How to save this winter

Guest Column

By Bob Hedden

So far, as I write this on March 2, the 2005-06 winter has been a degree-day disaster. It’s true that February was pretty cold, but I don’t think March and April are going to make up for the tropical January.

There are lots of disagreeable ways to deal with a lack of winter: cutbacks, layoffs, salary and bonus cuts, profit-sharing cuts, and delayed capital investments. I am sure most oil dealers reading this have already thought of all of these austerity strategies.

While it may not save the whole winter, there is one way to mitigate this disaster somewhat and that is to drastically increase your heating equipment sales effort. This assumes you have figured out how to make money selling heating equipment. If you have not by now, call me and I can help you.

With energy costs where they are, and with most experts predicting they will stay at these levels for a while, it is time to start to sell energy conservation investments again.
Politicians, economists, environmentalists and consumers are looking for answers to our nation’s growing energy problem. While we cannot solve all the problems, we can help in a significant way. The new oil-powered space- and water-heating equipment is so much better than the old stuff that most homeowners cannot afford not to replace it.

At today’s energy prices, it is much cheaper in the long run to upgrade than to leave the old stuff in place wasting money and energy. Potential paybacks and returns on investment at today’s prices are spectacular. I doubt we will ever have a better opportunity to convince our customers to upgrade than we will this spring.

The question is, how do we make this happen? NORA has created a tool to help you ramp-up your equipment sales effort: The NORA Gold Book, Efficient Oilheat, An Energy Conservation Guide. The purpose of the Gold Book is to teach service technicians and salespeople how to be sure oilheat users are getting the most heat for their money from their existing systems, how to evaluate the various energy conservation investments available and how to inspire customers to make these investments. You can order the book (Item No. NORA-GBK) at for $18. The following are some highlights from the book:

Replace a non-flame-retention burner with a new flame-retention burner and save about 15 percent on the cost of heating the building.
Replace an old flame-retention burner with a new flame-retention burner and save up to 10 percent on oil and the electric cost of running the burner.
Replace a boiler or furnace and save from 20 percent to as high as 30 percent, or sometimes more, on the cost of heating the building.
Replace a tankless-coil boiler with a tank-type indirect water heater and cold-start boiler combination and save an additional 5 percent to 10 percent and have much more hot water with no more coil cleaning.
While you are replacing the boiler or furnace, replace the oil tank and oil lines, too. Oil tanks last a long time, but not forever. It is much better to replace them before they leak.

If the oil burner was a car
There are over 1.6 million non-flame-retention burners and 1.7 million first-generation (installed before 1985) retention burners still in the field. This equals 3.3 million burners in the field over 20 years old, about 35 percent of the installed base. Obviously we are not doing a very good job persuading our customers to upgrade their equipment. These same customers will replace their car every three to five years. Maybe if we could get our customers to look at their heating system like they look at their car we could do better.

If a burner were a car it would travel 640,000 miles in 20 years. The average oil burner uses at least 800 gallons a year at one gallon an hour. This means the average oil burner runs 800 hours a year. The average speed driven for the average car trip is 40 mph. Eight-hundred hours times 40 mph equals 32,000 miles a year times 20 years equals 640,000 miles.

What would a 20-year-old Dodge Dart with over 600,000 miles on the odometer look like? Would you hop in that car and drive back and forth from New York to Los Angles 5.5 times this winter without giving it a second thought? Is it any wonder the amount of emergency service required to keep burners running is increasing?

Replacing an old, inefficient, oversized boiler or furnace is one of the best investments our customers can make. Where else can they get over a 20 percent tax-free return on investment; oceans of hot water; a more comfortable, cleaner, quieter home; help improve the environment and lower our country’s balance of payments; lower their cost of living; and increase the value of their home? This is such a great deal the new equipment should be selling itself. Unfortunately, nothing can sell itself. It needs our help.

Fourth-generation flame-retention oil burners
Over the 40 years since flame-retention burners first appeared on the market the design has evolved and improved. Oil burners have gone through some subtle and not-so-subtle changes since the late 1990s. The result is today’s burners are much better than those sold just 10 years ago.

The latest versions of the flame-retention head burner produce more effective fuel-air mixing than outdated designs. This reduces the amount of excess combustion air required for clean burning, produces higher flame temperatures, and increases boiler and furnace heat transfer rates. All this results in lower heat losses and improved efficiency.

The new burners produce much higher static pressure, which increases flame stability and makes them less affected by chimney draft. Because they need less excess air, the air intake on the new burners is not open nearly as far as on older burners. This dramatically reduces off-cycle airflow through the heating system. The result is much lower on-cycle and off-cycle losses and greater efficiency. This is a case where improved efficiency also reduces service.

These burners can run so clean that there is almost no combustion residue build-up over the heating season. This means that the efficiency does not go down through the season like it does with older burners. Properly adjusted new burners do not need to be tuned up every year. We find that they can now go two or three years between tuneups. Thanks to interrupted ignition and PSC ball-bearing motors, new burners also require a lot less electricity to operate then the older units.

The benefits our customers gain by replacing old burners with new ones are: efficiency improvement; lower electric bills; reduced smoke and soot emissions which can result in increased time between tuneups; improved flame stability and less variation in performance due to seasonal chimney draft changes; and lower fuel consumption.

When to recommend a new burner
Every non-flame-retention burner should be replaced and most pre-1985 first-generation flame-retention burners should, as well. If the burner you are working on has a steady state efficiency less than 78 percent, more than a No. 1 smoke and/or a history of smoke and soot production or reliability problems, it should be replaced. The real question is, when do you recommend a burner and when should you try to sell a furnace or boiler?

In the 1970s, when the flame-retention burner became widely available, we did an awful lot of burner replacements. We helped our customers dramatically reduce their fuel bills. However, we noticed that when we sold a new boiler or furnace they saved a great deal more. Replacing the burner and upgrading the system will definitely improve your CO2 by reducing excess air. However, a new burner will not help lower your net stack temperature. They will reduce off-cycle losses somewhat, but they are only half the story.

The only way to dramatically reduce net stack temperature and off-cycle losses is a new boiler or furnace. The other problem with just replacing the burner is you may be throwing good money after bad. If the old boiler or furnace is on its last legs, the new burner with its white-hot flame will definitely kill the old unit quicker. These are the reasons why the number of retrofit burners installed in the United States fell dramatically in the early 1980s and has not recovered.

As we discussed earlier, since the 1970s burner manufacturers have been improving their products. The static pressure has been getting higher and higher. The electronic controls are getting smarter and more reliable. We are going back to interrupted ignition and using igniters instead of ignition transformers. The pumps feature more positive cut-off. We have switched from sleeved bearing motors to ball-bearing PSC motors. The new nozzles are better in many little ways. The new controls feature pre- and post-purge for cleaner startup and shutdown.

The result is that while the new burners look pretty much the same as the old burners, they are far superior. They are more efficient, more reliable, safer and even quieter than the 1970s and 1980s flame-retention burners. They use a great deal less electricity than the older models. It is time for a retrofit revolution.

If the boiler or furnace is more than 30 years old you should just replace it. If you are working on a wet-base hydronic boiler installed less than 30 years ago and it looks to be in good shape, then sell them a new burner. Most steam boilers, dry-base hydronic boilers or furnaces installed before 1980 are better candidates for replacement than for new burners. Any boilers, furnaces and water heaters sold between 1980 and 1995 will run much better with new burners installed.

Our new oil-powered equipment is the most advanced, reliable, efficient heating equipment available. It provides superior comfort and oceans of hot water. The best way for us to ensure a bright future for oilheat is to be sure all of our customers are enjoying the benefits of investing in the Clearburn Technology of oilheat. With today’s energy costs this will be a great year for us to get out there and sell it!

Bob Hedden is the executive director OMA, director of NORA Education & Training and president of Oilheat Associates. He can be reached by calling (802) 325-3509 or e-mailing

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