Adopted on November 17, 2021 in Quebec, the regulations for banning oil-fired heating furnaces heralds the beginning of the end of an era for heating homes with oil in Canada. This regulation provided that, as of December 2021, the installation of any oil-fired furnace will be prohibited in new residential home constructions in Quebec. Boilers, furnaces or water heaters running in whole or in part on oil are specifically targeted. But the provincial government in Quebec has gone even further - and here's where it gets interesting - they've also mentioned banning all fossil fuel heating furnaces which will include gas heating. But first...
The disadvantages of oil heating
One of the biggest searches in relation to oil heating is people researching the pros and cons of oil fired heating systems, especially in the North East which has around 82% of the oil furnace installations in Canada and North America. Traditionally there were various advantages and disadvantages of home heating oil - especially when ignoring the environmental cost of using fossil fuels this way.
Using oil as a home heating used to be the top choice for builders and homeowners, as oil-fired furnaces were traditionally cheaper to buy and lasted longer than just about any other home heating system. So at first glance, oil seemed like the cheaper heating solution, especially if the home was away from city gas lines.
But today, considering the high installation cost and the wildly fluctuating cost of heating oil, the thing we're asked most often in relation to oil heating systems with boilers or furnaces, is how to reduce the cost of running one. This should ring some alarm bells for anyone looking to buy an older home with an oil furnace or an oil fired boiler heating system.
And in terms of choosing a green home heating source, nobody should ever really have selected oil as a home heating system in the first place. But various innovations happened along the way that combined oil fired furnaces and boilers with other fuels like electricity, in an effort to green them up somewhat and especially to save money on heating costs. But this confused the issue and sent out mixed messages to the buying public.
In the here and now, if you're looking to buy a home which has oil fired heating, you would be wise to assume that it's going to have to be replaced sooner rather than later, which is a pretty big disadvantage for oil heating systems. Beyond just the impact on homeowners heating bills, the burning of fuel oil contributes greatly to smog in urban areas. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services National Institute of Health concluded that:
"A comprehensive analysis found that older adults have an increased risk of dying after intermittent exposure to elevated levels of air pollution." or that "This finding suggests that even short-term exposures to air pollution may have an impact on the health of older adults."
For other disadvantages of oil heating systems, how about:
- the nasty smell of an oil furnace or tank in the basement;
- the cost of replacing or removing an old oil tank or furnace;
- the cost of removing the contaminated soil around an old and leaking oil tank;
- the cost and complication of getting an oil tank pumped out and disposed of when full of old or contaminated heating fuel.
One thing reunites all the above - oil heating is never actually cheap, especially not when trying to get rid of it. This definitely puts oil fired heating systems at a disadvantage.
The end of the line for oil fired heating furnaces in Quebec though, has come about because oil is 1.4 times more polluting than natural gas and 102 times more polluting than hydroelectricity as a heating option - and Quebec (along with Canada in general), is fortunate to have a lot of hydroelectricity in the electric generation system.
Unfortunately there is not the same amount of green power being produced in the US. While Canada has 82% of it's electricity produced by a combination of differenty types of renewable energy, the US is trailing behind at just 34%. The good news is that this is rapidly increasing, and can continue to be increased, which is why electric heating is an easy recommendation for efficient homes.
So, in our opinion, the rollout of bans on both oil fired and gas heating systems in homes across North America is inevitable over the next few years as we align with Europe and it's environmental concerns and GHG reduction goals to slow climate change - and this is the key disadvantage to oil fired heating - it's rapidly becoming obsolete.
The Minister of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change in Quebec, Mr. Benoit Charette, also announced that as of December 31, 2023, renovations and maintenance of oil heating furnaces will also be affected. On this date, replacing an oil-fired furnace with a heating system running on any fossil fuels in existing buildings will be prohibited...
And this is where those of us who read the small print said:
Natural gas for heating and cooking in homes is very common as it is convenient, and at least for now, is still relatively affordable. Currently, fossil fuel heating is the most common choice in homes in urban areas wherever it's available. But this simply will not last, because as we've reported previously, governments and local cities across North America and Europe have taken the radical decision to phase out gas out for domestic heating and powering appliances in homes.
So why is natural gas being phased out?
Natural gas is being phased out of new home construction because burning any fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to the warming of the planet. The carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas are lower than with oil or coal, but there are other emissions to be concerned about.
Burning natural gas also emits carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), along with methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Many of these characteristics are shared with oil fired heating systems, which is why this oil furnace ban in Quebec is a step in the right direction to find cleaner ways to heat our homes.
More details of the Quebec ban on oil fired heating systems
When Mr. Benoit Charette also announced that the renovation, maintenance or replacement of oil furnaces will be restricted, they chose to use 'fossil fuels' as the description of what will be prohibited in existing buildings, and we suspect that this wording wasn't an accident.
What would seem a reasonable conclusion, is that the use of a natural gas or propane systems to replace an oil-fired system will also be prohibited around the end of 2023, and perhaps even gas heating systems altogether. Even if the Quebec government didn't specifically mention natural gas or propane in this ban, those heat sources both very clearly fall under the umbrella of fossil fuel heating.
Gas suppliers are promoting the arrival of 'renewable natural gas' (RNG) in their offer to secure their place in the strategy to combat the climate crisis and to claim renewable energy credentials. But, as our sister organization in Quebec Écohabitation explained in April 2021 during a forum against installing natural gas in new construction - although RNG is theoretically 'carbon neutral' and is being hailed as "the renewable and natural domestic heating gas", projections suggest that that will represent only 5% of the total gas burned to heat homes in 2025. So that qualifies as greenwashing in our opinion.
The vast majority of natural gas used for heating would still be of fossil origin and come from fracking, which is associated with high GHG emissions and water pollution issues. Which gets even worse when you consider the leaky gas delivery system in the US which is an even bigger environmental problem than burning gas in homes for heating.
How big a problem is oil fired heating in homes?
Fossil fuel heating accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by homes and buildings. In the case of Quebec, the 163,000 oil-fired heating systems still in operation in these Canadian homes heat an estimated total of 200,000 households.
Since fuel oil is 1.4 times more polluting than natural gas and 102 times more polluting than hydroelectricity, according to a 2018 report from Resouces Canada, fuel oil accounted for 25.9% of residential GHG emissions, and natural gas accounted for 28.6%.
Remember that in addition to emitting GHGs, fuel oil contributes greatly to smog in urban areas, which leads to poor air quality in homes. Burning heating oil, through its combustion, produces nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other fine particles that has a detrimental effect on human health by leading to respiratory problems and other illnesses. Not to mention that when fuel tanks are poorly maintained or simply abandoned, fuel oil is also a source of soil contamination during leaks.
The phasing out of fuel oil will therefore serve both environmental and public health objectives in Quebec. This new oil heating system ban is an important step towards achieving the 2030 and 2050 GHG emission reduction targets set by the Framework Policy on Electrification and Combating Climate Change, also known as the Green Economy Plan (GEP).
Mathieu Gillet, consultant in sustainable urban development and energy-efficient transition for Écohabitation in Quebec, was delighted with the news about the oil heating ban:
"There is an urgent need to decarbonize the residential sector as long as 200,000 homes in Quebec are still heated with oil. This regulation is a step in the right direction, even if we are not yet talking about a clear exit strategy from using fossil fuels altogether."
What real impact will the ban on fuel oil for new construction of homes have?
To answer that bluntly, not much really. Because, according to a regulatory impact analysis conducted by the Ministry of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change (MEFCC), no household in Quebec installed an oil-fired heating device between 2014 and 2018 in their new homes being constructed.
This was noted by Jean-Pierre Finet in an article published in Le Droit in June 2021. Mr. Finet is an energy analyst for the Regroupement des Organismes Environnementalaux en Énergie (ROEÉ), of which our sister organisation Écohabitation in Quebec is a member.
There is one thing that has become very clear if you look foward at the future of home heating systems. The thousands of new homes built that are connected to municipal gas lines each year now represent 100% of GHG emissions in heating in this category and emit thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The ban of fuel oil heating in new construction is therefore more of a regulatory update of the current situation, though that potential ban on fossil fuels for domestic heating from 2023 Canada mentions in passing, is very significant.
Subsidies and grants to convert oil heating to electric heating like heat pumps
What the new ban on oil fired heating is doing, is to accelerate putting in place grants and financial incentives to help homeowners convert fuel oil heating systems with furnaces and boilers to heat pumps efficiently using electricity or other renewable energies. In Quebec for example, the Chauffez Vert program will be maintained at least until 2026, bailed out by $134.5 million for the occasion by the Canadian Federal Government.
To also go in hand with electrifying Quebec's domestic heating in an environmentally friendly manner - and to help homeowners spread the financial cost and increase the savings of more efficient heating systems, JeRénovÉco, the new financing and support offer that Écohabitation is developing to initially convert oil heating to electricity, makes renovation accessible and affordable for all by making it possible to exploit the energy-efficient potential of homes.
JeRénovÉco as a concept makes it very easy to convert oil and gas systems to electricity in a very simple way. Successfully tested in Plessisville, Varennes and Verchères, the program aims to launch across Quebec in 2022. Interested municipalities in Quebec who may wish to participate in this innovative and affordable financing solution are also invited to inquire and contact JeRénovÉco via their dedicated website.
Where does that leave us then on oil fired home heating systems?
We'd have to say that electric heating systems are the future for homes - once of course the homes are made to be much more efficient and use less energy in general. Building better insulated homes is a gift that keeps on giving, as you keep more of the heat in your home that you paid to purchase. And remember that as mentioned above, oil heating systems can come with a lot of disadvantages and environmental and financial baggage. So thank you Quebec for being pioneers in Canada by legislating and banning oil heating systems.
Now you know more about why oil heating is being banned from homes, learn more about sustainable home comfort, energy efficiency and how to reduce the carbon footprint of homes on the following pages and in the EcoHome Green Building Guide.
Find more about green home construction and reap the benefits of a free Ecohome Network Membership here.