Heating oil prices are expected to increase an average of 31% nationwide this winter, according to the Department of Energy. That compares to a nearly 22% average increase in natural gas prices, which makes the fuel a relative bargain.
More than half of America's households already use natural gas for heating purposes. But the nation's 8 million consumers of heating oil, most of which live in the Northeast, could benefit by switching to natural gas.
Homeowners can expect to pay between $3,000 and $7,000 to convert from heating oil to natural gas, said David Graves of National Grid, a natural gas and electricity company. The cost varies according to the size of the home, the efficiency of the system and installation fees.
But converting to natural gas may not be an option for everyone.
Unlike heating oil, natural gas is provided by a local utility and is not considered a "deliverable" fuel. That means homeowners who aren't within range of a utility's network may be stuck with heating oil.
Still, converting to natural gas has its advantages for those with access to it. In addition to heating, it can be used to cook, run a clothes dryer, fuel a fireplace and heat water.
What's more, natural gas burns cleaner than heating oil, Graves said. That minimizes wear and tear on the boiler and lowers maintenance costs. It also makes natural gas more environmentally friendly.
However, natural gas prices have risen steadily over the last few years and could easily go even higher in the future.
"I wouldn't be counting on price decreases in the long term," notes Martin Kushler of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "It's unlikely that we'll see a return to low market prices of the 90's."