Shackled by fuel bills

June 1, 2011
Help! My oil bills are draining my wallet! At first glance, you wouldn’t think there were many options.

Help! My oil bills are draining my wallet! At first glance, you wouldn't think there were many options. Living in the boondocks offers the appeal of quiet peaceful living away from urban noise, but also leaves homeowners with limited fuel choices for heating and domestic hot water. Oil was the preferred choice because it was abundant, cheap, and you could easily contain a private reservoir within one or more tanks. Once again, we're seeing price for fuel-oil spike, and, once again, we're seeing homeowners panic over the cost of heating home and water. Eat or heat? Heat or pay for meds? The past few years have been tough on everyone, and now comes a fuel-oil cost spike.

Upon arrival, you are invited to sit at the kitchen table for a few minutes to discuss the issues because one of the owners has health issues and won't be making the trip to visit the wallet drainer in the basement with you. They've reached a crossroads financially and it's now food, medicine or fuel oil unless they dip into their hard-earned savings. Retired, they're on a fixed income and we joke halfheartedly about how we're all, in reality, on fixed incomes. Unless you're a cold-hearted cad, you feel your potential customers' pain as if it were your own.

The boiler is relatively new, so there's not much to be gained efficiency wise if it's been properly maintained by their service provider. But it is toasty warm here in the large basement mechanical room. The reason why is given away by the twin potable water lines on the far side of the boiler, a domestic coil provides hot water. There is no mixing valve. The Misses exclaims that you could peel the skin off your backside when they first turn on the hot water! More than 100,000 people seek out medical treatment each year in the U.S. for thermal burns, and the elderly are ideal candidates for injury because they often lose sensitivity to just how hot water is at points-of-use. The boiler's aquastat is set to maintain 180°F to 200°F! Wasting fuel and putting folks in harm's way is no way to set up a boiler with a domestic coil.

The question screaming for attention in your mind: Where to start with this discussion to offer resolutions. The issues now present: fuel bills are robbing these folks; they're literally to a point where it's food, meds or hot water/heating; if they don't do anything, thermal scalding danger looms large; and you could open a bakery and proof bread dough in that overly-warm cavernous basement mechanical room.

It's not your money. I often need to remind myself of that fact when I'm confronted by situations like this because I literally do not know their true financial condition and it's their money to burn, literally in this case, not mine. All you and I can do is present the options, provide the education, and allow them to decide which, if any, option best suits their needs. One thing you can count on: the pain at the pump (oil truck pump) will be replaced, temporarily, by the pain of a short-term financial drain to pay for any upgrade and resolution that plugs the hole in their wallet. Balance that against your need to turn a profit, so that your company will be there for them in the future when they need service, and you’re now seated squarely on the horns of that dilemma. It does not say United Way on the side of your truck, so some level of profit had better be incorporated!

Options, we've got options! Good grief, where to start? In a perfect world with an unlimited budget, you would insulate the shell and install new windows/doors first, but this is the real world. Here are some options:

  • Rip out the boiler and baseboard heating. Install a two-stage heat pump to get the tax credit and local utility rebate ($600 currently) while dramatically cutting operating costs and providing central air in place of the window shakers. Lots of DHW options here: electric tank, heat pump and tankless water heaters.
  • Install a 92% efficient oil boiler and an indirect water heater.
  • Install a propane boiler and direct-vent propane water heater or a propane 82% or 98% efficiency tankless water heater.
  • Add a heat-on-demand-only control relay to the existing boiler and install an electric water heater or an indirect water heater while incorporating a thermostatic scald-guard valve to protect the occupants.
  • Turn the thermostat down to 50°F and turn off the boiler in summer while bathing in cold water.

It was time to return to the kitchen and put on the advisor/educator cap, which can be challenging for everyone seated at the table because, after all, you're also going to be striving for a sale this day and most folks suspect we're more interested in sales than all of the other issues. And therein lays the first most basic challenge, establishing trust. People buy from folks they trust, and trust me, you’ll find Part II useful in next month's Contractor magazine.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at: [email protected].

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Web site is protected by Copyright 2011. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: [email protected].

About the Author

Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

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