Scholastic Beginnings

Bob Cerio blazed the biodiesel-blended heating oil trail—this is his story
By Luke Geiver | February 28, 2012

Until 2001, the electrode tip or the fuel nozzle in an oilheat burner didn’t mean much to the biodiesel industry. But after an energy resource manager for the Warwick, R.I., public schools department decided to test biodiesel-blended heating oil at several of the department’s locations, the term we use today to describe such biodiesel-blended heating oil, Bioheat, was born. Robert Cerio, the Warwick public schools department energy resource manager who led that effort, says that to the best of his knowledge, he was the first person in the U.S. to run biodiesel as heating oil. Biodiesel Magazine spoke with Cerio about his first experiences with biodiesel-blended heating oil in Rhode Island’s second largest city, touching on his maintenance crew’s first encounter with the blend, the people who helped him record the biodiesel journey, and even why he believes biodiesel-blended heating oil might be exactly what New England—“the tailpipe of America”—needs.    Although Cerio first ran several blends of biodiesel heating oil in his schools in 2001, his biodiesel work began in 1999 when he was in charge of 29 buildings, consisting of 20 elementary schools, three junior highs, three high schools and one vocational school, 13 of which were heated with No. 2 heating oil. In response both to the district’s need to offset the cost of heating oil, and a Rhode Island grant calling for the use of bioenergy, Cerio began researching the possibility of using biodiesel. “I didn’t know too much about biodiesel at the time,” he says, “but I did have a lot of knowledge about oil.”

After researching the properties of biodiesel, Cerio says he got stuck on the cold flow issues, but it didn’t deter him from submitting a grant proposal to blend biodiesel with the heating oil for some of his buildings. “I said to myself, ‘this would be a great blending stock for a No. 6 oil or a No. 4 oil,’ because I knew they were both very polluting and I knew those systems heated their oil year-round to get it to flow.” For Cerio, blending No. 6 oil with biodiesel was a no-brainer, and the state of Rhode Island seemed to agree, giving him enough funding to run biodiesel-blended heating oil in some of his school’s buildings starting in 2001.

As Cerio’s grant read, he would run three different blends in three different buildings, and compare them to a control. “My plan was to do it scientifically, I know very little about this,” he says. “I wanted to prove that it was what they said it was. I wasn’t going to just buy a bunch of biodiesel, throw it in a tank and burn it.” After word got out of Cerio’s intentions, he wouldn’t have to do it alone. Paul Nazzaro, Advanced Fuel Solutions president and the National Biodiesel Board’s petroleum liaison, picked up on what Cerio was doing and the two met at Cerio’s office. Nazzaro not only agreed with Cerio’s plans, but he also told Cerio that if he recorded every step along the way, Nazzaro could get him matching funds from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. With the help of NREL’s Shane K. Tyson, Cerio got a matching grant and help in designing the protocol of how he would operate the blending efforts.

In spring 2001, following the heating season, Cerio and his maintenance crew took a complete inventory of all the heating equipment that would be involved and contacted the pertinent equipment manufacturers to explain what they were going to do during the upcoming heating season. They also tuned up the oilheat systems, he says, and photographed everything. In September, they began running B10, B15 and B20 at three different schools with an administration building running on straight heating oil as a control. “We did that for an entire year,” Cerio says, “and then I received a second grant to continue it for an additional year, and to also run biodiesel in our school buses.”

To comply with NREL’s testing protocol, Cerio’s crew would take a monthly fuel sample to analyze blend ratio accuracy. “We ran it for two straight years without any problems,” Cerio says. During that time, he learned a lot and he has the documentation to prove why Bioheat is better.

When Cerio told his maintenance department his plans for running biodiesel, “they weren’t too crazy about the idea,” he says, but he wanted them involved. “I’ll never forget the very first time they went out to do a scheduled service call on one of the bioheat boilers,” he says. The crew showed up at his office and immediately, Cerio thought there was a problem, from the crew’s facial expressions. All they said, Cerio explains, was, “Bob, smell my hands—they don’t smell like heating oil.” After performing the service call, his crew was finally on board with biodiesel, in part because of how clean and smell-free the boilers were.

“That won them over,” he says, and soon after Cerio bought them a digital gas analyzer to perform additional testing on the emissions from the boilers. For two years, the crew performed the necessary testing, documenting every service call and photographing nearly every part used in the boilers. After two years, the heat exchangers didn’t have to be cleaned.

A Decade Later

During that sit-down chat between Nazarro and Cerio about Cerio’s plans to run biodiesel-blended heating oil in three different schools, Cerio says they had a mini-epiphany. “When Paul and I sat down the first time we met,” he explains, “we asked each other why nobody else gets it.” What Cerio meant was biodiesel should be more widely used for home heating, perhaps more so than as transportation fuel. Today, he holds the same opinion.

In the 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, Cerio says there is more heating oil used than transportation fuel. Of all the middle distillate diesel fuel that comes into those states, he says, 58 percent goes into heating oil and 42 percent goes into transportation. In the state of Rhode Island, 120 million gallons of heating oil is used every year, with 90 million gallons of fuel going towards diesel transportation fuel. More importantly, Cerio explains, those numbers show in part why New England is referred to as the tailpipe of America. With higher sulfur heating oil use concentrated in the region plus the fact that national weather patterns push from west to east, with all the pollution from coal-fired electrical plants in the Midwest combining with emissions that come from California, it is easy to see why New England needs a cleaner burning heating oil. When the polluted air hits the cold Atlantic Ocean, it funnels north towards Northeast states such as Rhode Island or towards the larger cities that already have their own pollution concerns.

“From an environmental standpoint, from an emissions standpoint and as far as health and human safety is concerned, biodiesel makes sense,” Cerio says. “It just makes perfect sense.”

The practice of using Bioheat has greatly changed since Cerio first started. “We get frustrated sometimes and we say, ‘why isn’t biodiesel mainstream yet (in heating oil applications)?’, but you think about how far we’ve come in those 12 years.” From the time he started compared to now, there are three biodiesel producers in Rhode Island alone, and a dozen different gas stations offer biodiesel blends. And as Cerio will tell anyone who will listen, the story of Bioheat was great from day one.

Cerio says the main aspects people need to understand is the process of handling and storing biodiesel, all of which has been documented by the NBB. And although Cerio is no longer directly linked to the Warwick school district and the biodiesel-blended heating fuel days of the past, his story continues. Today, Cerio is the founder and president of Ocean State Energy Resources, a consulting firm that helps people understand the process of implementing Bioheat into their oilheat mix.

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 738-4944
[email protected]

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