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More Minnesotans heating with natural gas
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Michael O'Rourke of Wilkening Fireplaces, near Walker, Minnesota, says much of their business the past couple of years has been installing gas-burning inserts into wood-burning fireplaces. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
A growing number of Minnesotans are heating their homes with natural gas. Consumers are likely to pay higher natural gas bills this winter compared to the same period last year. But state energy experts say natural gas is still the cheapest way to heat your home. More homeowners are moving toward high-efficiency natural gas furnaces. They're even converting wood-burning fireplaces to gas.

Bemidji, Minn. — If you heat your home with natural gas, your bill will likely go up by more than 25 percent compared to last year. State energy experts say the price of natural gas will still be considerably lower than the cold winter of 2000. Phil Smith, an energy specialist with the Minnesota Department of Commerce, says despite the fluctuating prices, more Minnesotans are choosing natural gas.

"I'm going to say about 64, 65 percent of the state of Minnesota heats with natural gas," says Smith. "About 8 percent is heating with fuel oil. Electricity is about 12 to possibly 15 percent, and the remainder with propane. And then there's going to be a small fraction that might be heating with let's say, just wood."

Smith says more Minnesotans are cutting their heating costs by replacing older furnaces. He says a 20 or 30 year old furnace runs at about 65 percent efficiency, at best. But new furnaces are up to 95 percent efficient.

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Image A welder at the Wilkening Fireplaces factory

"We know much more about how our homes behave than we used to, because we have so much more ability to monitor their performance now," Smith says. "As a general rule, in terms of space heating, if you've got a 20-year-old furnace, you could see an easy 40 percent reduction in your space heating costs."

Smith says he's seeing another trend in home heating. Fewer Minnesotans are burning wood. Instead, they're converting wood fireplaces to ones that burn natural gas or propane.

And I think the reason for it is that the gas fireplace is very, very easy to install and there's very little maintenance," says Smith. "And it can be an instantaneous means of providing that ambience that somebody might like in their home."

Wilkening Fireplaces, near Walker, Minnesota, has been producing wood fireplaces since 1973. Michael O'Rourke, the company's retail sales manager, says over the past few years, much of their business has been installing gas burning inserts into old fireplaces.

"The trend is toward gas ... probably 90 percent gas in the major metropolitan areas," O'Rourke says. "Up here where we're at, Walker, Bemidji area, I would say it's still about 50-50, maybe a little bit higher than that now, maybe about 60-40."

O'Rourke says wood is still a reliable source of heat. But he predicts the market for wood will shrink, because many people find gas fireplaces cleaner and easier.

"It's a little easier to flick a switch to turn on a gas fireplace than it is to go outside in the cold, and chop wood and haul it in and burn it," O'Rourke says.

Some gas fireplaces are more efficient than others. But Phil Smith of the Department of Commerce says most are decorative appliances not intended to deliver a great deal of heat. Still, Smith says wood-burning fireplaces are becoming a thing of the past. He says there are a lot of good reasons to switch to gas.

"Recreational use of wood fuel ... is the second largest source of air pollution in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, next to automobiles," says Smith. "So in that regard, moving to gas for fireplaces is a real societal benefit to us."

Regardless of how they heat their homes, more Minnesotans are getting help this year. Since October, about 78,500 people have applied for federal energy assistance. Last year at this time, only 56,000 people had applied.

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