Bringing the Clean Heat

In the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, where more than 5 billion gallons of heating oil is used each year, thousands are embracing biodiesel blends as a way to be cleaner, more responsible consumers.
By Tom Bryan | December 01, 2004
Heating oil, a mainstay of warmth in the Northeast and other regions of the United States and Canada for a century now, isn't what it used to be.

Industry experts say the quality of the fuel has gradually deteriorated over the last 30 years, and the impact of its diminishing condition is getting costly. Heating oil distributors like Bob Warren of Fisher Churchill Oil Co. in Dedham, Mass., believe refiners-pressured by economic demands associated with rising crude oil costs-have gradually allowed the quality of No. 2 heating oil to slip.

Diminishing fuel quality contributes to the fouling of heating oil burners and boilers. Heating systems in poor condition are less efficient and demand more frequent cleaning. Likewise, lower efficiency leads to higher fuel consumption, and that's a problem that lands squarely on the backs of consumers. "Heating oil has gone downhill, and it's not getting any better," Warren told Biodiesel Magazine. "It's been deteriorating in quality since the 1970s, maybe the 1960s, because everyone is looking to produce it with the cheapest [blend stocks]. We're starting to notice that heating systems are suffering because of it."

Enter bioheat-No. 2 heating oil blended with biodiesel-considered by thousands, including heating oil veterans like Warren, to be the future of liquid fuel heating.

"Biodiesel can help turn it all around," Warren said. "It's a better, cleaner fuel."

Fisher Churchill Oil, which now offers its customers B10 heating oil through its start-up sister company, Mass Biofuel, is one of perhaps a dozen distributors in the Northeast selling the alternative blend. In many ways, the utilization of bioheat is no longer a novel concept. As far back as the mid- to late-1990s, the movement was catching on in the Northeast, where thousands of environmentally conscientious consumers started embracing biodiesel blends as a way to be cleaner, greener consumers while helping to extend the supply of heating oil in the region.

Another driving force behind bioheat, according to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), has been the heating oil industry's desire to reclaim market share lost over the past 20 years to natural gas. The heating oil industry has been losing market share to natural gas since the 1970s. In fact, only 10 percent of existing homes, and 4 percent of new homes, in the United States use oil as a primary heat source.

According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), No. 2 heating oil is consumed in over 7 million homes in the United States, more than 5 million of which are located in the Northeast. Residential consumption of No. 2 heating oil exceeds 6 billion gallons annually in the United States, and 5 billion gallons of that amount is consumed in the 11 Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states alone.

Simply stated, that means a potential 1 billion gallon per year biodiesel market, in the form of B20 bioheat, exists in the Northeast. And there is evidence that bioheat is a fuel many consumers are willing to pay a little extra for. Biodiesel blends, especially those ranging from B10 to B20, have been shown in demonstrations to improve the quality of heating oil and reduce harmful emissions, decrease maintenance and cleaning costs and extend the life of heating equipment.

Those results were precisely what the Warwick School Department in Warwick, R.I., achieved when it used various biodiesel-blended heating oil from 2001 to 2003.

A trailblazing demonstration in Warwick
The Warwick School Department's successful multi-year evaluation of bioheat is widely considered one of the first scientifically documented, real world demonstrations of biodiesel-blended heating oil in the United States. The demonstration was spearheaded by bioheat advocate Paul Nazzaro, president of Advanced Fuel Solutions, contracted and funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and implemented by Robert Cerio, energy educator and manager of the Warwick School Department.

Cerio, who quarterbacked the entire effort, found that the use of biodiesel blends ranging from B10 to B20 improved both emissions and operational performance of the boilers used in the demonstrations.

It all began in 2001 when Cerio applied for a grant through the Rhode Island Energy Office and received seed money from the Northeast Regional Biomass Program. "It was a grant related to the utilization of wood chips, biobased oils and various other products for power," Cerio said. "That list included biodiesel and I really had no idea what biodiesel was. Later, I was introduced to biodiesel as a transportation fuel, but more specifically as a marine fuel. I thought, 'Well that's great, but how does that help us?'"

Cerio, who happens to hold degrees in engineering and biology and has a strong chemistry background, quickly caught on. He found out that biodiesel was equally valuable as fuel for transportation, stationary power and, of course, heating. "I thought, 'If it works as a transportation fuel with diesel fuel, it should work as a heating oil blend,'" he said.

As the 2001-'02 heating season approached, Cerio, with help from Nazzaro, received funding from NREL to run bioheat in three different locations in the school system, utilizing B10, B15 and B20. In all, Cerio utilized four individual boiler systems in the study (the fourth location was used as a control). Each of the locations had automatic monitoring used to gauge the temperatures and conditions of the fuel and the equipment. The results were telling.

What we saw first, was that it was very clean," Cerio said. "And there was no filter- clogging at all."
After extensive testing, Cerio determined that B20 was the winning combination. The B20 blend used in the schools performed better than the conventional heating oil in terms of burner efficiency and emissions.

In the 2002-'03 heating season, Cerio received additional funding and ran B20 exclusively in a single boiler system, again comparing it to a control. Cerio determined that, although B20 has about 8 percent less energy content than straight heating oil, the fuel performance equaled only a 1 percent loss due to the highly oxygenated nature of biodiesel. "We ended up with slightly less efficiency," he said. "More oxygen means less fuel use you get a hotter flame."

Cerio also found that the boilers using biodiesel-blended fuel ran cleaner, resulting in savings in maintenance and cleaning. "I haven't had to clean the stack side burners in four years," he said.

The Warwick School Department is not currently running bioheat. However, Cerio has transferred his biodiesel efforts to the school's bus fleet, which is currently using ultra-low sulfur B20. Cerio is also involved with Northeast Bioenergy, a group that is exploring the possibility of building a biodiesel production facility in the region. He believes in-state production could someday bring down the cost of biodiesel and make it an even more viable heating fuel. "If [B20] was just 10 cents more per gallon than No. 2 heating oil, I think that would be a palatable increase, and one that many people would be willing to pay," he said.

BARC considered a bioheat pioneer
Cerio's pioneering work in the Warwick School Department is predated by a non-scientific, but equally important, bioheat effort by a government research center that began using bioheat at a time when industry analysts were projecting dire shortages of heating oil. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Md., earned a reputation as a bioheat pioneer by using B5 in its heating oil throughout the winter of 2000. The project was part of the center's larger efforts to utilize biobased products and environmentally friendly practices whenever possible, part of the federal Environmentally Preferable Products and Affirmative Procurement Program.

Building on the success it had using biodiesel blends in its snowplows, tractors and other vehicles, ARS began heating a dozen buildings, including two dairy barns, on its 7,000-acre Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) with B5.

John Van de Vaarst, director of facility management at BARC, said the center informally evaluated the performance of B5 and found the results to be very positive. What did BARC discover? "Nothing," Van de Vaarst told Biodiesel Magazine. "There just wasn't a noticeable difference."

The boilers used at BARC have dual fuel capabilities-the ability to use heating oil (and biodiesel-blended heating oil) or natural gas. The cost of biodiesel has prevented the center from sticking with bioheat over the years, but Van de Vaarst said he would like to see BARC start using the renewable fuel again soon.

Residential acceptance of bioheat grows
Today, bioheat has become more than a concept experimented with public institutions and government agencies. The positive test results and publicity gained from successful bioheat demonstrations at BARC and the Warwick Schools Department have encouraged biofuels advocates and heating oil distributors to bring bioheat to mainstream America.

Mass Biofuel, for example, began offering low-sulfur B10 heating oil in November, and Warren said the initial response from customers has been very positive. Warren told Biodiesel Magazine that selling No. 2 heating oil is still his primary business. And for good reason: Fisher Churchill Oil has been in existence for over 100 years. Still, Warren said he sees the change that's taking place, and he's prepared to adapt.
"We formed Mass Biofuel to provide clean, more environmentally low-sulfur diesel fuel with a 10 percent blend of biodiesel," he said. "We hope to eventually go to B20."

Most of Mass Biofuel's customers are residential. "We're still a new company. We're just starting, but we've received a great response so far," Warren said. "There is tremendous interest out there. We expect business to pick up. We have found everyone to be pretty accepting of it."

And the cost? Mass Biofuels is selling B10 heating oil for about 15 cents per gallon more than conventional No. 2 heating oil. "That adds up to maybe $200 more per year," Warren said. "Looking at a family's annual heating bill, that's not a lot. And let's not forget what these customers are doing in the process-reducing imports and adding to our own gross national product."

Because this is Mass Biofuel's first season of business, customers using B10 heating oil received total system checkups this fall. "We checked each customer's system before introducing biodiesel.," Warren explained. "That included a tune-up, checking or replacing nozzles, filters, strainers everything," Warren explained. "Now we can go back in May and compare conditions to what we know to be true of existing systems after a season of using conventional heating oil."

Warren said he fully expects the company's findings to be positive. "I think it will help us sell more biodiesel the following year," he said.
In Norwalk, Conn., local home-heating oil company Devine Bros. has ventured into bioheat. The company is now offering B5 heating oil and owner Micheal Devine has become somewhat of a regional spokesperson for the alternative fuel. Devine recently told The Hour, a Norwalk newspaper, "If you could reduce our dependence on international oil and help U.S. workers, would you do it? If you could improve performance without increasing cost, would you do it? This isn't rocket science."

In Manheim, Pa., Worley & Obetz Inc. began providing bioheat in the form of B3 to its customers this year. Company leaders call it a "commitment to helping farmers" through "education and awareness." According to the company's bioheat-dedicated Web site,, biodiesel blended heating oil burns more efficiently and cleaner than conventional fuel oil. "It is a true premium fuel, and we are proud to be the first company to bring it to Pennsylvania residents," the Web site states.

For Worley & Obetz, offering B3 bioheat completes the company's conversion to biofuels. Earlier this year, the company opened a B5 pump at its Wo-Go fueling station in Manheim.

Bioheat is making inroads in the Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard area of Massachusetts, where Loud Fuel in Falmouth, and Packer Oil in Vineyard Haven, started carrying the renewable fuel this year. Richard Lawrence, education coordinator for Cape & Islands Self-Reliance, said many individuals, businesses and public agencies in the area have started using biodiesel or biodiesel blends to power their cars, trucks, boats and generators. Now, Lawrence said, residential heating oil customers on the Cape are the first in the commonwealth to be able to purchase bioheat, in the form of B20.

Kabraul Tasha, owner of Loud Fuel, said, "Biodiesel sales have been steadily growing since we started carrying it back in April. We're pleased with the product and are confident that many people will be interested in heating their homes and businesses with it. The feedback from our biodiesel customers has been great. There are so many reasons to use this product."

In Maine, Gov. John Baldacci recently announced the expanded use of biodiesel to heat state office buildings this winter after easing into bioheat last year. In Augusta, the Blaine House (the governors' home and a museum), the state Planning Office and the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles were heated last winter with B20. This year, the State House, the Cross State Office Building, the State Museum and a number of other buildings will also utilize bioheat.

"Expanding the use of biodiesel is a win for energy independence and a win for the environment," Baldacci recently said. "The purchase of renewable fuels increases energy efficiency, improves air and water quality and reduces the risk of global warming."

From Maine to Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, the use of bioheat is growing. Distributors are already marketing biodiesel-blended heating oil as a superior, premium fuel, and industry analysts such as Nazzaro have suggested that a diversified market structure for bioheat could be developed (e.g., "regular" heating oil and "premium" or "green" heating oil). In a report posted on the NBB Web site,, Nazzaro points out that this marketing shift would allow for a variable markup structure and hopefully some increase in profitability for distributors of biodiesel blends.

Tom Bryan is editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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