June 7, 2017

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

As a culture, Malcolm Gladwell points out that we tend to make decisions based on the common “word on the street”, rather than our due diligence of going deeper to really understand our options before making a decision. When it comes to the heating industry, the perception that heating oil is bad but natural gas is good, is about as common knowledge as smoking is bad for your health, and exercise is good. The difference is, that we have current, accessible research to back up those claims so that we can understand them. Although heating oil has changed over the last several decades, the common knowledge still stands. Real estate agents will agree, that most new homeowners who encounter a house heated with oil, have this common knowledge that natural gas is “just better”.

Given the current global crisis and threat of greenhouse gasses reaching irreversible levels, I believe it is the responsibility of the homeowner to understand the difference. When it comes to energy, making a well educated decision will affect not only our immediate comfort, but it can affect the entire globe. In order to fully understand, we need to examine the history of heating oil and natural gas in the early 60’s.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s…

In the 60’s, Americans became fascinated with all things modern, even more so after landing on the moon. Television ads were just as entertaining to watch as the programs themselves. Through marketing, advertising and the changing times, natural gas gained popularity as the cheaper, cleaner, modern fuel. The oil industry didn’t have much to fight back with, so it didn’t. So heating oil took the opposite corner and became know as the expensive, dirty, old fuel. And at the time, there was validity in those labels.

The truth in the labels was fueled by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo which caused local petroleum product prices to go through the roof. All the while, the natural gas industry became less regulated, dropping prices drastically. Today both natural gas and heating oil prices are a moving target. They fluctuate based on supply and demand. But the difference has never been as drastic as it was in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Images of thick, black crude oil shown on tv also fed the negative connotation leading people to believe the thick, dirty black stuff was coming into their homes. On the contrary, refined heating oil is actually thin, clear in color, and now 90% cleaner than it was in 1970. As far as the environment goes, today’s renewable Bioheat oil is actually cleaner in carbon output than natural gas. But since people weren’t super environmentally conscious back in the 1970’s, I don’t believe that it was the clean factor that got peoples attention as much as the buzz word modern.

Fast forward to today…

Although the ideas of cheaper, cleaner and modern started the trend toward the common knowledge that natural gas is good and heating oil is bad, marketing and advertising solidified it’s place in the arena. 50+ years later, we know how powerful the media can be as exemplified by a few popular products back then as well as today.

The introduction and rise of the diet soda, is a good example of this. Both Diet Pepsi and TaB became the most popular household beverage via the TV commercials. Both campaigns suggested that their diet drinks would make you skinny and beautiful. Fast forward 40 years, most people have the general knowledge that diet drinks won’t make you fat. But they continue to be popular choices as people are slower to understand the research suggesting the ingredients in these products are in fact bad for us.

This example of diet soda is purely to give an example of how years of marketing and advertising leads us to take ideas about products and make them common knowledge. This common knowledge becomes a part of our culture, and does not always help us make the best choice in today’s circumstances. If you consider all factors, switching to natural gas is not always the best choice financially or environmentally. Bioheat is a clean, renewable, modern heating oil product made from recycled restaurant cooking grease that is actually much cleaner than natural gas.

Don’t get stuck on common knowledge. With information at our fingertips, it only takes a little effort to really understand before making big decisions

And just for good times, enjoy this piece of brilliant marketing!