Domestically produced heating oil blended with animal or plant oils, recognized as Bioheat fuel, is one renewable resource on the rise in popularity in the U.S. In fact, tests conducted by the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) show some Bioheat® fuel blends can significantly reduce sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions.

State and local officials are taking note of this, which is why some are looking at mandating the use of Bioheat in the very near future. And the good news is that moving to Bioheat is a painless process, as it can be used in virtually any existing oil furnace without making significant modifications.

No Changes Needed

Most Bioheat blends contain 2-5 percent biodiesel (e.g., soybean oil, corn oil, animal fats), which meets American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Standard D6751 prior to blending with conventional home heating oil. Many oil heat customers may already be using the blend without even knowing it, thanks in part to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) renewable fuel standard program known as RFS2. “It’s likely that most, if not all, of the 8 billion gallons of No. 2 heating oil being reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is blended with up to 5 percent biodiesel,” said Paul Nazzaro, president, Nazzaro Group, North Andover, Massachusetts, representing the National Biodiesel Board.

There is really no reason for customers to be concerned about using Bioheat, said Nazzaro, as biodiesel can be safely blended into home heating oil without modifications — possibly in even greater concentrations than previously thought. “In December, the Bioheat technical steering committee, which is comprised of industry leaders from both the heating oil and biodiesel communities, will present to the ASTM the necessary compilation of testing to permit blends of up to 20 percent biodiesel into home heating oil.”

This is in response to NORA’s latest research, which shows that blending higher concentrations of biodiesel (ASTM D6751) with both standard and low-sulfur heating oil can be used without incident. “We conducted extensive tests on fuel pumps at 20 percent blends and found no issues, either in the lab or in the field,” said John Huber, president, NORA. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by NORA and Brookhaven National Laboratory observed that some 35,000 buildings are currently using Bioheat containing more than 5 percent biodiesel with no reported problems.

Even at higher concentrations, it is not necessary to retrofit or modify oil-fired furnaces, and there are other benefits, as well. “Bioheat enhances and extends equipment life, and it reduces periodic maintenance intervals,” said Nazzaro. “Also, it does not require a change in service protocols, is ready for distribution now, and aligns perfectly with policy makers’ interest to reduce emissions.”

Steve Oehlert, president, Oehlert Bros. Inc., Limerick, Pennsylvania, might argue it’s possible to increase the percentage of biodiesel used in Bioheat and suffer no adverse consequences. “Just for fun, we started using 100 percent soybean oil in our heater at our office two years ago, and we haven’t had any issues or problems.” That being said, he doesn’t recommend customers switch to 100 percent biodiesel; instead, he suggests they start with a 5 percent blend for the first year or two and then ramp up the percentage over time.

Custom Blends

Oehlert Bros. Inc., which provides HVAC service and fuel delivery, started supplying customers with Bioheat about seven years ago as a way of helping the environment and showing support for American-made products. “I was reacting to the negative stereotype of crude oil and OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries], and wanted to provide a better product that was more environmentally sensitive,” said Oehlert. He now blends Bioheat on-site and delivers it to all his customers who use heating oil.

To create Bioheat, Oehlert buys traditional heating oil from refineries in Philadelphia, which he stores in a 1 million-gallon storage tank, as well as soy-based biodiesel from AMERIgreen, which he stores in a 10,000-gallon underground tank. The underground location — with its constant year-round temperature — is necessary for the biofuel tank because biodiesel has higher cold flow properties than traditional distillates.

As the heating oil is loaded onto the delivery trucks, an on-site injection pump injects the soybean oil at the same time, which thoroughly mixes the two parts together to create Bioheat. “Depending on the contracts we have in place, as well as where the Bioheat is being delivered, I can blend different percentages — anything from 5 to 25 percent,” said Oehlert.

Deciding which blend to use often comes down to economics. For example, if soybean oil is less expensive than heating oil, Oehlert can ramp up the soybean oil blend because that decreases the cost. Historically, soybean oil has been more expensive than heating oil, usually in the range of 40 cents a gallon more, but if it’s blended at a 10 percent ratio, that is a modest increase of 4 cents per gallon.

When new (and existing) customers call Oehlert Bros. Inc. for a heating oil delivery, they automatically get Bioheat. It is not necessary to flush out the existing oil from the customer’s tank, because the truck delivers Bioheat at a volume of 60 gallons per minute (gpm), blending it with whatever is left in the tank. Oehlert makes no changes to the furnace itself until it is time for annual maintenance.

“Nothing needs to be changed out right away, but, during tuneups, we replace gaskets and filters that need to be replaced yearly anyway with those that are approved for Bioheat. That’s because biodiesel is a natural solvent, and it may degrade natural rubber seals over time,” said Oehlert.

If a customer’s oil storage tank is located outside, additives can be blended in to make sure the fuel does not gel during cold weather. “You have to be educated about Bioheat before you use it,” said Oehlert. “We pay attention to the cold issues, and we only use soy-based biodiesel, which I think is the highest quality biodiesel available. Some other companies use biodiesel that has much different cold flow challenges, and at temperatures of 40°F they can start gelling up.”

Otherwise, there are only benefits to using Bioheat, noted Nazzaro. “After extensive testing, Brookhaven National Laboratory found ‘no reason that Bioheat contributes to anything negative as a home heating oil blend stock.’ Compared to traditional heating oil, biodiesel is virtually sulfur-free, has comparable Btu value and lower unburned hydrocarbons, and is cleaner and chock full of lubricity enhancements that help fuel pumps perform at optimum levels longer.”

The biggest benefit to using Bioheat is that it differentiates one dealer from another, said Oehlert. “We only deliver Bioheat because it’s not only a cleaner burning fuel, but it helps customers’ equipment run more efficiently. We’re leading our customers to use a product that we feel is right, and I feel good about that.”

SIDEBAR: Waste Oil Furnaces Burn Hot

Many businesses that process used motor oil, such as car dealerships, lube shops, and service centers, invest in a unique type of furnace to heat their facilities. Waste oil furnaces, which were first introduced in the late 1970s, are specially designed to burn just about any type of used petroleum product. Whether it’s waste oil, used hydraulic fluid, used transmission fluid, or a mixture that includes almost any petroleum waste product, a waste oil furnace generates a great deal of heat while eliminating the need to dispose of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-regulated waste materials.

Clean Energy Heating Systems, Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, is one company that manufactures waste oil furnaces, which range in size from 140 MBtuh to 325 MBtuh. These furnaces feature vertical flue tubes, which offer longer service intervals (1,000-plus hours); stainless steel components, which eliminate rust concerns; digital burner controls, which provide automated operation; and a new, highly efficient heat exchanger design. “Our furnaces transfer as much heat as possible from the combustion chamber in order to generate the most bang for the buck,” said Virgil Zook, director of sales and marketing.

In addition to the automotive industry, waste oil furnaces are popular in other business sectors. “The New York State Department of Transportation is also installing our furnaces,” said Zook. “With the cost savings that waste oil heating provides, everyone from government and municipalities to fleet businesses and even commercial farming operations are recognizing the benefits.”

Publication date: 12/1/2014

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