All Four Corners of the Industry
Grand Ballroom A was one of the larger meeting rooms in Foxwoods’ Grand Pequot Hotel. No matter. The turnout for the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) Spring Board Meeting was so great, they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate all the non-members in attendance.
Maybe it was the buzz surrounding NORA’s latest biofuel research that attracted so many to the Tuesday 12 p.m. meeting, or perhaps it was the anticipation building around future-friendly high-efficiency heating equipment. Some were certainly there to hear about NORA’s newest online testing and training programs, while others were likely eager to learn more about the Alliance’s upcoming communications efforts.
All four of these important aspects of the industry were discussed, and with all that information being passed around, no one left “empty-handed.” For those who didn’t get a chance to catch the meeting — or any callers-in who might have stepped away for a few minutes — here is a brief recap.
NORA Director of Research Dr. Tom Butcher opened up by announcing the hiring of two new full-time staffers at the R&D Laboratory in Plainview, NY. Mechanical Engineer Neehad Islam (who attended the board meeting) and Chemical Engineer Ryan Kerry both came to the lab from nearby Stony Brook University and have been working directly with Dr. Butcher on a number of projects.
The first Dr. Butcher presented to the group was a joint effort with the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) looking into best practices for efficiency improvements in tankless coil boilers — a project Butcher said is “pretty much wrapped up.” NORA’s chief scientist acknowledged that the Oilheat industry is often criticized on the “national energy efficiency platform” and expressed hopes that the tankless coil study would encourage boiler manufacturers to make strides toward greater heating efficiency.
Next up was an update on the long-anticipated Ethyl Levulinate (EL) Bioblend Field Study, through which Dead River Company, in partnership with Massachusetts-based Biofine Technology, is providing a blend of 90% heating oil and 10% woody-biomass-derived EL to 11 homes in Maine. Since the test began in December 2017, no fuel separations have been reported, and with the exception of one pump failure, no equipment issues have been observed.
Simultaneously, back at the NORA lab, Dr. Butcher and his team are running a parallel test using higher EL blend levels. “This test has come out better than we thought,” said Butcher. “We really have not had any significant service problems at all. That [test] will continue, and our focus from a research perspective will be how far we can practically push this.”
Another biofuel-related research project involves testing biodiesel-blended heating oil’s storage properties and possible effects on copper-based equipment. Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG) is performing trace analysis, with a peer review to follow, Butcher reported. Additional biodiesel impact studies with the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) are currently testing the impact of B20 on pump seals and pump pistons, with a detailed focus on start-and-stops and shut-off quality. “In general, they’re doing really well,” Butcher said, adding that “cad cell testing remains a topic of debate, so we’re continuing to gather and evaluate data.”
NORA Development Director Richard Sweetser picked up around where Dr. Butcher left off, with an encouraging update on the status the Babington “B100” burner. Sweetser said the unit is currently being demonstrated on Slant-Fin equipment and showing “no cooking,” that is, “no residue on the inside of the burner at all.”
This prompted one longtime NORA board member to ask when the burner might be available to dealers, to which NORA President John Huber responded, “I think it’s imminent.”
Being tested in conjunction with the Babington burner is Stone Mountain’s oil-fired heat pump, Sweetser reported. This system, a potential alternative to increasingly popular electric heat pumps as well as new gas-fired heat pumps, has already demonstrated co-efficient performance of 1.4, which translates to fuel efficiency ratings of well over 100%.
The mention of heat pump efficiency raised questions about the “300%” efficiency that has reportedly been observed in tests of dual-fuel gas/electric “cold pumps.” Sweetser clarified that these units’ true efficiency would be closer to 100%, because the studies in question have not taken into account electricity’s base efficiency. “Under working conditions,” Sweetser noted, “their technology’s efficiency nosedives in ways oil’s doesn’t.”
Sweetser previewed other Oilheat equipment projects currently in the works, including one with NOVATIO Engineering, which attempts to modify a fuel injector to allow for a retrofit-capable burner source. Engineers are currently using the Carlin EZ-1 as a base model and trying to fit it inside an Axeman Boiler known for its tight combustion chamber, he reported.
Also on boilers, an update to the oft-cited 2008 report, Resource Analysis of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Residential Boilers for Space Heating and Hot Water, is expected soon. The new report, which looks at complete fuel cycle energy use, will take into account natural gas’s fugitive methane emissions, which, when calculated in CO2 equivalence, indicate that the energy source is not nearly as environmentally secure as previously touted. Meanwhile, indirect land use change studies concerning the impacts of biofuel production are “moving well out of the range of credibility at this point,” Sweetser noted.
As a result, the argument for heating oil’s long-term viability is expected to grow stronger, as even lower bio-blends like B7 evidence better emissions profiles. Sweetser summed it up elegantly, predicting: “Advanced biofuel blends with ULSD heating oil can become a clean and cost-effective, net-zero-GHG-emissions, residential heat source alternative before 2050.” This, it was explained, is a politically important benchmark, because by that year, states are to derive all, or nearly all, of their energy from the electric grid.
“For us to get in that discussion, we need to show we can hit zero carbon,” Sweetser said, “and we now have a story to tell that says we can get there before 2050.” Of course, telling that story will require education and communications, which segues into the final two sections of the meeting.
John Levey, Director of Education & Training, said that NORA’s online training platform at Learning.NORAWeb.org continues to grow in popularity, with the vast majority of Bronze & Silver Certification classes now being taken online. This not only allows for tests to be graded immediately, but also minimizes the potential for techs to copy from one another, because, as Levey pointed out, “the tests are all scrambled.”
In addition to offering testing in partnered school facilities, Levey reported that NORA has begun making in-person tests available in outlying areas on a case-by-case basis — an important, if not apparent, benefit, as oil remains the predominant heating source for localized pockets of the country outside of the Northeast.
Levey also said that NORA was working with the state associations to make more classes available, including courses on an expanding range of topics. He added that NORA will continue to collaborate with other trade associations, such as the National Association of Oil & Energy Service Professionals, on “Train the trainer” programs like the one at NORA’s Plainview facility, which trains service managers to conduct NORA Gold Certification programs as one-day classes.
Coming soon from NORA, said Director of Communications Don Farrell, would be a regular series of educational e-newsletters geared at providing technical personnel with tips, help and updates related to equipment service. The e-newsletter would also allow NORA to disseminate information on continuing-education opportunities and updates on cutting-edge equipment research, Farrell added.
In keeping with the theme of expanding knowledge, Farrell referenced a book he’d received from colleagues at NORA, called The Checklist Manifesto, which he said points to a problem that arises in the home service industries wherein technicians sometimes overlook simple tasks due to greater concern with more labor-intensive issues. Checklists, the book argued, force people to do simpler things first.
Based on that philosophy, NORA worked with the Oilheat Manufacturers Association to develop new, two-sided tank installation/maintenance checklists, prototypes of which were distributed at the end of the NORA board meeting. So, truly, no one left empty-handed.
Immediately following the adjournment of the NORA Board Meeting was a meeting of the National Alliance for Oilheat Research & Education focused on current and future NORA reauthorization efforts … but that’s a story for a later article.