Biofuel Diary

Friday the 13th of December 2019 Levi Bourne was driving home after a long day, typical in the fuel business for that time of the year. Here’s his account of what happened that day:

My radio cut out and the Bluetooth from my cell phone took over to let me know my girlfriend Cassie was calling. I had received a text from her before leaving work to let me know she was already home so I assumed she needed me to stop at the quick stop for something. Instead, when I picked up the call, I heard a very hysterical voice shouting, “I’m in the downstairs bathroom and the furnace just exploded and now the house is full of smoke!”

Having spent most of my career as a service technician I knew exactly what had happened so I replied, “Huh, that’s cool, does it smell like burnt French fries?”

My family has been in the fuel business in Northern Vermont for over 70 years. To stay competitive for this long we have had to weather many product and technological changes along the way; from coal to kerosene to low sulfur fuel oil to propane, and now the renewable fuel revolution that we are seeing today. With each evolution we have felt the growing pains that come with learning new products, equipment, and all of the rules and regulations that follow. Personally, I believe the transition to biofuels is no different. With every new evolution of the market there are bumps in the road, but when the market is changing, we must be nimble and evolve with it or risk becoming irrelevant.

Our company has been blending and delivering biofuel for nearly ten years now. In 2011 we built a heated blending facility that allows us to deliver any blend of bio product to our customers year-round. With little exception, we deliver blended Bioheat to our entire #2 fuel oil customer base as well as some diesel customers. This includes ski resorts and the state’s largest electrical utility, but the vast majority of our delivered bio product is #2 blended to a B20 (20% bio, 80% fossil fuel) to residential homes. This is of course weather dependent. In Vermont, we often see temperatures well below zero, making the delivery of a product with such a high gel temperature challenging. With long stretches of cold we may be forced to blend down to a B10 or B5. As much as we are dedicated to Bioheat, keeping our customers warm is our primary duty. 

Despite our northern climate, we do have a small number of customers that for one reason or another elect to burn B99 in their diesel equipment or heating systems. Among these customers is an organic compost producer who cannot risk a diesel fuel contamination, and a handful of residential heating customers who choose to burn B99 in an effort to be more environmentally responsible. We have had some learning opportunities. We have found that some indoor tanks (especially in some older poorly insulated farm houses) can gel even though they are in the envelope of the home.  These basements often drop down below 40 degrees Fahrenheit when the outdoor temperatures are severe. We have also found that proper blending practices are crucial for consistent product, especially in cold temperatures. One more thing we have found, Bioheat does not ruin oil burner fuel pumps.

I purchased my house in Cabot, Vermont, in 2016. The house was 20 years old at that time and with it came an Olsen/Airco furnace and Granby 275-gallon steel oil tank that the original owner had put in when the house was built. Around this time, our service department had been going through hell with mini pumps.  It felt like we were replacing two or three per week for the better part of a season, and our field staff kept pointing at the bio, claiming it ate fuel pump seals. I was getting sick and tired of listening to my co-workers blaming the Bioheat blend for return service calls. I had talked to other service professionals who said they were experiencing similar issues on conventional fuel systems and I felt like my technicians were looking for a scapegoat for their lack of thorough troubleshooting. Then in February 2017 an opportunity presented itself when I myself unintentionally ran out of fuel. 

Have you heard the saying “a carpenter’s house is never finished?” Well like many in the fuel business, I tend to think I’ve got this all figured out so I keep my account on will-call and only order fuel when I get really low to make sure the driver gets an optimum delivery.  This obviously backfired. I also have a particularly long and nasty driveway. I do not like to dispatch a truck there in the winter so I grabbed one of the little landscape trailers we use to move propane tanks, a couple of 55-gallon drums and headed to our closest pump station.  Somewhere on the drive between my freezing house and the fuel pumps my mind began to wander to the stresses of work and the complaints I had been hearing from our field staff.  By the time I arrived I had decided to give straight B99 a try; if for no other reason than to silence the nay-sayers in our crew. 

So back to Friday the 13th in 2019. Cassie had been in our downstairs bath (which doubles as the laundry room) throwing a load of clothes in the wash. On the other side of the wall is the mechanical room where the furnace sits. It is vented into a masonry chimney in the shared wall between the two rooms. The cleanout door at the base of the chimney is in the bathroom wall behind a pine access panel. On this day Cassie had the unfortunate timing to be in that room when the furnace had a delay ignition so violent that it blew the clean-out door and pine panel right off the wall and across the room. As I said earlier, I spent most of my career in the field as a technician so when she called me, I immediately knew the furnace had stacked up with atomized fuel and finally ignited. To be honest, I don’t know why, but I was surprised that there was such a powerful blowback from the biofuel. I also have to admit that all of this excitement is entirely my own fault.

Here is a very short service history of my furnace: 

In 2016, the year I bought the house, I did a full tune-up with the assumption that the previous homeowner, who was a local handy man, had been doing most of the service himself. I brushed and vacuumed the heat exchanger, went through the burner, etc. with no surprises.

I first filled my tank with B99 in February of 2017. A few months later the burner went out on reset. Expecting to find the fuel system plugged, I proceeded to go through the fuel filter, pump strainer and nozzle. To my delight I found nothing out of the ordinary except a small amount of water in the bottom of the filter canister which I suspect came from the old 55-gallon drums I had used to transport the B99 on that first delivery. I set up the burner with a smoke test and digital combustion analyzer and with the exception of air filters, never touched the system again until the day Cassie called me in a panic. My furnace went un-serviced for nearly three years on straight B99 without a hiccup, which I consider an absolute victory. 

So, I got home on Friday the 13th, pulled my tool bag out of the truck, grabbed a cold beer out of the fridge and headed down to the mechanical room. Cassie, who also works in the fuel business, had already shut down the furnace and got the pellet stove going so the house was nice and warm (my reception was a little chilly, probably something to do with my burnt French fries remark).  And so, I began the old ritual of troubleshooting the oil burner.  I always open the bleeder port on the pump before I do anything else, then hit the reset button and confirm a good stream of fuel into my slop oil bucket. After that I worked backwards through the system to find the problem. The first obvious problem I found was a large chunk of buildup in the blast tube which had obviously grounded out the ignition electrodes and likely caused the delayed ignition. Most technicians have seen this many times with conventional oil systems. Typically, it starts with a small after drip from the nozzle that goes unnoticed until enough unburned product builds up to interfere with combustion or ignition. This seemed no different except for the unusually large size of the chunk and that it appeared to have more of a synthetic feel to it, almost like plastic. Still, nothing too surprising for 2.8 years of run time.

After pulling and inspecting the draw assembly, I threw in a new nozzle and decided it was time to replace the electrodes. I always inspect the sintered filter behind the nozzle before tossing it in the slop pail, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it almost perfectly clean. I find it rare to see so little debris in any system. In a conventional #2 oil system, especially heat-only systems like a warm-air unit that sits for months out of the year, the chemical reaction between the copper and fuel oil will build up a varnish-like residue that will inevitably end up in the nozzle. None of this was present here.

I popped open the pump cover to find an equally pristine pump strainer. At this point I was almost giddy. Not only were my assumptions proving true about the stability and reliability of B99, but this was shaping out to be one of the easiest furnace cleanings I had ever done!

I put the pump and burner back together and slid my slop bucket and tools across the floor to pull the fuel filter. The filter cartridge had a light coating with a texture similar to automotive grease, but the canister itself was as clean as the day l last serviced it. Despite the urge to put the system back together with all of the old parts (just to see how long it would run) I replaced the fuel filter, and bled and fired the burner.

Finally, I dug out my old nemesis the soot vacuum. Anyone who has spent a portion of their life in oil service has to admit they’ve had at least one full out basement brawl with a soot vac at some point in their career. I opened up the heat exchanger to find virtually nothing besides a light dusting of fly ash (keep in mind I had neglected the heat exchanger since I purchased the house in 2016).

At this point I was practically jumping up and down. I was so excited that I forgot to open my beer. After putting the system back together and dialing the unit in with a combustion analyzer I ran up the stairs to tell Cassie about everything I had just found. For some reason she was not as excited as I was…

I am no laboratory tech or chemist, but as a career fuel man I have to say the benefits of the B99 were impossible to ignore. After several years of delivering high Bioheat blends to customers I can say confidently that bio will not eat up your minipump (water definitely will!). We later found out that we had a bad run of pumps in our area and many local service providers were fighting the same battle we were. Luckily, once we got through the bad stock our pump issues went away. We have seen many changes in the industry over the years that have brought all types of challenges for our service teams but I feel bio is by no means the largest obstacle we have encountered. Levi Bourne is Northeast Kingdom (Vermont) regional manager for Bourne’s Energy.

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