A Good Read


The teacher and his student are often at odds—no less so in the oil heat industry. Reluctant to forego the need for theoretical background, the teacher is conscious of the student’s impatience to get to the “heart of the matter.” Oftentimes, the fact that oil burns becomes more important than why it burns. Since the development of oil-burning equipment, many authors have undertaken the task of educating the masses.

One of my favorites is Audel’s “Oil Burner Guide” from 1947. Apart from the fact that it includes much useful information (even by today’s standards) it is the language and attitude of the writer that continue to attract my attention.

Written by Frank D. Graham, the opening page alone is worth the price of admission, as they say. Decrying the use of the preface as a “useless excrescence” the author in his “Author’s Letter” goes on to quote Shakespeare and Stravinsky in the process of declaring his disdain for longwinded introductions and “high sounding psychological nonsense”.

The first chapter is a three-page introduction to oil and its distillation – short and to the point. He then goes on to outline the chemistry and physics associated with the burning of oil, in much the same manner as before. It is not until page 14 that we are again exposed to the author’s irascibility. In a footnote he states that:

“Most of it [the heat] goes up the chimney, especially in some cast iron house heating boilers – sometimes heating the stack red hot – a condition that should not be tolerated by even the ignorantia and will not be tolerated by the intelligentia.”


Another footnote on the same page reminds the reader that a British thermal unit is “Thermal, not ‘terminal’ as so called by some nondescripts.” Whoa!

He goes on to state that: “It must be evident that a thorough knowledge of combustion is necessary for the oil burner man to properly adjust an oil burner for best efficiency and to correct any troubles arising from faulty furnace or chimney problems.” Sound advice indeed.

The book is laid out in a Q & A format, some examples being:

“Ques. What can be said, if anything, in favor of early cast iron sectional house heating boilers?”

“Ans. Nothing.” 

It is clear that Mr. Graham was not a man to pull his punches. And while most of the author’s advice is good, it does on occasion reflect the times.

“Ques.  Does the color of the flame indicate with precision the correct burner adjustment for most efficient combustion?”

“Ans.  No, but, an experienced oil burner man can approximate the best adjustment by flame color,” soon to be qualified with: “However, for precision, a CO2 test should be made with Orsat outfit.”

A what outfit? A forerunner to the Bachrach analyzer, an Orsat outfit was a somewhat cumbersome device used to measure CO2. Consisting of a burette and a number of pipettes, it worked much like the more familiar Fyrite analyzer. Various solutions such as caustic potash for CO2, pyrogallic acid for O and cuprous chloride for CO were used to extract and measure their volume in relation to the whole.

Still in use today, the Orsat was eclipsed by the Bachrach and more recently by electronic analyzers. What is interesting is that, in a later chapter, the author goes into some detail explaining the workings of the Bachrach Fyrite analyzer, which had been just seven years old when this book was written. In fact, he qualifies his earlier statements thus:

“Ques.  How about judging by the appearance of the flame?”

“Ans:  This test is no good as it is often misleading.”

Reading this book reminds you that certain fundamental basics have been known for a long time.

“If more than one burner be installed in conjunction with one tank, each burner must have a separate inlet line.”

Apparently, Mr. Graham’s words did not reach as many as he would have hoped!

At one point the author makes the statement: “It should be noted that the term “oil burner” is a glaring misnomer, but at this stage nothing can be done about it.” Perhaps he is being a little picky here, but terminology was important to Mr. Graham and the use of appropriate terms comes up again when the author writes:

“Terms where possible, should be self-defining. For instance, the basic term “operating control” is stupid – all controls are operating controls and if they don’t operate, servicing is necessary.” Duh!

And in relation to the word “survey:” “When an oil burner man goes into a basement to see what kind of junk it contains and what he is up against in installing a burner, that is inspection. However, language butchers are always on the job – mark ye, always.”

On this point I will draw your attention to a popular book written a few years before Mr. Graham’s. Titled “Oil Burner Handbook” and written by L.J.Whelan, this book had an introduction and a whole chapter devoted to, you guessed it, “Survey.” I wonder if perhaps this might have been what Frank Graham was referring to?

Testy might best describe the following harangue with regard to an illustration depicting vents on radiators:

“Note—Don’t write in and tell us that the air valves are all out of proportion, entirely too large, etc. On the contrary the author’s master artist draughtsman could have drawn them even larger considering the purpose in view – a point which the intelligentia will see at once. In order to impress basic principles on a few ignorantia, that is, those hard to impress, the author advisedly uses a pile driver method of impressing–save stamp. Moreover, intelligentia and ignorantia are spelled with a t or an s–the t is preferable for euphony–save the stamp also.”

Whew! I don’t know a lot about Mr. Graham other than that he was a man of many talents, having affixed his name to books on subjects as diverse as reading blue prints, construction techniques, modern engineering practices, electricity, machinist tools, mathematics for mechanics, masonry, automotive mechanics, plumbing and so on. The books were published by Theo. Audel & Co. He was one in a long line of authors intent on explaining for us the complexities of heating with oil. — Noel Kelly

Noel Kelly worked in the heating business for 35 years, including 20 years in oil heating. He says his knees were “very happy” when he went to work for manufacturers’ representative Emerson Swan in 2012.


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