Why Do We Use Heating Fuels?

There are a number of heating systems in the world. Typically these systems all need some sort of fuel to be pumped in and burned, whether that’s oil, natural gas, propane, or even a bucket dumping wood pellets. The question is though, why burn these fuels when it could be cheaper and more convenient to use electrical heat instead? An electric system needs no ducts, pipes, or fuel tanks, and it can be set up as a zone-system with individual heating units in each room.

Old, Reliable Heat

Heating technology is centuries old. Homes in the 18th and 19th century were largely heated with wood stoves and eventually early coal powered central heating systems. Electricity was still a new thing, either used for little magic tricks, lab experiments, or eventually available for lighting in cities.

It’s easy to forget just how slowly electricity spread around the world. In the United States, electricity was a rarity until about the 1950s. In 1935, less than ten percent of homes had electricity. In 1951 the number finally reached 80%. Early heating systems had no choice but to use combustible fuels. These systems had to be fully mechanical to operate.

Combustion systems were the default heating technology and as a result they were the most affordable and reliable way to heat anything. There had just been so many more advances in purely mechanical heating systems and the new entrant to the market, electricity, was too unknown. On top of that, the early electric grid was not the reliable system we have today. Blackouts were more common, equipment wasn’t as reliable, and electrical installations weren’t anywhere near as safe. There weren’t circuit breakers or GFCI outlets, if something shorted, it’d probably arc and burn the house down.

Old Buildings, Old Technology

The massive install base for combustion heating systems has played a large role in making it a dominant provider in heat over time. If your home or facility was built in the 1940s or 1950s, it was probably designed with some form of combustion heating. When it came time to upgrade, it only really made sense to install another similar system that would reuse most of the equipment you already had. You’d install something that used the same tank, pipes, and ductwork.

For decades, new construction would use what people and the builders knew best: combustion heating. Trying something new would be a gamble for home buyers, it’d raise questions, and make selling the building all the more difficult. Not to mention that electrical rates were higher in the past. Adjusting for inflation, the average electrical cost was 14 cents/killowatt-hour in 1960. In 2005 it was nearly half that, 9.25 cents. Gas and oil were cheaper.

New Buildings, New Technology?

Combustion heating will likely remain the dominant source of heating for years to come, but there are questions about how much longer that will be the case. Electrical technology and heating has come a long way in just a few years. After the boom in computers and processing tech of the 80s and 90s, better components have come along to improve the reliability and performance of electrical heat.

Going forward, electrical heating will become an increasingly attractive option. Increases in the popularity and cheapness of solar power will make it possible to heat a building essentially for free. Eventually there will be decreases in the availability of oil and natural gas, they’re a finite resource. Electric heating is the future. It’s only a matter of how long until it takes over.

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