ACHRNEWS

Bioheat: Alternative for Fueling Equipment

November 23, 2009

A variety of different fuels have been used for heating throughout history. One of the new kids on the block is Bioheat® fuel. According to the National Oilheat Research Alliance’s (NORA’s) Website, Bioheat fuel is an industry-accepted term that NORA and the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) use “to describe a mixture of heating oil and biodiesel.” Biodiesel is, according to the glossary on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Information Administration’s Website, “a fuel typically made from soybeans, canola, or other vegetable oils; animal fats; and recycled grease. It can serve as a substitute for petroleum-derived diesel or distillate fuel.”

FOR LAND AND COUNTRY

For some contractors, they have made the decision to offer their customers only Bioheat fuel, and they have been successful doing it.

Among reasons given by contractors as to why they have made the move from 100 percent petroleum heating oil to Bioheat are that the latter fuel is better for the environment, including lower NOx emissions, according to Don Allen, president of E.T. Lawson, and a former chairman of NORA. Another reason given for its use is that it is made from U.S. material, not imported from foreign countries.

According to Gary Hess, service and installation manager, Worley and Obetz Inc., Manheim, Pa., it wasn’t just for geopolitical and environmental reasons the company made the switch, other factors were involved, including that it works well. “In the late 1990s, we looked back on our first 50 years in business and thought it was a good 50 years. But when we tried to look ahead 50 years, it was uncertain that we would even have a product to sell. Plus, the oil heat industry was plagued with a poor environmental reputation, fierce competition in a low-price commodity market, and a declining customer base.

“We discovered Bioheat and after two years of testing it in various applications with key customers, realized that in most areas it performed as well or better than heating oil. Therefore, we began marketing it to our customer base and eventually switched exclusively to Bioheat.”

As Robert V. Boltz, owner of Vincent R. Boltz Inc., an HVAC residential and light commercial, service and installation company, Lebanon, Pa., summed it up “It’s the right product at the right time.”

In at least one state, those who haven’t switched way from 100 percent petroleum will be forced to do so by legislation. Arlex Oil Corp., a heating oil sales and service company in Lexington, Mass., does not sell Bioheat as of yet, but will have to do so by next summer, as will all other Massachusetts companies who sell diesel and heating oil.

Dave Bessette, vice president/service, Arlex Oil Corp., said, “Massachusetts has mandated a 2 percent blend beginning July 2010.”

The commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Clean Energy Biofuels Act further requires that the amount of biofuel in diesel and home heating fuels increase to 5 percent by 2013.

Due to the logistical cost of delivering Bioheat to one house and another fuel right next door, Worley & Obetz Inc. chose to switch all of their customers over to Bioheat fuel in 2004, and ended up gaining more customers because of it.

COMPATIBILITY WITH OIL-FIRED UNITS

In a blend of biodiesel and heating oil, the amount of bio- diesel can vary. The percentage of biodiesel in a fuel blend is indicated with the letter B and the percent of biodiesel in the blend. So, for example, if the blend contains 2 percent biodiesel, it is indicated as B2.

Boltz, Hess, and Allen all agree that boilers and furnaces made to run on traditional home heating oil can operate on Bioheat without any modifications depending on the percentage of biodiesel in the blend.

Boltz stated his company offers only B2 biofuel, and no modifications or changes to equipment are needed. As for warranty issues using Bioheat in oil-fired units, Boltz remarked, “At this time there is no difference, as long as it is below 5 percent.”

“Most OEMs have stated that their equipment is good to a 5 percent blend,” so there shouldn’t be warranty issues there, said Bessette.

Bessette further stated that an even higher-percentage blend could be used without changes needing to be made to the equipment. “Providing the blend is less than 20 percent, there are no changes or modifications [required] to the equipment.”

Hess agrees that about the 20 percent blend mark is where the line is demarcating whether equipment alterations should be made or not. “If you go above B20, it would be a good idea to replace the fuel pump with one that is approved for Bioheat.” He also said that outside tanks in the winter are a “problem with high blends of biodiesel (above B20). We use additives and usually keep our blends to B5 in the winter.”

Hess also said that the company even has a few customers and service techs that use a B99 blend with good results. “It will be coming up on two years, and we have only had very little problems. The only change we have made is increasing the pump pressure.”

Using Bioheat hasn’t been all smooth sailing; it did create some challenges for Worley & Obetz. “The first couple of years, the Bioheat seemed to create some filter blockage, especially in some older tanks that had some sludge buildup,” said Hess. “We also went away from the fiber oil filters as the fiber seemed to break down. We are now using a micro type filter and have not had any problems.”

Boilers and furnaces made to run on traditional home heating oil can operate on Bioheat without modifications, depending on the amount of biodiesel is in the mix. “If you go above B20, it would be a good idea to replace the fuel pump with one that is approved for Bioheat,” said Gary Hess, Worley and Obetz Inc.

CUSTOMERS ON BOARD

Overall, customers seem to have taken to using Bioheat in place of 100 percent home heating oil. Worley & Obetz began offering Bioheat fuel in 2001 as an option to their customers. Due to the logistical cost of delivering Bioheat to one house and another fuel right next door, the business chose to switch all of their customers over to Bioheat fuel in 2004, stated Hess.

It seemed to Worley & Obetz that the move was risky and it was a hard sell at the beginning, said Hess. “We had to convince people it was a good thing to try, but after we converted everyone, it was much easier to say ‘25,000 of your neighbors are using it with great results.’”

The switch to only offering Bioheat fuel paid off. Said Hess, “To this day, we haven’t lost a single customer because of Bioheat. On the contrary, we gained a substantial amount of customers. In the fall of 2005, when we ran our first large Bioheat marketing campaign, we gained over 500 customers in September alone.”

According to Allen, his company, which has offered Bioheat for three years, has only had positive customer reactions to Bioheat. E. T. Lawson has literature it gives to customers to explain what Bioheat is and other FAQs, and explains the company’s guarantees about Bioheat.

According to the guarantee, if the company services a heating system every year, and Bioheat fails to burn cleanly, then the company “will reservice your heating system and refund you the cost of an annual tune-up.” Other guarantees are that Bioheat won’t sludge or ice, wax, or gel. If any of those happen, then the company guarantees to clean or chemically treat (depending on the problem) the tank and service the burner for free.

Boltz said it’s not necessary to explain to customers about Bioheat. “There’s been so much in the media that most people do know about it.” Boltz’ company has been carrying Bioheat for four years.

Arlex Oil Corp. surveyed their customers about what knowledge they had of Bioheat and got a 23 percent response rate from the survey, said Bessette. “About 98 percent of the return surveys have positive responses. Both our equipment and oil sales staff have had similar responses.”

ADVICE TO BIOHEAT GREENHORNS

Bessette, Boltz, Allen, and Hess gave some words of advice for companies that have not worked with Bioheat before.

Boltz said, “As in anything, buy from a supplier that you know will provide you with a quality product. By shopping for a ‘good price,’ most of the time you get what you pay for.”

Hess’ guidance matches with Boltz’ recommendation. “You may experience a slight increase in filter changes at first, but it won’t be drastic. Be careful with outside tanks in the winter, but above all you must employ a quality testing process or purchase Bioheat from a supplier who unconditionally guarantees the quality of their Biodiesel. There is some poor quality biodiesel in the market, and it can cause serious problems for you.”

For more information, visit NORA’s Website at www.nora-oilheat.org.

Sidebar: Alternative Fuel Options

Besides Bioheat, other different fuel sources are available for use in place of traditional home heating oil, natural gas, and propane. Some of the alternative fuel sources that the general public are aware of include wind and solar. Geothermal is gaining in acceptance and usage in the HVAC industry, as more geothermal heat pumps are installed.

Other alternative fuel sources include:

LOW-SULFUR HEATING OIL: It has 0.05 percent sulfur by weight, compared to typical current heating oil, which has 0.20 percent or less sulfur, resulting “in lower sulfur emissions and simply burns a lot cleaner,” according to a NORA pamphlet titled “Why You Should Convert to Low Sulfur (0.05%) Code 151 Heating Oil.”

BIOMASS: This fuel is an “organic nonfossil material of biological origin constituting a renewable energy resource” according to the Energy Information Administration’s Website glossary. Examples include wood and switchgrass, which is used to make ethanol.

Publication date: 11/23/2009