Here’s an article that I wrote back in 1992. It never goes out of date and after many requests, we have decided to give it another run. We’ve updated it, brushed it off, and here’s the 2008 version. By the way, the material is also in our publication, Advanced Residential Oilburners with more information on oil burner troubleshooting than anywhere.
After spending 42 years in the oil business, I am still amazed that many of the service problems that continue to plague us are the same ones that have plagued us all along. Over the years I have worked as a manufacturer’s rep, a wholesale salesman, a service manager, a teacher and a self-employed contractor. Currently, I work as a consultant and teacher, and again it’s the same old problems, over and over.
I guess the thing that’s the most amazing to me is that the single biggest problem I had as a serviceman and have heard about throughout my career is directly related to one of our primary sales products ‘ fuel oil. After all, the only two products that consumers call on retail oil companies for is fuel oil and burner service, so this does create a serious problem. What about burner equipment sales, you ask? They don’t need you; ask any plumber or HVAC contractor. Maybe that’s why your equipment sales are off. In the past I had started to look into all kinds of remedies and solutions, but I never found one that did it all in one magic step. I have still not found that magic pill, and I am not really sure that it exists. I will, however, offer to you in this article a few solutions I have stumbled upon while discussing service problems with oil men from Canada to the Carolinas. Most of these solutions are based on a lot of personal experiences and most have worked for me.
Before we get into possible cures, however, let’s look at the sickness. We are an industry that is now over 100 years old, and with age comes part of the problem ‘ our storage tanks. This has to be recognized as a problem, like it or not. Not admitting it is stupid. In general, most of the fuel oil sold today is in fact superior to the fuel oil of years ago and is safer to our environment, but it does have one serious drawback ‘ the sulfur level has been reduced. This is not only true of No. 1-K, the blends and No. 6, but also of No. 2. The greatest disadvantage to this sulphur loss is that we have seen the increase in algae levels rise. We still get the occasional ‘bad load” and some ‘off spec” product still seems to sneak through every season. I think most oil dealers have learned that after all of the service problems that come with this, good oil is always worth a little more (keep in mind these comments were made 15 years ago and fuel quality has in fact has worsened since then). Now I do not want to get all the oil suppliers mad at me, and I don’t want OPEC or somebody putting a contract out on me, but why is it that whenever a bad product gets through, nobody admits to having sold it. So where did it come from?
I know one thing from experience ‘ when it’s really cold out and oil gets a little tight and the price goes up all of a sudden, some supplier has this great deal on oil and has plenty of it. If you believe you are having problems with the fuel oil you buy, have it tested, and if it is bad, change suppliers. Forget price, this is your survival we’re talking about. Just remember that the suppliers are in gasoline too; fuel oil is not the only product they sell, unlike you. And to all you technicians who service burners for the guys who buy this stuff, my sympathies. I’ve been there.
I will not enter into the continuing debate about tank truck pumping speeds. But I won’t shrug aside the fact that as the pumping speed of tank vehicles went up, the problems in the fuel oil tank increased proportionally, and that is a fact. Ask anybody who has been in the business over 30 years.
Back to tanks; for the sake of simplicity we will confine this discussion to the staple of the Northeast oil industry ‘ the in-basement tank. But most of the concepts I will outline also apply to the outside or underground tank.
Over 40 years I have spent numerous hours on the problems with fuel oil and will make one statement that I would bet the bank on ‘ old oil tank bottoms are the dirtiest places on earth. One burner manufacturer has even stated that there is normally two to six inches of sludge at the bottom of the average tank.
So what do we do? Well, we could start an aggressive campaign to replace the few million tanks in use, but many of us in the industry believe that might cause customers to convert to gas. Let me tell you, if we don’t keep our customers happy, they are going to leave us one way or another. If we don’t fix the service problems with those tanks, they are going to go to gas for sure. So, what’s the difference? How about a retrofit of the storage and delivery systems?
In the field, every company has an ideal location for a tank retrofit. Don’t know of one? Just ask your service technicians; they have those service problem jobs memorized.
Let’s go through the retrofit step by step:
1. Thoroughly clean the tank. If you are not convinced and are not ready to set up a tank-cleaning truck or purchase a tank-cleaning machine, try it the easy way. Contact a local company to do one tank cleaning. Or, get one for free by having a demonstration of a tank-cleaning machine done for you. It may also surprise you to find out that a friendly competitor owns one and may let you borrow or rent his. It is very important that you have easy access to this tank to perform steps No. 3 and No. 4. Still can’t think of a problem tank? How about the one outside your office window or the one below you in the basement?
2. Provide for proper and adequate filtration. Aha, the real meat of this project, which we will look at later in detail.
3. Monitor the retrofit. This is very important so that you can prove to yourself that you are making progress. Before you do anything, take an oil sample at a couple of key points: (a) at the tank and get a sample of that sludge and (b) at the entrance to the burner pump (or get the oil in it).
4. Analyze and respond to the results. Take the samples and have them tested. I won’t tell you what you will find because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It is also a part of convincing you that all of this effort is worth it.
Once you find out what is in the oil besides the tank (iron oxides and such), you can now contact someone to see if any further action is required, such as a chemical treatment or finding a new supplier. It is important if large concentrations of water or water-related agents are found that all piping and the tank cylinder are thoroughly checked. Chemicals do work, but like everything else should be the correct one, used as directed and in moderation. More importantly, they must combat the specific problem.
Filtration is probably the most important thing that can be done to insure that constant operation is achieved at the burner once the other work has been done. Some people who have tried some of the ideas I will suggest on filtration have found them so effective that they now do them on every job.
I first started advocating the concept of dual filtration while teaching a burner product line back in 1980. Since then, many people have written or spoken on the concept. They usually stop at the filtration point. This is something I do not always agree with because it does not address the source of the sludge already present in the system. I will offer one basic plan of attack, but remember that you may modify the plan according to your needs and conditions. Before we get at it, let’s look at a few facts: