Natural gas service could soon be available in downtown Townsend. Maybe. Possibly.

Natural gas service could soon be available in downtown Townsend. Maybe. Possibly.

Chesapeake Utilities recently began polling residents along Main Street to gauge their interest in converting to natural gas.

"It's basically a fact-finding mission," said Vincent Fiorelli, a sales representative for the Dover-based utility. "We want to know whether there is an interest there among the residents to determine whether it's worth it to work up a cost estimate for extending our lines into downtown."

Currently, Chesapeake Utilities serves homes and businesses immediately west of the railroad tracks, as well as Townsend Village II to the north.

Fiorelli said the heart of Townsend has not previously received natural gas service due, in part, to the cost of extending service lines in well-developed, densely populated areas.

"It's more expensive and little more complex to install service lines under existing roads in areas that are already built up," he said, adding that downtown Middletown also does not have natural gas service. "It's a lot easier to reach new developments because you don't have to tear up existing streets."

Fiorelli said the company became interested in exploring a project in downtown Townsend after the Townsend Fire Company and the Appoquinimink School District expressed interest in heating their buildings with natural gas.

"Our current heating system uses fuel oil and it's costing us about $4,000 a month, so we're looking for a more economical way of doing business," said Raymond Clark, a member of the board of directors for the fire company headquartered at 107 Main St.

Bob Hershey, the school district's supervisor of buildings and maintenance, said Townsend Elementary School at 126 Main St. is the only school building in the district heated with fuel oil.

"Natural gas is more economical and burns more efficiently," he said. "And since we're in the midst of a renovation project at the school, we might be able to use some of the funds for that project on converting our boilers to natural gas."

Natural gas is significantly less expense than both propane and fuel oil, which most downtown residents currently use to heat their homes, Fiorelli said.

According to a heating fuel calculator provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the cost to produce a million BTUs with natural gas is $14.39, compared $37.08 for fuel oil or $34.05 for propane and $35.28 for electricity.

However, homeowner Mike Ruhman noted that rates would not be the only cost that downtown residents would need to consider.

"We'll also have the cost of converting our home heating systems from oil to natural gas and I don't know how many homeowners are in a position to drop $5,000 to $6,000 on doing that," he noted at the April 3 meeting.

Fiorelli said the Delaware Public Service Commission also requires regulated utility companies to recoup the cost of serve extension projects from the customers who would be served by the new lines.

With a large enough customer base in downtown Townsend, Chesapeake Utilities could recoup those costs through customer and deliver charges, while a small customer base would likely mean new customers would be required to pay an upfront fee.

"It's still far too early in the process to know how that would work or what the cost might be," he said this week. "First, we need to know where the interest is, and only then would we be able to determine the size of the project and estimate a construction cost."

Fiorelli said Townsend residents would not be bound to convert to natural gas by expressing interest in the service via survey forms currently being distributed to homes and businesses along Main Street.

"Right now, we just want to know where our potential customers might be," he said. "Of course, we'd expect those people to convert if the service became available, but no one will be bound by anything at this point."