Living With Biofuels

This article is about is fuel quality, pure and simple. What I’m going to focus on is the biofuel thing.

For the record as a consumer, I’m not impressed, and even more I’m mad because I feel betrayed and I’ll tell you why. I keep reading about all these focus groups and such that love alternative (bio) fuels, but I don’t find it to be true in my everyday conversations with Northeast homeowners and my consulting clients.

My large clients are switching to gas, and there’s nothing I can do about it; believe me, I’ve tried. Part of the reason is increased fuel consumption and that’s another part of the betrayal problem.

Although we at Firedragon don’t do anything with homeowners, it’s still amazing the number of calls and e-mails we get every week from them and boy they are not happy. I can tell you from these calls the last thing the retail oil industry needs to do is turn consumers off any more. Again, only my opinion, but biofuels are turning many people off.

I’m not just talking about heating oil either, go talk to some diesel and auto mechanics and if you really want to hear an earful, go talk to small engine guys. It’s gotten so bad with them that the hottest product right now is a straight run gas-oil mix that sells anywhere from $16.00 to $40.00 a gallon! Funny thing is it’s hard to find and works. I’ll tell you, after replacing a few small engine carburetors and other parts, I can vouch for it. No more ethanol mixes in my small engines.  

Anyway, back to the basics and specifically the fuel. I’ve been writing articles for over 25 years and just started my 45th year in the heating business. Over that time oil quality hasn’t gotten any better, it’s just gotten worse and that is sadly the problem. Refiners find heating oil a nuisance, too many problems with storage and delivery and not as good a profit as taking crude oil and making other things including diesel and propane, yup the competition. Remember  though, 80 percent of the propane dealers in New England also sell oil maybe not so much the competition as the future.

You must keep in mind that crude oil is also the basic ingredient of propane and diesel, Figure 1 (taken from NORA Oilheat Technician’s Manual). Make more propane and you make more money. As to diesel, it’s a refinery favorite. Diesel use is growing, oilheat is not! Diesel is higher profit, no long-term storage problems and a quicker cash turnover and that’s really important right now for anyone in any business.

This article is not for the gallonage minded or the guys and gals who deliver fuel oil, it’s for the servicemen who have been beating their brains out trying to find out what they’re doing wrong for up to five years now. The truth, you have done nothing wrong. The problem is the oil!

When I started, oil was going through a refining change and we watched the books change from 144,000 to 140,000 Btus as the content of a gallon of fuel oil. Today, that number is at 138,500 Btus per gallon and that’s dropped down from 139,800 just since 1999.

So, what about burner setups? Well, if you are burning a 2% mix of heating oil and biofuel (B2) you’re burning at 129,200 Btus, not 138,500. Make it B20 and it’s down to 127,259 per gallon and if you burn B100, well, first of all they don’t need you anymore. At that point you are not a burner technician, you are a kitchen appliance tech and that fuel contains only 118,296 Btus per gallon. Just for the record, these numbers come from a company called Biodiesel Logic, Inc. and they should know because they make the bio distilling equipment.

And we go back to the basement. If you are trying to get that oilburner to start and/or run and it won’t, it’s the fuel, period! First thing to do when it all goes to crap is to run from another source. Grab a fuel can, go fill it with clean fuel and see what happens. If it now lights and runs the fuel in your tank is junk and you need to replace it, that’s the Circle of Combustion, Figure 2.

If you can get it to run, but the test numbers aren’t any good or the adjustments you had to make vary so much from the OEM specs, try this: First of all, set your burner to ‘factory settings’ using the correct recommended nozzle. Set your head settings and air settings also to factory specifications and then close down a bit on your air setting. If you want, you can make the initial pump setting into a can and fire her up. Remember, we want to close the air gate a bit and then adjust the pump as follows.

By burning B2 you have a reduced Btu input of about 8%, so if you should be operating with a 100 psi pump pressure you should actually be at 110 psi (108) to meet factory specs. If you should be operating at 125 set your pump to 135 psi  and if you should be at 145 psi set it to 160 (157). Higher pump pressures in the stratosphere, in my opinion, do nothing, but correct pump pressure does wonders.

After you get everything set, adjust your air to deliver a burner that operates at True Zero smoke or the lowest cad-cell reading you can get and adjust your head (if adjustable) for the lowest Carbon Monoxide (CO) level or the lowest cad-cell reading you can get (Lanthier Scale) and you’re done. Now all you need is a good quality, properly filtered, additive conditioned fuel and see ya’ next year, you hope!

Don’t forget pour points, too. Many biomixtures won’t flow freely at temperatures that start as high as 64ºF and can cause some real problems at temperatures like 46ºF depending on the base bio ingredient, soybean, palm oil or tallow. If the tank goes cold, you will see gelling with biomixtures at temperatures that are normally not a problem with regular fuel oil, so even more additives will be required. 

Finally, if you burn oil at home, like I do, and it contains 2% bio (B-2) you’ll find that heating your home with B-2 is now costing you about 8% more just to make up for the lost Btu content of Bioheat® and that’s why those big clients who track fuel usage very carefully are jumping off and another reason I decided to write this article.

I have a very large client where with new equipment and controls we cut their fuel bill 52% a few years back, they were ecstatic and did not switch as they had planned.  Now, due to that 8% increase they are thinking of switching again. And oh, by the way, they are a major well known conservation and ecological group. In their opinion, the only true ‘green oil’ is B-100.

Good or bad biofuels may be here to stay, so try my service procedure and let me know what you think of it and use a good quality pressure gauge, because accurate pressure settings have never been more important.

See ya.

*George Lanthier is the owner of Firedragon Academy, a teaching, publishing and consulting firm. He is the author of over 40 books on HVAC subjects and can be reached at 608 Moose Hill Road, Leicester, MA 01524. His phone is 508-421-3490, fax at 508-421-3477 and his website can be found at

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