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Your Utility Bills by James Dulley: Reader asks what type of furnace is best

Dear Jim: My heating and cooling system is 20 years old and I think it is time to replace it. I am trying to decide which type of furnace (gas, propane, electric, oil) is best. What do you recommend? – Russ H.

Dear Russ: If you are changing out the entire system, you will have the option of many fuel types for heating. There used to be a gas-powered central air conditioner, but now electricity is the only cooling option.

Operating cost and your family’s comfort are the primary factors in selecting a new system. System efficiency and relative cost of the various fuels determine the operating cost. Fuel prices can fluctuate dramatically over the life of your system as we have seen just recently with fuel oil and propane.

For heating, a natural gas condensing furnace generally is the most cost effective choice. With the fairly recent glut of domestic natural gas from fracking, there should be an adequate supply at reasonable prices for the foreseeable future. Efficiencies are as high as 97 percent.

Many people install a heat pump (heats and cools) instead of a central air conditioner with a fossil fuel furnace. The installed cost of the system with a heat pump is not much more than with just a central air conditioner.

The advantage of a heat pump is that it heats very efficiently during mild spring and fall weather.

During these times, it runs instead of the furnace burners to heat the house. When it gets colder, the furnace takes over. A heat pump cools as efficiently as a central air conditioner during summer.

A geothermal heat pump heats and cools by using the stored heat from the ground. I installed one in my own home this spring. A variable-speed model provides the best comfort of all systems by continuously sensing and matching the heating and cooling output to the house needs.

The initial cost of a geothermal system is substantially more than other complete systems, but the utility bill savings should pay back its cost over its life. There still is a 30 percent federal tax credit for geothermal heat pumps installed before 2017.

If natural gas is not available in your area, a propane or oil furnace provides equally comfortable heating. A propane furnace is almost identical to a gas one, but propane is typically much more expensive to use and was in short supply last winter. Oil furnaces provide excellent heat and oil is readily available, but it requires more regular maintenance and cleaning.

Also consider alternative fuels such as firewood, corn, pellets, etc. for supplemental heating. They are convenient to use and renewable. For example, dual-fuel wood furnaces automatically switch to gas when the wood burns out.

To compare operating costs, use the following heat contents and your local fuel costs: natural gas – 1,025 Btu/cubic foot, oil – 138,700 Btu/gallon, propane – 91,000 Btu/gallon, electricity – 3,414 Btu/kilowatt-hour, firewood – 22,000,000 Btu/cord, and corn – 448,000 Btu/bushel. Divide the cost per Btu by the various system efficiencies to compare operating costs.

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Dear Jim: Some of our aluminum patio furniture got chipped as we moved it. I would like to just paint it, but the old paint was thick and I would still see the chipped indentations. How can I fix this? – Steven S.

Dear Steven: Your patio furniture was probably powder coated. This is a thick coating so the spot must be filled in before repainting. Get a small can of automobile body filler and use it to fill the spots.

Sand the area smooth. Since the spray paint you use probably will not match the original paint perfectly, plan on painting the entire piece. Lighting sand the entire surface first and then spray on several light coats.