Article Stirs Controversy

In March a Fuel Oil News  article ‘Ultra-Low Sulfur Fuel; Oil Effects” noted in an interview with John E. Batey, technical director for the Oilheat Manufacturer’s Association that some preliminary research being conducted for the New York State Research and Development Authority had shown some potential issues with the longevity of conventional nitrile seals. Fuel Oil News has clearly and strongly supported the move to ULS-biofuel blends in the industry for a variety of political, marketing, environmental and operational reasons. However, to avoid potential industry liability and reputation issues the product must be relatively turn-key in nature.

Dr. Thomas Butcher, head of the Energy Conversion Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory; John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance and Robert Hedden, executive director of the Oilheat Manufacturers Association, requested the opportunity to provide some additional input on the subject with the following letter to the editor:

Last month,  Fuel Oil News  published an article on the introduction of ultra low sulfur diesel and biodiesel in heating oil equipment.  There were a number of concerns raised regarding the suitability of those fuels in heating oil that we felt should be discussed further.

First, the heating oil that we are selling today is far different from the heating oil sold 50 years ago.  The refineries have changed their processing of the fuel, the sources of crude oil have changed, and even the sulfur level of ‘standard” heating oil is half of what it was twenty years ago.  The product that this industry sells has always been changing, and no doubt sometimes the changes improve the performance, and unfortunately other changes create problems for us.  Regardless, we have to work hard to make sure our equipment performs and accommodates the fuel that is sold to us.

Second, the changes to the fuel discussed in the article will improve the product sold to customers.  A low sulfur fuel will eliminate the need for cleaning the heat exchanger in most circumstances.  It will also reduce the sulfur-related corrosion that occurs in the appliance, and the chimney.  As discussed in the recent article, it will also improve the environmental characteristics of the fuel and make us as clean as natural gas. 

Additionally, the industry is now selling an expensive fuel because of its ties to the Mideast; biodiesel is our best opportunity to have a long term future heating America’s homes.  It is manufactured in America; it is renewable and releases only a fraction of the greenhouse gases of heating oil.  It is the best way for us to move forward, and compete with natural gas, propane and electricity.  For this reason, most of the industry supports moving to a cleaner low sulfur fuel and having biodiesel in it. 

I would also like to point out that the article does not adequately cover the successful field study of pumps on Long Island, and that the owner of this company is very supportive of moving to ULSD.  It is my understanding that in this study 100 homes used ULSD 2 years, and that all but one home completed the test, and the home that failed had a very old burner.

Additionally, that thousands of heating oil customers are currently using ULSD in several states in the Midwest, and have been using this product for three years.  The service manager for the largest heating oil company in Wisconsin indicated they have used ULSD for three years without incident.  

Similarly, many countries in Europe currently use a very low sulfur fuel.  Europe adopted a low sulfur fuel for on-road use in 2005 which is a 50 ppm standard.  The heating oil industry in Germany, after completion of a research and evaluation program, adopted a similar standard shortly thereafter, and a significant amount of equipment is currently using this very low sulfur fuel.  The German research organization, IWO, noted at the time of adoption that lubricity may be an issue with the fuel and adopted a lubricity specification for the fuel.  We have heard nothing but praise from the German representatives of IWO regarding that fuel.  Further, it is our understanding that the seals discussed in this study are identical to those in widespread use in Germany, and that such seals are approved by UL for use with diesel. The availability of ultralow sulfur heating oil in Europe has enabled the market introduction of very compact, condensing oil-fired boilers. 

Finally, the National Oilheat Research Alliance, and the National Biodiesel Board are currently operating a project at Pennsylvania State University to assess ultra low sulfur, and biodiesel blends.  We are concerned with anything that might hint of a problem in oilheating equipment and believe that any such problems must be chased down.  However, we also cannot stop moving forward based on isolated incidents. The benefits of our transition to this cleaner fuel far outweigh any potential risks.

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