The Benefits Of Low-Sulfur Heating Oil

December 10, 2003
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The emergence of new low-sulfur heating oil is welcome news to manufacturers of oil-fired heating products, as well as distributors, contractors, and end users. According to a document published by the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA), the benefits of low-sulfur heating oil accrue to the oil heat company, the service department, the image of the fuel industry across the nation, and the environment.

The Brookhaven National Laboratory compared identical test boilers operated over a period of four months on an aggressive on/off cycle to simulate a full heating season of operation with approximately 720 hours of burner operation. These residential boiler heat exchanger photos show differences in fouling deposition that varied as a result of sulfur content. These three furnaces used No. 2 oil with the following amounts of sulfur:
Furnace 1. (top) Sulfur content is 1.08 percent.
Furnace 2. (middle) Sulfur content is 0.18 percent.
Furnace 3. (bottom) Sulfur content is 0.04 percent.
NORA recently published a consumer pamphlet detailing the benefits of low-sulfur heating oil, estimating that due to its efficiency rating, U.S. consumers can save as much as 50 gallons of fuel each year. According to NORA, advantages of the new fuel include reduced emissions from the furnace or boiler, improvements in equipment performance, and improved fuel stability.

In May 2001, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) adopted Standard D396, which establishes specifications for No. 1 low sulfur and No. 2 low sulfur grades. ASTM D396 is supported by the Oilheat Manufacturers' Association. According to the standard, low-sulfur heating oil has a 0.05 percent sulfur content, compared to standard heating oil, which has a sulfur content of 0.5 percent.

Davis Bookhart, senior project director for the Consumer Energy Council of America (CECA), gave The News an advance copy of CECA's opinion on low-sulfur heating fuel.

The report states, "Consumers who use low-sulfur fuel in their oil heating systems will notice an immediate difference - the heating oil smell is practically gone. It turns out that the ubiquitous oily smell in homes is caused mostly by the sulfur in the oil. Sulfur, which smells like rotting eggs in its purest form, gives oil a sharp odor that is easily recognizable, especially when the oil tank is being filled or the equipment is being serviced.

"Sulfur also clogs up heating equipment, which is why the equipment needs to be cleaned every year; technicians need to literally chisel off layers of sulfur deposits. Studies from the Brook-haven National Laboratory conclude that since equipment using low-sulfur oil remains cleaner, the equipment will work more efficiently, saving money for the consumer.

"Combine the savings with the environmental benefits - SO2 emissions are reduced by 75 to 80 percent, particulate matter emissions are reduced by 80 percent, and NOX emissions are reduced by 10 percent - and the switch to low-sulfur oil sounds like a sure winner."

What It Means For Contractors

For HVACR service contractors, the most important advantage is that lowering the sulfur content lessens the amount of sulfur deposited on heat exchangers and combustion chambers.

Vic Turk, Director of Engineering for R.W. Beckett Corp., Elyria, Ohio, a manufacturer of oil burners, explained the advantages of low-sulfur heating oil.

"The real benefit occurs when corrosion on products is reduced and the buildup of deposits on heat exchangers are reduced," he said. "The service interval can be increased by two to three times by simply going from a fuel oil with a nominal amount of sulfur to a low-sulfur fuel oil.

"If you increase the service interval by two, you are halving the number of cleanouts (vacuuming) you have to do."

Turk said there is a service cost reduction of approximately $200 million each year. He added that at least four million service calls could be eliminated by lengthening the amount of time between service visits.

"This only refers to vacuuming time, which cuts out about a half an hour from the call," he said. "The tech still has his half hour where he can talk with the customer, run a combustion test, etc., but he doesn't have to take all of the jacket materials off of the boiler and take all of the inspection ports off to clean and vacuum."

Don Allen, president of E.T. Lawson Heating Oil and Cooling, Hampton, Va., is one of the leading supporters of the new low-sulfur heating fuel. In fact, Allen only sells low-sulfur heating oil and services products that burn the low-sulfur oil.

His company has over 8,000 service agreements, and Allen maintains that it is very important to have satisfied customers who appreciate environmentally friendly, efficient fuel oil in their heating equipment.

"To my knowledge, we were the first company in the U.S. to exclusively market and sell the low-sulfur diesel fuel," he said. "One of the reasons we did this was to eliminate 78 to 82 percent of what is in the heat exchanger. Being in the business, one of the things I disliked the most about oil heat was the vacuum cleaner.

"The advantages of low-sulfur heating oil all relate to operability. This oil is very stable as a heating fuel. The fuel quality doesn't degrade over time. It can be stored over a longer period of time. It is a wonderful product because it is just cleaner."

Allen said that the heating units do not have to be serviced annually if they burn the low-sulfur fuel - service can often be extended out to two years.

"The benefit to the customer is that the product is cleaner, the equipment is cleaner, and there is less degradation to the heat exchanger," noted Allen. "The benefit to the contractor is that there is less stuff involved in performing the tuneups."

There are also marketing opportunities for low-sulfur heating oil. "Low-sulfur fuels are a marketing opportunity for service contractors," said Turk. "The product burns cleaner and is more reliable throughout the year. We are reducing particulate emissions, which is less stuff going up the chimney. This reduces the NOx emissions, which causes ground-level ozone - smog."

For Turk, the benefits of low-sulfur heating oil outweigh the increased cost. "There may be an additional price difference of a penny or two per gallon, but it is offset by less service required."

Publication date: 12/15/2003

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