Fuel Oil and the “Green” Future


Where will fuel oil and fuel oil dealers fit in the ‘green-building” future?

That widely discussed question prompts answers many, varied and yet to come from numerous stakeholders, including fuel oil dealers, trade groups, equipment manufacturers, the construction trades, state and federal government, energy suppliers, and environmental and consumer groups.

Tom Butcher of Brookhaven National Laboratory has spoken of the fuel oil industry’s challenges in terms of what must be done today, and what must be done to prepare for tomorrow. Today’s task is reducing the amount of petroleum fuel needed to meet current building loads, he said.

Simply controlling system losses offers great potential for energy savings in the short term, Butcher said, and the industry has already made aggressive moves to push efficiency levels over 90 percent, he noted. In that vein, retrofitting advanced controls to existing heating systems could yield low-cost reductions in fuel use, he said.

The longer-term challenge has to do with developing systems and technical support for the low-load buildings of the future, Butcher said. That’s where development and commercialization of high-efficiency condensing and non-condensing furnaces and boilers come into play, he said.

‘We have the ability to achieve rather high efficiency even without condensing,” Butcher said at an industry ‘summit” sponsored by the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) in Washington, D.C. in March.

Heat pumps, solar thermal systems and other technologies-in-development could result in still greater efficiencies, he added.

Much of the long-term future of fuel oil will also be shaped, it seems, by the use of new construction materials and principles designed to result in residences that will be heated and cooled effectively with significantly less energy.

For the moment, condensing furnaces and boilers are considered leading edge technology, Harvey Sachs, a senior fellow with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), said, and because of that there is some resistance to them among contractors. But, he said, ‘The reasons to oppose condensing go away as contractors get more experience and learn about the controls.” Sachs said that once resistance to condensing technology diminishes, ‘We’re going to be in a service model instead of a commodity model of selling oil.”

The wariness of some in the heating and plumbing industries to condensing boilers and furnaces is captured, Sachs suggested, in an old joke that a ‘progressive” plumber is one who is willing to install anything his father did, while a ‘conservative” plumber is one who is willing to do whatever his grandfather did.

 ‘A lot of contractors are uncomfortable with being out on the leading edge because any mistakes by the manufacturer or the [installer’s] techs cost them money,” Sachs said. ‘It’s a legitimate fear.

‘Until you’ve got a few of these [installations of condensing equipment] under your belt, your nightmare is callbacks,” Sachs said. ‘So my sense is that the average contractor is not going to offer the condensing option to his customers. He’s not going to tell them about it until it’s mainstream.”

When that will happen is really anybody’s guess, Sachs suggested, calling it a ‘chicken or the egg” type of question. But he observed that incentives typically do much to prompt acceptance of any new technology.

Information can also help. Some of that is expected from a study of condensing boilers being sponsored by the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA). The project involves monitoring of three new-construction houses in Ithaca, N.Y. William A. Zoeller of Steven Winter Associates, a building systems consulting firm that is conducting the study for NYSERDA, said the monitoring began in January and will continue through this summer. Monitoring over that extended time frame will enable the consulting firm to see how the condensing boilers perform in winter, when there is demand for space heating and domestic hot water, and in summer, when there will be demand only for domestic hot water.

‘We’ve found a lot of interesting things about condensing boilers and what manufacturers recommend,” Zoeller said in a telephone update in May. He said that even though the boilers in the test are fueled by natural gas, the results ‘are directly transferable to oil equipment.”

Probably the two most significant findings so far have had to do with pump rates and primary loops, Zoeller said.

Low-flow pump rates are needed for the condensing boilers to work correctly. For example, a rate of three gallons a minute is too fast, Zoeller said. ‘What happens is you just don’t dump enough Btus [British thermal units] when you’re pumping it that fast. The water temperatures stay higher and therefore you tend not to get as much condensing as you could.”

The other finding is that some manufacturers show, in their installation guides, a primary loop. That means that in a four-zone system, for example, if one zone is ‘calling,” the primary loop is taking hot water out of the boiler and ‘essentially dumping hot water back to the boiler,” Zoeller said. ‘It has the net effect of raising the return temperature and therefore reduces the amount of condensing performance you get.” He called this setup ‘self-defeating.”

Zoeller said that he would use these and other findings of the study as the basis for an installation guide he will write on how to install condensing boilers and hot water baseboards for maximum efficiency. The guide is scheduled to be published and disseminated by NYSERDA later this year.

In addition to the work in Ithaca, the Authority is conducting a raft of research and development projects. Nate Russell of NYSERDA said these include: developing a condensing 100 percent biodiesel boiler for commercial application; studying heat exchanger coatings/materials that can withstand the corrosive environment of oil-fired condensing boilers; working on development of low-electric-power burners; lab-testing ultra-low-sulfur heating oil and conducting field demonstrations; and exploring advanced venting techniques for high-efficiency boilers.



New Guidelines for Energy Star Homes

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is setting new, more rigorous guidelines for new homes that earn the Energy Star label. The guidelines will go into effect in January 2011.

The new requirements will make qualified new homes at least 20 percent more efficient than homes built to the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), the agency said, and will cut utility bills for qualified homes by 15 percent compared to IECC code-built homes.

The updated requirements are designed to ensure that the government’s Energy Star label continues to deliver a significant increase in energy efficiency over homes that are built to code and standard builder business practices, the agency said.

Highlights of the new guidelines are:

A complete thermal enclosure system. Comprehensive air sealing, insulated assemblies and high-performance windows should combine to enhance comfort, improve durability and reduce utility bills.

High-efficiency heating and cooling systems engineered to deliver comfort, moisture control and quiet operation, and equipped with fresh-air ventilation to improve air quality.

A complete water management system. Energy Star homes offer a tightly-sealed and insulated building envelope, the EPA noted. For that reason, a comprehensive package of flashing, moisture barriers, and heavy-duty membrane details is critical to help keep water from roofs, walls, and foundations for improved durability and indoor air quality.

Efficient lighting and appliances. Energy Star qualified lighting, appliances and fans help to further reduce monthly utility bills and provide high-quality performance.

Third-party verification. To qualify for the Energy Star designation, verification must be carried out by independent home energy raters who conduct a series of detailed inspections and use diagnostic equipment to test system performance.

Energy Star is a joint program of the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. It is designed to provide consumers savings while promoting and encouraging the use of energy efficient products and practices. More information about how homes can qualify for the Energy Star designation is available at: http://www.energystar.gov.

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