, often called Dual Energy systems, are extremely advantageous both for the environment and for your energy budget. Click here for information on Dual and Tri-Energy systems.
Basically, Hydro Quebec will give you a drastically reduced electrical rate, the DT rate, if you agree that when the temperature falls below -12C (or -15C Québec city and north) they charge you an extremely high electrical rate to discourage you from using electricity, and their automatic switch will turn off your electrical heating and dump you onto the fuel based heating system. That reduces Hydro Quebec’s critical peak loads in winter, and you profit from cheap electricity all year around – quite advantageous for air conditioning costs.
The decree says that after December 31, 2023, you cannot use any form of petroleum based fuel (natural gas and propane) to replace your oil burning device – and that has been interpreted by many heating salesmen to mean that you cannot move to hybrid systems. All electric is the only option they offer. Actually, you can legally install any kind of hybrid system you want, even if you presently have oil, if you do so before December 31, 2023. And you can then keep and maintain that system for as long as such systems are allowed.
After December 31, 2023, for those who still have a working oil-based heating appliance, including forced air furnace, hot water boiler or domestic hot water tank, you cannot switch to a new petroleum based fuel as any part of the furnace, boiler or hot water tank – BUT you can, before or after the date of the decree, upgrade the oil furnace or boiler to hybrid heating by adding an electric heat pump and/or electric elements to your functional oil-based system. That means you can then profit from the Hydro Quebec DT rate before or after the date of the decree. But when the oil heating appliance dies, you cannot continue to profit from the DT rate unless you replace the oil heating appliance with a non-petroleum-based fuel back-up, like a wood pellet system.
So just to be clear: your oil system can be converted to oil/heat-pump dual or tri-energy hybrid heating at any time. The catch is that if you are thinking of eventually replacing your oil-based heating system with a natural-gas/heat-pump or propane/heat-pump hybrid system for the longer run, you can only do that if you do so before December 31, 2023. (For those of you who do not presently have oil heating – this restriction does not apply to you.)
So – what to do?
My wife is very philosophic in life with a two-step rule – no matter what happens, accept that "IT IS" – then ask – So what do we do now?
Why you do not want all electric heating.
When your home heating is all electric you have no access to the Dual Energy (DT) rate from Hydro Québec. You pay full price for heating and air conditioning. This is always more expensive than any hybrid heating system with the DT electrical rate.
In many homes, going all electric requires an upgrade of the electrical panel and the whole project could cost you as much as any of the hybrid systems in addition to paying more annually for utility bills. In addition, you have no back-up for hydro black outs in the winter. It takes a very large generator to heat your house with electricity, and a very small generator to operate a fuel fired furnace or boiler during a power black-out. This is Canada – black-outs happen! Consider all electric as your last choice.
If you have natural gas available
If you have natural gas heating presently (not oil), keep it for now. In the fall of 2021 Énergir, Hydro Québec and the government of Québec signed a tripartite agreement to subsidize 75% to 100% of the conversion costs from solo natural gas heating, to hybrid (bi-energy) natural gas with an electrical heat pump to increase the use of the Hydro DT rate. This allows hydro to drop customers in extreme cold spells in the winter but uses so little natural gas that hydro will subsidize Énegir’s losses and green house gasses will be reduced significantly at the same time. What an agreement! Far more intelligent than the off-oil decree. The promise is to put this program into action in early 2022 – I will keep this article up to date when that happens.
So if you have natural gas presently, wait for this program, then change your system to a hybrid system. If you are not heating with oil presently, your case has nothing to do with the off-oil decree, install a hybrid system whenever you want to do it.
If you have oil heating now but have natural gas available to your house, you too could profit from this program but because of the prejudicial clause of the off-oil decree, you must install the new natural gas/heat pump system prior to 31 December 2023. After that you are an unequal citizen – too bad. So you may want to wait for this program to come into effect, but not miss the 31 December 2023 deadline! Even without this subsidy it would be worthwhile to change to a natural gas hybrid system and lock in the DT rate for long after 2023.
Propane is the most practical alternative to natural gas
Hydro Quebec’s DT rate works with any alternative fuel – natural gas, propane, hydrogen, wood pellets; anything that is not electric.
You may want to assure that any new natural gas furnace or boiler you install is capable of being converted to propane. Propane does not require a city piping infrastructure and hence simply because of portability will certainly outlast natural gas as fossil fuels are squeezed out of the residential heating market in the future. Propane is almost as easy to use as natural gas. Although generally more expensive, in a dual-energy or tri-energy system you will be using so little propane that the fuel cost difference is not so bad.
If you presently heat with oil – you MUST install a propane hybrid system PRIOR to 31 December 2023. If you are NOT presently heating with oil, you can install a propane hybrid system both before and after the date of implementation of the off-oil decree.
If you are worried about electrical black-outs, get a propane fired electrical generator to keep everything going during a black-out without burning gasoline or constantly filling up the generator’s tank. They even make small dual fuel generators: Propane and Gasoline.
Yes, I do believe that pellet boilers and furnaces will become a major part of our heating options, but it is not for everyone, and it is still in a developmental stage. The technology is well established where Europe has at least a 5-year head start on us. Many appliances on the market do not have Canadian certifications, which is an insurance problem. Bio-mass boilers are more efficient than bio-mass forced air systems – and we have more furnaces than boilers. Some promotion has been made of simple oil furnace/boiler pellet replacement burners. That is an attractive idea, but they require a lot of handling and maintenance and do not seem to have a good track record.
Because you need to feed pellets to the furnace or boiler pellet heating appliances are not much of an urban reality for the moment. Even though bags of pellets are already available in renovation centres in Quebec, who wants to lug around several tons a year of 40-pound bags of pellets? It takes a lot more space than any other system and hence physical space for the silo is often a limiting factor. Rural homes have the place for automatic silos, but truck delivery right now is limited to Québec City and most successful urban bio-mass projects have large central heating plants for a number of homes or condos all heated from one boiler. Someone else does the dirty work. It is not practical to consider full heating with pellets in small apartments or condos. In addition, a pellet boiler can cost as much as three times a gas boiler – the savings in fuel costs may not give you a very good return on investment. But wood pellet appliances with automatic start and temperature features can easily combine with electrical heating in a hybrid system which can qualify for the Dual Energy rate from Hydro. The real problem is, if you are using Dual Energy, you won't be burning very many pellets -- less lugging around, but harder to justify the capital costs.
The real future will be non-petroleum-based heat sources such as hydrogen and renewable biodiesel fuel – but that’s likely another 10-20 years away from common residential use. The good news for homeowners is that existing forced air or hydronic boiler systems can likely be converted to these fuels when economical supply becomes a reality. In the meantime, we need Hybrid -- electrical / fossil fuel systems as a transition to a cleaner future. A sudden jump to all electric is expensive for homeowners and not sustainable for Hydro Quebec.
RELATIVE FUEL COSTS
Since we are talking about money – let’s look at relative fuel costs. This chart from ÉcoHabitation (2020) shows the cost for a unit of heat (1,000 BTU) for each of Québec’s primary heating sources. It is probably a bit out of date when you read this, but is gives a good relative overview of fuel costs. A cord of hardwood is the least expensive – but that often doesn’t cover delivery and certainly does not cover carrying it into the house when needed. Then natural gas is second in line. The wood pellets or granules, then electricity, then propane, then oil. Electricity and Granules are about the same cost – but not the same trouble to get into the house and not the same maintenance on the system – unless you are on the Dual Energy plan with Hydro, where Electricity would drop way below the cost of hardwood and the fuel you are using would only be used for a few days a year. That is why we want Dual Energy electricity together with a fuel to qualify for the Dual Energy rate to minimize our annual heating costs. It is real long term heating costs that provide the positive payback for all of this work, which also makes reducing greenhouse gasses a profitable undertaking.
Follow this link for information on current financial subsidies available.
Do not go for 100% electric heating as the default, but study your individual options on a timeline, including the impact that the off-oil decree has or does not have on your home, all to keep your combined capital expenditures and long term heating costs to a minimum as things change around you.
The fact is that total bans of fossil fuels is not a good course of action because of the Quebec climate and Hydro Quebec’s need to protect from winter overload of their electrical grid. However, with hybrid heating, an immediate and drastic reduction in home heating reliance on fossil fuels is realizable and economically viable for both homeowners and Quebec as a whole.
Come back -- I will be keeping this article up to date as things evolve.