Natural Gas, Propane, and Heating Oil – Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels, like natural gas, propane, heating oil, and even coal, are actually plants, animals, and microorganisms that died millions of years ago. These elements decompose within the earth, and intense heat and pressure in the earth’s crust slowly, over great periods of time, changes them. Compression and heat forces the carbon bonds in the organic matter to break down, creating the fossil fuels we use every day.

Learn about Heating Oil

How does heating oil work?

Heating oil systems are pretty straightforward. Oil is delivered in trucks and pumped into a home’s oil tank. The oil then travels from the tank into an oil burner by a pump, where it is mixed with air to produce a fine combustible mist. That mist is injected into a burner, and electrically ignited in the combustion chamber. This heat warms up air or water, depending on your heating system, and is then delivered around the home. The emissions produced after the combustion are released through a ventilation pipe, that usually exits out of a home through the chimney.

How is heating oil made?

Heating oil is a byproduct of crude oil being converted into gasoline through the refining process. Gasoline consumption has risen over the years, and that has led to a surplus in home heating oil. Almost all of the heating oil produced for home usage is produced and refined in the United States and Canada. Today, heating oil is blended with biofuels (usually waste soybean oil) up to 5% to help the US achieve its renewable Fuel Standard goals. Maine has a few biofuel producers that create Biodiesel out of waste grease and animal fat which can be added to heating oil.

Learn about Natural Gas

How does natural gas work?

Natural gas is brought into a home through buried gas mains, located under your local streets. This pressurized gas runs into a burner in either a furnace — an air-based heating system — or a boiler, a water-based heating system. The burner ignites the gas and this heat warms up air or water, depending on your heating system, and is then delivered around the home (air ducts for hot air, baseboard radiators for hot water). The emissions produced after the combustion are released through a ventilation pipe that usually exits out of a home through either a chimney or through a side wall vent.

How do we get natural gas?

The production of natural gas is similar to any other fossil fuel production. Usually, a company will drill into the earth vertically near oil deposits, and tap into pockets of natural gas. Sometimes, water and chemicals are forced into rock seams to push the natural gas out when it is hard to get, a process called “fracking.”

Learn About Propane

What is propane, and how is it made?

Propane is a pressurized and chilled gas that, when allowed to warm, vaporizes and acts similarly to natural gas as a source of combustion, creating heat for homes and businesses. Propane gets delivered to your home, and is stored in tanks. Propane is part of the refining process of separating natural gas liquids (NGL) after extracting from the well. This NGL is further refined into methane (utility natural gas), butane, and propane and sold as one of those products. Propane is also created during the distillation process of refining crude oil.

Learn about Heat Pumps

How do heat pumps work?

A heat pump is a mechanical-compression cycle refrigeration system, run on electricity, that can either heat or cool a space. An indoor unit called an air handler is installed, and a unit similar to a central air conditioner (referred to as a heat pump) is installed outside. A compressor moves refrigerant inside and outside between these two units, absorbing or releasing heat. When it’s cold outside, a heat pump extracts outside heat and moves it indoors. When it’s hot out, it reverses the process and acts like an air conditioner, moving heat from indoors outside. They are highly efficient between 20 and 80 degrees.

How are heat pumps powered?

Electricity. They are wired into the electrical system of the house, and are powered like any other household appliance. Most electricity is generated in power plants by massive generators, and these are often powered by fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. Sometimes, these plants generate electricity through wind, nuclear, or water power. In peak electric usage time when there is high demand for air conditioning or heating, many oil-fired electric generating plants are called on line to supplement the power grid.  The best efficiency for transferring electricity from a generating plant to the home is 40%. Most plants and transmission lines lose more than 60% of their created energy by the time it reaches your house.