By Paul Nazzaro, Advanced Fuel Solutions, Inc.
Now that many of the Northeastern states are recipients of lower sulfur heating oil, fuel dealers are asking what precautions they should take to protect the heating oil which they sell their customers.
The answer is simple: the same that they should have been taking when handling 3,000 parts per million (ppm), 2,000 ppm and any sulfur level, including 15 ppm. There is a fair amount of wishful thinking at the dealer level that ultra-low sulfur heating oil, once implemented, will be the panacea for the industry, and that service challenges will be a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is true that ultra-low sulfur fuel, including the 500 ppm now in the system, will help improve the performance of heat exchangers and offer the customer a cleaner burning fuel. Add to that biodiesel, which currently gets blended up to 5 percent at the terminal, and the industry is poised to sustain itself as the natural gas industry continues its oppressive attack on heating oil.
Why is establishing a prevent defense necessary? Another simple answer: Because without investing time to ensure that the fuel which you sell meets and exceeds the highest standards as it is stored in the harshest environments, you would be doing a disservice to both your customers and your business.
Some of the misconceptions I have heard recently mirror those which I have heard since the industry committed itself to move towards lower sulfur heating oil blended with biodiesel, which is referenced as Bioheat® fuel. The most prominent question dealers have is how they should treat 500 ppm or lower sulfur fuels. Well, that depends on what they are trying to accomplish, which can include improving fuel stability; protecting trucks, tanks and customers tanks from corrosion; reducing sedimentation disruption post-delivery; or simply reducing the pour point of the heating oil to ensure it flows from tank to burner during the harshest winter temperatures. Regardless of what you’re trying to protect, solutions are available from competent and professional fuel treatment specialists.
Bioheat® fuel will be a healthy addition to your operation and isn’t complicated or difficult to maintain or service. Essentially, Bioheat blended with any distillate should be treated with the same care and technical skill applied to traditional heating oil. There are technical and service aspects of Bioheat, like material contamination factors and cold flow properties that should be considered.
When considering the fuel properties of heating oil, storage stability is on top of the list, probably because leaving a tank of oil idle from May through November unprotected is like leaving a banana on the kitchen table when you go to the Bahamas for a vacation. I think you know what you’ll see when you return home.
Simple implementation of a proven stabilizer in your heating oil will establish a prevent defense that protects the fuel from premature degradation. When you are extending the shelf life of the heating oil (regardless of the sulfur blend and biodiesel blend), you are prohibiting sedimentation fallout, which can lead to fouling of filters, strainers and nozzles. Further, when you stabilize the fuel and add a corrosion inhibitor, you are protecting the entire fuel system from corrosion. Corrosion is what challenges the structural integrity of the tanks which store the oil. Without protection of the metal surfaces, the tanks life expectancy is sure to be shortened.
Because biodiesel is a renewable energy resource made from esters of long-chain fatty acids found in vegetable oils, recycled restaurant oils, and animal fats, some observers suggest that it will increase biological activity in the fuel. The fact is that when a tank containing moisture is subjected to temperature swings, microbial contamination is sure to follow. Bugs love water and temperature change, and they feed off the hydrocarbon.
If possible, all participants in the supply chain need to focus on protecting their tanks – and those that they serve – from the negative consequences associated with water. Because 275/330 gallon home heating oil tanks are manufactured with no provisions to access the tank’s interior, fuel treatments that contain stabilizers, corrosion inhibitors, dispersants, detergents and metal deactivators are the only prevent defense to ensure that mother nature won’t ravage your customer’s product.
Another dealer concern is that biodiesel’s solvency effects will increase filter plugging. While biodiesel is a good solvent, it does not wreak havoc on a tank when it is on specification and blended correctly at the terminal – with a prevent defense is in place at the customer’s tank.
Low sulfur fuel or ultra-low sulfur fuel combined with biodiesel – a/k/a Bioheat® fuel – is simply the single best option we have as an industry to protect our businesses and, more specifically, to help us grow our businesses. The contamination factors that have existed in fuel oil since the beginning of time remain: air, water and dirt. Sulfur levels may be changing, but the core fuel quality issues remain the same. Air enters through vent pipes and brings in large amounts of moisture, especially on hot summer days. This moisture increases oxidation of the fuel, whether or not it contains biodiesel.
Poorly constructed or deteriorating vents and seals may also allow water to infiltrate storage tanks. Moisture accelerates corrosion and fuel degradation, so extended storage requires the use of fuel treatment. If stabilizers aren’t used, the stored fuel will degrade and form sedimentation. Sedimentation can cause plugged filers, fouled nozzles and fuel system corrosion. Contaminants such as dirt and sand may also be introduced with fuel deliveries. Recognizing what is happening in the system – regardless of the sulfur content or biodiesel blend level – you must decide how you’ll establish your prevent defense!
Preparing for the Cold
Not to be overlooked is the challenge of managing fuel in cold temperatures. A fuel dealer who serves homes with outdoor heating oil needs to monitor the cloud point and pour point of the heating oil they are selling. Biodiesel producers and petroleum refiners are proficient when it comes to gathering, processing and producing finished fuels that meet ASTM minimum specifications. Once those products are pulled from your regional fuel wholesale terminal, however, it is the dealer who has the sole responsibility of ensuring that the fuel they provide is exceeding those standards.
It’s good practice to commit to upgrading minimum specifications on your customers’ behalf. Dealers are placing product into environments that require upgrading to ensure they can sustain challenges associated with time and temperature. Why not ensure that the fuel is properly prepared?
The best and most proven strategy specific to cold flow management of heating oil is to know what you’re buying from the rack and be prepared to depress the pour point, relying upon proven pour point depressants that are commercially available. The cloud point, which is of paramount importance when storing fuel in outside oil tanks, cannot be depressed with fuel additives. When you deliver to tanks subjected to the cold of winter, you need to consider blending kerosene into that oil to bring the cloud point into alignment with the expected low temperatures.
A final note on cold flow management on any fuel, any sulfur level and any biodiesel blend: Don’t stick your head in the sand hoping that someone is looking at this on your behalf; no one is looking, because cold flow is not an ASTM specification. Normal rack heating oil will be 0°F pour, +15°F cloud point, so attention to these criteria is of paramount importance to both you and those whom you serve.
As I draft this communication, Bioheat® fuel is approved to be blended up to 5 percent in generic home heating oil. The Bioheat Technical Steering Committee has recently presented ASTM a compilation of testing and data developed over the past 18 months to seek approval to move from B5 to B20. The initial ASTM vote was not successful, but the committee is now reviewing the no votes and will be prepared to resubmit to ASTM in December.
It is not uncommon for the first vote on any ASTM issue to fail. The team remains confident that in the end they will prevail and that our home heating oil will be B20 ultra low sulfur grade. (There will be a business track dedicated to this strategy at the Southern New England this month in Rhode Island.)
Believe in Bioheat
A final word on why ultra-low sulfur heating oil blended with biodiesel is the future: It is cleaner by virtue of the reduction in sulfur. This is good for the heat exchangers, reduces brush and vacuum time, enhances efficiency, reduces acid emissions and particulate emissions, and allows the dealer to share a positive story about the fuel.
Be confident that this lower sulfur biodiesel blend will not dredge up sedimentation, increase tank leaks, or become a breeding ground for microbes. The same proactive approach that works for traditional heating oil will serve a dealer well with both lower sulfur fuels and bioblends.