In some areas of the country, homeowners are going green by adding 5 percent to 20 percent biodiesel directly to their oil furnace fuel-storage tanks.
Photo by Greg Pahl
Learn how to heat your home with biodiesel. A biodiesel blend easily can be added to your fuel-furnace storage tank.
Heat Your Home With Biodiesel
Although it has been promoted mostly as a fuel for diesel-powered vehicles, biodiesel is perfectly suited as an additive or replacement fuel in a standard oil-fired furnace or boiler.
When used as a heating fuel, biodiesel is sometimes referred to as "biofuel" or "bioheat." Made from new and used vegetable oils or animal fats, this fuel also has the advantage of being biodegradable, nontoxic and renewable: While fossil fuels took millions of years to produce, fuel stocks for biodiesel can be created in just a few months, and the plants grown to make biodiesel naturally balance the carbon dioxide emissions created when the fuel is combusted. What's more, the resulting fuel is far less polluting than its petroleum-based alternative.
Biodiesel: A Hot Idea
The idea of using vegetable oil as a fuel source isn't a new one: In 1900, Rudolph Diesel, a German engineer for whom the diesel engine is named, used peanut oil to power one of his engines at the World Exposition.
Today, Rudolph Diesel's original idea of using vegetable oils as a fuel source has been revived with the development of biodiesel.
Technically a fatty acid, methyl ester, biodiesel is made by reacting a wood or grain alcohol, such as methanol or ethanol, with vegetable oil or animal fats. With the help of a sodium hydroxide (lye) catalyst, the reaction produces two products: biodiesel and glycerine. The process is relatively simple, although the chemicals required are caustic and need to be handled carefully.
After I first heard about this idea at a renewable energy fair in 2001, I decided to try biodiesel in my old oil furnace. That November, shortly after our fuel tank in the basement had been filled with No. 2 fuel oil, I carefully added about 5 gallons of biodiesel to the tank, which resulted in a B2 blend (2 percent biodiesel; 98 percent fuel-oil).
I started the experiment with such a modest amount because, among its many properties, biodiesel also is a solvent. This potent property tends to dissolve the sludge that often coats the insides of old fuel tanks and fuel lines, which can cause a clogged fuel filter or burner head. As the 2001-2002 heating season progressed, I gradually increased the percentage of biodiesel until the furnace was burning a B10 blend.
Despite my initial concerns, the old oil-fired boiler in the basement continued to operate without any problems. Last year, I increased to a B20 blend, which burned with similar results.
Biodiesel: Special Considerations
The beauty of heating with biodiesel is that no new heating appliance and no retrofitting is required. Although fueling your furnace with biodiesel is as simple as pumping gas into your car, you should take these few precautions:
Storage. Because biodiesel, like No. 2 heating oil, will gel if stored outside in extremely cold weather, it should be stored in an indoor (or underground) storage tank. If you use biodiesel, keel in mind the characteristic of fuel Oil known as the "pour point" (the temperature below which it will not pour). The pour point for No. 2 fuel oil is 11 degrees below zero. Although the actual pour point temperature for biodiesel varies, depending on its concentration and original feedstock, it is consistently higher than No. 2 fuel oil. You'll need to store biodiesel fuel at temperatures; shove its pour point.
Check burner pump seal. Although some folks have used 8100 with success to heat their homes, this strategy is not gen erally recommended because of biodiesel's tendency to degrade rubber seals. In some cases, burning a concentrated biodiesel blend causes fuel-pump seal failures. The leaky seal (or pump) usually can be repaired by a heating-service technician in a short time, but the potential for this problem should be kept in mind if you are considering using a high concentration of biodiesel. Some oil burner manufacturers are testing new seal materials to eliminate this problem in future burner models.
Terry Mason of North Wolcott, Vermont, however, has had no problems. He started heating his home with B100 about three years ago, making the biodiesel in his basement from recycled cooking oil collected from local restaurants. "I wanted to be self-sufficient in my home heating," he says. "I really didn't have any problems except for a little gunk in the fuel filter the first time I started using the biodiesel."
Great Potential for Reducing Reliance on Crude Oil
The potential for reducing our reliance on imported crude oil with the increased use of biodiesel as a heating fuel additive is substantial. Officials at the USDA Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, estimate that if everyone in the Northeast used a B5 blend in their oil furnaces, 50 million gallons of regular heating oil a year could be saved.
Biodiesel emission reductions compared to EPA-certified diesel fuel.
Compared to diesel fuel, biodiesel fuel reduces pollution significantly, cutting hydrocarbon and particulate emissions by more than half. Even using a blend of 20 percent biodiesel/80 percent fuel oil can curb emissions by up to 20 percent.
The Center has been heating its many buildings successfully with a biodiesel blend since 2000. They started by burning a B5 blend, but in 2001, encouraged by the test results, they switched to B20 without experiencing any problems.
"Using biodiesel offers an opportunity to reduce emissions, especially particulate matter and hydrocarbons, and that's a great advantage," says John Van de Vaarst, Agricultural Research Center deputy area director, who is responsible for facilities management and operations." I used to refer to biodiesel as an alternative fuel, but now I call it an 'American fuel, made by American farmers.' I think it's an obvious strategy to help clean up the environment and reduce our dependency on foreign oil."
Sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy, Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long island conducted its own series of tests on the use of biodiesel for space heating.
That facility's 2001 test report found that biodiesel blends at or below B30 can replace fuel oil with no noticeable changes in performance. Burning of the blends also reduced carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
Biodiesel: Supply And Demand
U.S. biodiesel production was 15 million gallons in 2002 and should reach about 20 million gallons by the end of this year, according to Jenna Higgins, director of communications for the National Biodiesel Board, headquartered in Jefferson City, Missouri.
"There has been a lot of interest, particularly in the Northeast, in using biodiesel as a home heating oil," she says. "I think it's definitely a very strong potential market in the future."
Roughly three out of four U.S. homes using heating oil are in the Northeast, so the potential for expanding the use of biodiesel in that region is substantial.
But can biodiesel meet the increased demand? Residential consumption of No. 2 heating oil in 2001 was 6.6 billion gallons nationwide, according to the Energy Information Agency.
If every homeowner in this country currently heating with oil switched to 1320, 1.3 billion gallons of biodiesel would be needed. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), enough feedstocks exist today to produce 1.9 billion gallons of biodiesel. Another 5 to 10 billion gallons could be made from mustard seed, and billions more could potentially be made from algae. U.S. production of biodiesel could climb to 2.5 billion gallons per year by 2020, according to DOE projections.
Real-World Biodiesel Tests
Since 2001, the Warwick, Rhode island, school district also has been conducting biodiesel fuel tests. During the first heating season, the district burned three different percentages of biodiesel (B10, B15 and B20) as well as a No. 2 fuel-oil control in a fourth school.
"It worked very, very well for us," says Bob Cerio, energy manager for the district. "We had three different types of burners, three different types of boilers, and three different sizes; so we had an opportunity to test a wide spectrum. With the smaller boilers, we were able to get similar test data to what people would be experiencing in their home."
After a successful first season, Cerio switched to a B20 blend for the 2002-2003 heating season without any problems. The district continues to use B20 and is no longer experimenting with any lower-percentage blends.
Cerio also tested boiler efficiency and measured emissions. He says although there has been no change in efficiency, emission reductions have been measured in sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. "We've also discovered that our boilers are running much cleaner, so that saves us quite a lot of work cleaning them."
"I used to refer to biodiesel as an alternative fuel, but now I call it an American fuel, made by American farmers."
He is enthusiastic about the use of biodiesel as a home heating fuel. "It's a very easy match for home heating, particularly if you have an indoor storage tank," he says. "Other than that, there really isn't anything that has to be done in order to use it."
Another biodiesel field trial involving about 100 homes is under way, sponsored by the DOE, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the National Oilheat Research Alliance. It is being conducted by Abbott & Mills, Inc., a fuel-oil dealer in Newburgh, New York.
Now into the third heating season, the tests, with B20, are progressing well, according to Ralph Mills, the company's general manager. "So far, we have no news to report, which is good news," he says. "We've had no service problems associated with the fuel at all. The conclusion that we've come to at this point is that B20 is a viable replacement for traditional fuel oil."
Obstacles to Heating Your Home
Clearly, biodiesel works. But two obstacles to heating your home with biodiesel do exist: price and availability. If you buy it from somebody else, biodiesel generally costs more than No. 2 heating oil. How much more depends on who your supplier is and the quantities you purchase. Nationally, the price of biodiesel ranges from about $1.60 to $2.50 per gallon, depending on the season and supply/demand. A purchased B5 blend, on the other hand, should be only a few cents per gallon more than regular No. 2 heating oil.
Finding a local source of biodiesel to fuel your home heating system can be problematic, too. Even in New England, where 2.2 billion gallons of heating oil are consumed every winter, locating a fuel oil dealer that offers biodiesel home deliveries can be a real challenge. Although more than a dozen major producers (and numerous small producers) of biodiesel are scattered around the country (as well as hundreds of local distributors), the vast majority of the distributors are in the Midwest, where biodiesel feedstocks are grown.
Biodiesel is Catching On
But that's beginning to change. In 2002, Frontier Energy, Inc., of South China, Maine, began to offer biodiesel to homeowners in its regular delivery area, between Augusta, Maine, and Waterville, Maine. The company offers and ac tively promotes a B5 "Basic Bioheat" blend as well as a B20 "Premium Bioheat" blend. And for those who want it, B100 also is available, although the company doesn't recommend using it as a heating fuel at that concentration.
"It's going very well so far," says Joel Glatz, vice president for Frontier Energy. "We're probably selling about the same amount for vehicular use as we are for heating use at this point, but I think the heating application is what is really going to catch on in this state. We use about 400 million gallons in Maine for heating oil and about 150 million gallons for transportation annually, so, obviously, there is a much larger market for heating in this state."
Homeowner response has been extremely positive, Glatz says. "Those who have used it, love it. The comment I usually get is, `I can't tell the difference,' which is exactly what you want to hear."
Another new company to join the biodiesel market is Vermont's Alternative Energy Corporation (VAEC) of Williston, Vermont. Launched in early 2003, the company offers biodiesel heating-oil blends to residential customers through partnerships with large oil companies with terminals in the state.
"We are looking at dealers across the state that we've targeted for distribution," says VAEC president Greg Liebert. In addition to home heating fuel, VAEC also offers biodiesel for vehicles, and biodiesel processing equipment, education and training. In the near future, the company hopes to establish commercial-scale biodiesel processing facilities.
In some parts of the country, homeowners who have been frustrated by the lack of local distributors have formed energy co-ops, through which they order biodiesel in large quantities and at lower prices. Co-op Plus, a member-owned energy cooperative in western Massachusetts, is involved in a variety of renewable energy programs, including a biodiesel initiative that now is associated with Alliance Energy Services in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Alliance currently offers a B20 blend as well as 8100.
"Biofuel is readily available, and it makes sense for a lot of people," says Stephan Chase, the company's president. Alliance, which has been actively promoting its biofuel, has about 100 biodiesel customers and a growing demand for biofuel. "It will be interesting to see what happens," Chase says. "The biofuel is a good product, and the Pioneer Valley [in western Massachusetts] has a lot of residents who are concerned about the environment, so it's a good combination; we should do very well with it here."
Future Fuel Prospects
Biodiesel is a simple, proven fuel that, along with other renewable fuels and conservation strategies, could help end U.S. dependence on foreign crude oil and dramatically improve air quality nationwide.
"It has the capability of giving our farmers a good, steady cash crop, helping our economy, reducing our dependency on the foreign oil market, and its the right thing to do for the environment," says the New Jersey school district spokesman Cerio, "and it's far beyond the experimentation phase at this point."
If you already heat with oil, can find a local supplier and are willing to pay a little more, using biodiesel will let you stay warn this winter in a much greener way.
A portion of this article was adapted from Greg Pahl's new book, Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options, published by Chelsea Green Publishing [available from http://www.motherearthnews.com or (866) 803-7096].
For more information on biodiesel, call or visit the following:
National Biodiesel Board
. Current information on all aspects of biodiesel. Click on the "Heating Oil" link for information specific to space heating. The site also contains links to producers and distributors.
Alternative Fuels Data Center, U.S. Department of Energy
www.energy.gov/search/site/biodiesel%20research. Information about biodiesel research, infrastructure and legislation.
From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel, by Joshua Tickell. The biodiesel bible for those who wish to make their own fuel. Available on MOTHER'S Bookshelf, Page 94 in this issue, or at http://www.motherearthnews.com.
Before You Fire up Your Furnace With Biodiesel
Planning on using biodiesel to heat your home for the first time? Although field tests have indicated that blends up to B20 (20 percent biodiesel; 80 percent fuel-oil) easily can be used without any special precautions, here are a few simple preparatory chores you can do to ensure a smooth transition:
• Clean your furnace or boiler
• Replace the furnace oil filter
• If you have an old storage tank, consider cleaning it
• Keep an extra oil filter on hand, especially if you have an old tank
• Consider starting with a modest B5 blend. Then increase the concentration after a few months or in the next heating season.
• Will burn in virtually any oil-fired furnace or boiler
• No conversion is necessary; just pour it into your storage tank
• Reduces harmful hydrocarbon and particulate emissions
• Reduces the amount of boiler or furnace cleaning
• Low toxicity
• A renewable, domestically produced fuel
• Tends to be more expensive than regular heating oil
• May not be readily available in all locations
• May dissolve sludge in oil tanks and fuel lines, clogging fuel filters or burner heads when first used in older systems
• B100 (100 percent) biodiesel will soften rubber hoses and gaskets (if there are any)
• Needs to be stored in an indoor (or underground) tank in extremely cold climates