What next? Enstar, city officials urge residents to do their homework

Editor’s note: With natural gas to Homer getting closer every day, questions abound. In a three-part series starting this week, the Homer News will look at the challenges in converting to natural gas; the positive effects of natural gas on southern Kenai Peninsula communities; and the negative effects. This week’s story looks at how homeowners and business owners can be prepared to hook into natural gas.

This week as workers with Chumley’s Inc. began installing silt fences and clearing the trunk pipeline corridor, lower Kenai Peninsula residents didn’t have to look far to see proof that natural gas is finally coming to Homer and Kachemak City.

As construction starts on the trunk line to bring natural gas from Anchor Point along the Old Sterling Highway to the Sterling Highway and into Homer, and planning begins for the city of Homer gas line build-out, homeowners and businesses face some big questions. 

To help answer some of these questions,  Enstar Natural Gas representatives hold a “grilling fair” about converting to natural gas from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Best Western Bidarka Inn. Other grilling fairs are scheduled for April 19 and May 17. New customers who turn in service line applications and payments at these events or by June 1 can enter a drawing to win a Weber natural gas grill.

Enstar estimates that using natural gas for heating is 37 percent the cost of fuel oil. A study done by Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Bill Smith last year looked at 10 scenarios using actual homes in the Homer area to see what the conversion cost would be for heating. Including the assessment for properties in the Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District, service lines, appliance conversion or replacement, and plumbing, the cost was as little as $5,200 and as much as $8,700. With fuel savings, though, all scenarios paid out the conversion cost within five years, Smith’s study showed.

While an upper middle class family with a good line of credit might be able to afford converting to natural gas, not everyone can. That sticker shock, at least for some Homer residents, might be why one local plumber isn’t seeing a lot of people eager to convert — yet.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to who are interested in it can’t afford it,” said Rick Norvell of Orca Plumbing and Heating, one of three Homer plumbing businesses licensed to do gas piping.

All Seasons Plumbing and Heating and Eayrs Plumbing and Heating also do gas piping.

The first step for business or home owners interested in converting to natural gas is to understand their buildings and the appliances they need, said John Sims, an Enstar spokesperson. Start with converting the biggest energy users like furnaces and heating applicances, hot water heaters and clothes dryers.

“It’s important you get the biggest bang for your buck,” he said.

Also important is to understand not just the cost of changing over a heating appliance, but new piping and venting for it. 

“There may be some exhaustive work that needs to be done on converting,” Sims said.

Enstar won’t connect gas until a building has an appliance and all the piping and ductwork is to code.

New customers can get the service line put in before appliances and piping are put in, a good idea to lock in the 2013 cost of $1,050 for a home or small business with a 100-feet or less service line. That includes the meter cost. Enstar officials have said that price could change in the future.

Some heating appliance conversions aren’t too complicated or expensive. A Monitor or Toyo fuel heater can’t be retrofitted to take natural gas. Propane heaters can be converted for about $200 each with labor, said Mark Vial, owner of VBS Heating Products and Specialty Stoves on Pioneer Avenue. A Rinnai brand gas stove is $2,000 for a 32,000-btu unit. Vial also sells a Jotul stove that doesn’t use electricity and can go in a woodstove space. Like Monitors and Toyos, Rinnai heating units have direct-vent exhaust pipes that can go through the same hole in the wall.

Vial said he’s been selling a few Rinnais and doing conversions.

“We’re ready. We’ve got a bunch of conversion kits for the Rinnai,” he said.

Homes with propane piping may not be ready for natural gas, though, Norvell said. Codes for natural gas piping require larger diameter pipes.

“There’s a good chance a lot of it will have to be yanked out and changed,” he said.

Some heating units like boilers or forced air appliances can have the oil burner taken out and a new gas burner put in. Unless the furnace is relatively new, though, it’s probably cheaper to put in a new gas furnace, Norvell said. Newer units are more efficient, too.

Enstar also requires other things, like appliance setbacks from walls and floors as well as venting and exhaust pipes requirements. Norvell said he’s researching the codes and even plans on taking a course in the Lower 48 to better understand installing natural gas equipment.

“I’m getting together a list of about 50 questions,” Norvell said he has for Enstar. “It’s just going to be really fun, I can see that.”

With only three companies in Homer doing certified plumbing work, there could be a labor crunch coming up, particularly as people try to beat the start of the fall heating season.

“There’s the potential for a great demand for plumbing and heating contractors,” said Katie Koester, the economic development coordinator for the city. “I don’t know about the community’s ability to absorb that.”

“There’s a chance it’s going to be really hectic,” Norvell said.

Norvell recommended getting a plumber and heating contractor to come look at a business or home and offer advice — and estimates — on what can and should be done.

Koester said that for her own family’s house, she and her husband are going to be prepared by researching what kind of plumbing is needed. That’s what the city suggests, too.

“We want people to start doing that early so you’re not on this big waiting list,” she said.

Sims said Enstar will try to coordinate installing service lines as it installs trunk and distribution lines. Enstar engineers will determine the best spot to put in a meter on buildings.  For example, because the meter vents gas, it can’t be near an opening window or a door. Gas will be turned on as lines are built, so some customers could see gas service as early as this summer.

Enstar has information, including service applications and videos, on its website at www.enstarnaturalgas.com. The local Enstar representative, Patrick Lawrence, also can answer questions at Enstar’s office on the Sterling Highway across from Pioneer Avenue or by calling 435-0642.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.