Written on: March 13, 2023 by Ron Kotrba
To survive in this era of climate-focused policy, the oilheat sector must decarbonize for the industry and its thousands of multigenerational family-owned businesses. Widespread adoption of higher blends of Bioheat® fuel, such as 50% (B50) biodiesel and eventually B100, is the only viable way for heating oil to achieve the carbon reductions needed to stay competitive in the race toward net zero.
However, before this can happen, a great deal of work is needed to prove B50 and B100 Bioheat® fuels are fit for purpose. Furthermore, standards-development organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and ASTM International, as well as equipment manufacturers like R.W. Beckett Corp. and Carlin Combustion Technologies, must approve the use of these higher blends under existing or modified fuel specifications and product warranties
The behind-the-scenes negotiations, testing, field trials and demonstrations required to accomplish all this is nothing short of exhaustive. Spearheading this tremendous body of work is a joint effort between longtime collaborators Clean Fuels Alliance America (formerly National Biodiesel Board) and the NORA.
“That collaboration is absolutely critical,” said Scott Fenwick, Technical Director of Clean Fuels. “Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The willingness to partner and work together to solve any technical issues that might exist is very important.”
The same exhaustive efforts were undertaken over the years—decades, really—beginning in the 1990s to approve biodiesel use in on-road diesel vehicles, which culminated in the first ASTM D6751 biodiesel specification in the early 2000s. From there, a series of additional modifications to the standard, as well as approving blends up to B20 in on-road diesel fuel (ASTM D7467) and within the ASTM D396 heating oil spec ensued, all of which required extensive testing and data gathering. Today, however, B50 is the new B20 and shortcuts cannot be taken when proving a fuel is fit for purpose when one misstep can cause oilheat furnaces to shut down in subzero temperatures.
Tom Butcher, Director of Technical Research at NORA, noted that the working relationship between Clean Fuels and NORA is tremendously valuable.
“Their support in the work we’ve done, especially the field work, is really important in helping us push higher Bioheat® fuel blends, understanding what the challenges are and getting over those issues before these fuels can be broadly used,” Butcher said.
“There is also a great benefit from the exchange of information. We share perspectives from different viewpoints. Clean Fuels sees issues from a fuel perspective while NORA views them from an equipment perspective. There is huge value in being able to go back and forth on technical matters and discussing whether it’s a fuel or equipment question. We have the same end goals, but we approach them from different angles.”
Some of the most recent work resulting from this invaluable collaboration has led to important breakthroughs that ultimately will facilitate market acceptance of B50 blends of Bioheat® fuel and, eventually, B100.
It is no secret that both petroleum fuel oil and biodiesel have issues in cold weather.
“One of the challenges we face as we go to higher Bioheat® fuel blends is cold flow,” Butcher said.
“Biodiesel can gel at significantly higher temperatures than petroleum diesel.”
Biodiesel made from soybean oil hits its cloud point at a lower temperature than biodiesel produced from animal fat, for example, so this function is highly dependent on feedstock.
Although most heating-oil consumers in the Northeast have tanks inside their basements sheltered from the severe winter weather, some are located outside. Considerations must be given to other points in the supply chain before the fuel gets to the end user, including distributors’ storage tanks and fuel-delivery trucks.
NORA and Clean Fuels have been investigating options to address cold-flow issues with higher blends of Bioheat® fuel for some time, Butcher said, including tank heaters and more. However, one particular approach holds significant promise, according to those involved.
“We’ve been working on the development of a new additive package that can dramatically improve the cold-flow properties of a B50 blend,” Butcher explained. In addition to Clean Fuels and NORA, the work is being performed in partnership with Advanced Fuel Solutions and Clariant; the effort began in early 2021.
As part of the project, Clariant dove into its vast portfolio of additive products to match different technologies together and rated them. After innumerable combinations of products were tested on B50 blends of Bioheat® fuel, “mix No. 5” was chosen, according to Paul Nazzaro, President of Advanced Fuel Solutions (AFS) and longtime supply-chain liaison for Clean Fuels. Nazzaro said the new B50 additive includes three active ingredients: a wax anti-settling agent (WASA), a cold-flow improver (CFI) and a synergist. The WASA keeps wax formations that are caused by fuel gelling suspended for up to 96 hours, while the CFI restructures the wax, preventing it from growing into large plates that can block lines or filters. Finally, the synergist is a specialty polymer designed to improve the performance of the base components. The additive package developed enhances the flowability of B50, improving the pour point but not the cloud point. According to Nazzaro, the trio of additives is most effective on B50 blends containing soybean oil-based biodiesel and, to a degree, biodiesel made from used cooking oil (UCO).
“This technology markedly improves blends up to B50, but they have to contain biodiesel from soybean oil or UCO—preferably soy because it’s easier to treat,” Nazzaro explained.
“This new technology is exciting, but it’s not an effective tool on B50 blends containing animal-fat biodiesel.”
After rigorous lab tests, Nazzaro said the additive package is now being introduced to the real world for field trials. Companies such as Cubby Oil and Hart Home Comfort are working with select customers over the next few months to test the new B50 additive technology in their oilheat systems. Every nuance is being extensively documented.
“Our work so far shows this can dramatically reduce the pour-point temperature to well below zero, which has the potential to make it much easier to handle these fuels,” Butcher said.
Nazzaro said that while mix No. 5 may not be “the” solution, it is definitely part of it. “The best defense is to be water-free, and if you have water in your system, eliminate it,” he said.
“This additive package will give B50 Bioheat® fuel a fighting chance so
that, in cold conditions, the product will flow. This will take cooperation from users and sellers to do their due diligence and make sure the environment where the fuel is stored is properly taken care of. If not, no additive on the planet will succeed. Fuel is a breeding ground for everything. Based on our lab results, this new technology shows promise to protect systems that store B50 in outside tanks. However, like I said, it is feedstock-specific,” Nazzaro added.
Cold-flow additives for biodiesel blends have traditionally only worked on the petroleum side of the fuel blend. However, as the oilheat industry moves toward greater decarbonization and leverages B100 to achieve this, new approaches must be developed to improve cold flow in the biodiesel itself.
“This is a novel technology and as we work toward higher blends, which will have less petroleum fuel in them, we need to come up with new technologies to provide the cold-flow performance needed,” Fenwick said.
“While we have focused on B50 additives for the past two years, we have already begun early work on addressing B100 cold flow.”
Although much time has been spent focusing on outdoor residential tanks, Butcher asked, “What about the rest of the whole logistics system? Trucks set out overnight in terminals and terminals may not have heated tanks or lines. Then there are the lines on delivery trucks. As we go to higher and higher blends, we need to think about all of these things. However, this additive approach gives us a really interesting tool to manage challenges as we go forward.”
Late last year, an update was officially made to UL 296, the standard developed by UL for safety testing liquid-fuel-fired burners. The update expanded the standard’s scope to include liquid-fuel-fired burners intended for use with Bioheat® fuel blends ranging from B20 to B100. Prior to the update, the standard included procedures for evaluation of burners for use with biodiesel blends up to B20.
The updated standard was a huge victory for Bioheat® fuel and the movement to decarbonize heating oil.
“Representatives of the burner manufacturers, Clean Fuels—Scott Fenwick and Steve Howell—I and others were very active on the UL committee and we worked with UL staff on all the questions that came up about this whole approach,” Butcher said.
“I’ve got to give credit to UL, who realized the strong interest that the heating-oil industry has in moving to these higher blends. I think they were very practical about putting this together with short wait times. The test procedures that were developed were debated quite a bit among the technical folks involved. Each brought data to justify points and we worked collaboratively across the board to develop a procedure we were happy with.”
Butcher also pointed out several items in the procedure that the committee did well and made good decisions about.
“One is to have a test procedure that requires testing with B100 and testing with B20, and not having to test at intermediate levels along the way,” he said.
“If the [equipment] can perform well at these bookend points, then it can pass the test. I think that was a really good approach.”
Another important aspect was defining B100 using the ASTM D6751 standard. While D6751 is the ASTM fuel-quality standard for B100, it wasn’t originally intended for use as a neat fuel but instead as blendstock.
“That was one of the key decisions that enabled this UL 296 update to go forward,” Butcher explained.
“Since there isn’t a D396 (heating oil) B100 spec, and by using the D6751 blendstock spec for B100, this enabled the committee to go forward with the work and UL to develop the procedure rather than waiting for changes to ASTM D396, which could take a long time. That was a very important accomplishment. Materials can be so varied, and it’s hard to make sweeping statements about classes of materials. Instead, advice was provided regarding materials to avoid. If a manufacturer wants to use a certain material, then it’s got to be tested rather than UL categorically dismissing broad types of materials”, he explained.
Another part of the UL 296 procedure that Butcher said is “a cool idea” is testing the burner setup adjusted for use with B100 per the manufacturer’s specifications and then suddenly changing the fuel to B0, or fuel oil with no bio-content. The system still must perform well and pass the combustion-flow tests and other parameters.
“This is a thoughtful and useful approach that—as different users may find themselves needing to switch from high to low blends and back—ensures things will be okay in the field as they make fuel changes,” Butcher said.
“The hard work of the committee to debate and sort this all out really helped make that happen.”
Shortly after the UL 296 standard was officially updated, R.W. Beckett Corp. made a major announcement in January 2023. CEO & President Kevin Beckett announced at the Clean Fuels Conference that the company is manufacturing the first production run of oilheat burners with B100-compliant components, and that the B100-compliant burners will come with the company’s full warranty. This important move wouldn’t have been possible without the groundbreaking update to UL 296. Other burner manufacturers are working to also be able to release burners for high blends of Bioheat® fuel in the near future.
“In all of the work that’s been going on for the past several decades, this was just the next dot we’re connecting to work toward B100 as a replacement for petroleum heating oil,” Fenwick said.
“The recent announcement late last year on new protocols for UL 296 was crucial. Clean Fuels, NORA and equipment manufacturers all worked together cooperatively to develop these new protocols. It meant the creation of a B100 developmental spec, as well ,that we could use for these fuels to test new equipment, he noted”
The developmental spec, also referred to as an industry spec or trade-association spec, leveraged ASTM D6751 but added three more hours to the oxidative reserve, totaling six hours instead of three in Rancimat testing for measuring shelf life; this was to account for the extra time fuel may sit in storage tanks in Summer when heating systems are not in use.
“Changing the oxidative reserve makes a lot of sense to me,” Butcher said, adding that in order to make changes to ASTM D396, however, fuel producers, end users and others have to weigh in.
“I know changing the oxidative reserve is on the table, but we have to see where the whole committee comes out on this. Folks are going to want to see data as to why changes like this need to be made. We’ve already got a lot of that data, but to change an ASTM spec is a long process. In the end, we hope to get a really good standard that will serve everyone for a really long time. Meanwhile, it’s a very good thing that UL 296 moved forward to enable manufacturers to put products out there for use with high blends. The ASTM spec on fuel properties will come along in due time, but it’s not holding up the forward motion at the present time. For the long run, however, we really need D396 to have higher blends. Dealers and consumers can sell and use them based on that UL listing, and equipment manufacturers can make and sell products. When you look at the larger scene—building codes, municipalities, State governments—they will all feel more comfortable requiring higher blends to be used, or supporting and using the blends themselves, if it is in D396 and that step is done. We all realize that this isn’t over. We’ve got to get the changes in D396 in order to encourage broad use of the fuel,” Butcher added.
To demonstrate B100 Bioheat® fuel’s effectiveness at carbon reductions, Butcher is using his own house in Port Jefferson, NY, to prove B100, coupled with solar panels, can bring a home to net zero carbon emissions.
The idea is to demonstrate how NORA’s zero-carbon home can achieve carbon reductions by using existing heating systems and commercially available solar-panel systems.
“For me, it’s just a great idea to be able to become 100% net zero carbon and I’m thrilled by the whole thing,” Butcher said.
“The use of B100 biodiesel has been really without concern at my house,” he explained.
“In addition to solar—and I love the fact that my utility bill is $15 a month for electricity—it really works. It was installed in July  and it’s now the end of January , and it’s pretty clear I’ll overproduce electricity for the year, making more electricity than I can use, which is exported to the grid” , he further explained.
Butcher shared that when he and his wife made the decision to invest in solar panels, they looked at the cost projections and payback period of 6.5 years, which appear to be on track.
“We are pretty thrilled that, between biodiesel and solar, we can say we’re net zero without having to invest in a lot of heating equipment, such as heat pumps,” he said, pointing out that incentives to install solar panels are even better now than when they made the decision.
“It just makes so much sense; the one thing that bothers me is that more folks aren’t doing it,” Butcher said.
Others have expressed interest in similarly outfitting their houses, Butcher added. State energy organizations are leading the charge for recruiting more demonstration sites, and NORA will help alleviate some costs associated with additional projects.
“We really want to have these out there as great examples of how to get to net zero with fuels, and without big investment costs,” he explained.
“As we get more people to do this, it’s important for us to use this as a communication tool. It’s not just about economics or technical ability, but for this next wave of sites we want to leverage it as an instrument of communication.”
To back up claims by biodiesel advocates that their fuel can actually achieve the greenhouse-gas (GHG) emission reductions they say it can, the industry needs an effective, scientifically sound and demonstrable device that can easily show its ability to decarbonize. In fact, if a tool can show Bioheat® fuel could effectively reduce GHG emissions at a significantly lower cost than other options, then considerable headway may be made in terms of supporting technology-neutral policy pathways toward decarbonization.
Thanks to Richard Sweetser, longtime NORA consultant, this flexible, user-friendly apparatus has already been developed. It’s called the GHG calculator.
“This is incredibly important,” Butcher said.
“The idea is to look at different major pathways for the future. One is the assumption that the grid will get Greener as more renewables come onboard. Another pathway considered is the biofuel pathway, where industry converts at a variable rate. The calculator is flexible, and you have the ability to put rates at which the grid gets Greener. The calculator shows the impact of that trend in GHG emissions over time, and the amount of investment costs required to achieve a particular pathway,” he explained.
The flexibility of the calculator allows for either broad, generic assumptions or specific State-by-State bases.
“You can input the rate at which a particular State decides it also wants the option to transition to biofuels,” Butcher futher explained.
“It’s intended to make the case that the biofuel pathway really needs to be more seriously considered by States. That is the most significant potential outcome of this work.”
Fenwick said the GHG calculator will help consumers better understand the benefits that biobased diesel fuels such as biodiesel bring to the table and how well they can compete against natural gas and electric heat pumps.
“Tools like this help a fuel dealer explain exactly the benefits associated with this fuel,” Nazzaro said.
“It takes over the need to use adjectives—you just plug in the volume, and it extrapolates the amount of GHG reductions. Any time you can use a visual to explain the benefits of a product, it’s a win. To take the story one level further, it gives the consumer confidence that the decision to use Bioheat® fuel is an intelligent one,” he noted.
In the field of approving new fuels, work never seems to be completed. There is always more to do.
“We have a never-ending list of things we want to do,” Butcher admitted.
“We want to expand the number of B100 test sites we have out there to get more data.”
Another area NORA and Clean Fuels are interested in is filtration.
“Fuel and service issues go hand in hand,” Butcher said.
“Fuel-related service issues have been the No. 1 concern of this industry for a long time, so improvements can be made in the area of filtration. We’re doing research to provide updated guidance on how better filtration can improve performance. We want to know how well we’re really doing now, how we can do better and whether there are benefits to it. We want to know, if we improve filtration, whether we will decrease the frequency of maintenance needed on the burners,” he added.
Fenwick agrees that filtration is atop the priority list.
“As combustion technologies, engines or heating-oil systems improve and advance, those advancements require cleaner and cleaner fuels,” he said. “Biodiesel is ahead of that game currently, but there are still improvements that can be made. We know water contamination in fuel is one of the largest concerns the industry has. It can come into play via degradation and contamination throughout the distribution chain, so there are certain things we can address to tighten up the entire fuel-distribution system.”
If You Prove It, Will They Use It?
The comprehensive body of work being conducted by NORA and Clean Fuels has one single purpose, according to Nazzaro, who developed the concept of biodiesel-blended heating oil more than 20 years ago. That purpose is to ensure the commercial success of Bioheat® fuel in the market.
“This fuel is being exhaustively explored,” he pointed out.
“Any impediment we saw, we have addressed accordingly and successfully. Why do all this work? Why go through all these tests and developments? We are commercially introducing this product, so all this work is needed to instill confidence in the fuel dealer who’s going to sell it to their customers. This body of work is making this product market-ready today.”
The popular catchphrase from the baseball movie Field of Dreams was, “If you build it, [they] will come.”
For Bioheat®, the question of, “If B50 and B100 Bioheat® fuels are proved and approved, will they be carried and consumed?” will hopefully be answered sooner rather than later.
“From my standpoint in the technical program, our job is to address the technical barriers that might prevent our members from selling their fuel into these markets,” Fenwick said.
“However, capitalism in the marketplace will take care of supply. Right now, California and its Low Carbon Fuel Standard is willing and able to pay more for fuels and credits for low-carbon liquid fuels such as biodiesel. As the Northeast market develops, whether through State or regional programs, we’ll see higher blends over time. Certain providers and dealers may migrate faster, leading the way for others, but I do believe it’s our job to address the technical issues and let the marketplace decide when and where higher blends are most effective,” he explained.
One of those market leaders Fenwick speaks of is Star Group LP, one of the U.S.’ largest retail distributors of home-heating oil based on sales volume. The company earned an Influence Award at the Clean Fuels Conference in January for its leadership role in the adoption and acceptance of Bioheat® fuel. After starting with B20 blends, Star Group recognized that by providing increasing levels of biodiesel, it can offer an easy and affordable solution for home heating to help meet the goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2050.
Nazzaro noted that now that many of the technical challenges for higher blends have been addressed, it’s time to focus attention on supply issues.
“To say you can’t get Bioheat® fuel is unacceptable,” he insisted.
“Have a conversation with your supplier. Tell them how many millions of gallons you as a fuel dealer provide in a year. Tell them you want to carry B20 and have them figure it out. The conversation needs to be started. Are we problem solvers or order takers? It starts with communication,” Nazzaro concluded.
Until every technical and supply question is addressed and solved, NORA and Clean Fuels will, as Fenwick said, continue connecting the dots until a clear picture of the future emerges. ICM