Same Fuel: Different Purpose Different Needs

Written on: September 1, 2019 by Barry Aruda

It’s no secret that ultra-low sulfur products have taken over the distillate pool in New England. First, high-sulfur blends of diesel fuel switched over. Then it was followed a few years later by the advent of ultra-low sulfur heating oil. Reducing sulfuric acid in our atmosphere has led to the championing of a common message: We’re cleaner now. This is great for the industry and our customers.
I have often been asked what the difference is between ultra-low sulfur diesel and ultra-low sulfur heating oil. They look the same, they smell the same and, hey, they probably taste the same. So, what makes them different? The short answer is nothing, really, save for taxes (exemptions) and federal regulations (prohibited use in off-road vehicles).

Not all fuels are created equal and need different
conditioning agents for different end purposes.

My expertise in the diesel/oil industry is in advanced chemical application, or in short, additives. That’s what I do for a living: help diesel jobbers, heating oil companies and customers with gen-sets deal with everyday problems that middle distillates can cause—in today’s case, fuel instability.
Ultra-low sulfur blends of fuel are more hygroscopic, meaning they like moisture much more than their predecessors. Unfortunately, they cannot hold that moisture as well, leaving stored fuels susceptible to water entrainment, microbial contamination and corrosion.
Helping fuels do what they should
I’ve conducted training and presentations focused on chemical technology to help our fuels do the job they were made to do—that is, perform in today’s diesel engines the way they are supposed to. Similarly, I’ve focused on helping heating oil do its job in basement furnaces without becoming spoiled due to time and temperature. Long story short, many folks using additives in the field today may not know which additives are supposed to do what, such as ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and ultra-low-sulfur heating oil (ULSHO).
Take a recent conversation I had with a retail heating oil dealer. This is a third-generation, multi-state company with a wealth of experience in storing and moving distillates. During our conversation, the topic of desulfurization came up. He believed one additive could be used across the board because, “after all, diesel and heating oil are the same today.”
He is not wrong. Chemically, those fuels are about equal. The issue here is his usage of a diesel additive inside a heating oil. That’s an issue for, if nothing else, his wallet. Why?
First of all, diesel additives and heating oil additives have different dosing rates. One diesel additive may dose at 1:2,500, and a heating oil additive may dose at 1:20,000. However, maybe money isn’t an issue here (hard to believe). The more troubling aspect of this dealer’s philosophy is the application for the fuel.
Differences in application
Today’s diesel engines require specific componentry in the additives they take in. The recipe for additives almost always includes detergents, lubricity enhancements and moisture dispersants. ULSD application needs can vary in many ways, including engine size (class), work environment and duty-cycle. Lubricity is paramount for a diesel engine, regardless of what the vehicle is doing, with all of the parts moving in a violent, high-heat environment, not to mention the extremely stringent pounds per square inch (PSI) inside the injector housing. If someone is using a heating oil additive in diesel, he/she is not protecting what he/she should be.
Similarly, my dealer friend used a diesel additive inside his heating oil, believing everything would be fine since, chemically, these base fuels are the same. Unfortunately, a Carlin or Beckett burner does not do the same things that a Cummins or Paccar engine does. The worlds could not be more different.
Heating oil application needs are tied to the needs downstream, specific to oil burners and fuel tank storage. Therefore, the chemical application and strategy for fuel quality are different. Most heating oil sits for a long while, inside basement tanks and oil lines for the summer months, just waiting for the burner to call. What’s it doing in there? Without an appropriate additive, such as one focused on stabilization and inhibiting corrosion, the fuel could degrade, costing the dealer and the customer. Diesel additives in heating oil are incorrect applications, incorrect dosages and an expense that may cost you in the long run.
Not all additives are created equal
Not all fuels are created equal, nor is proper fuel conditioning. Consider where your additives are coming from. Did you buy them off a shelf in a retail environment? How much does the cashier at Tractor Supply or Walmart know about that bottle? The answer, sadly, is often not much or nothing.
Whether you have used additives for a long time or not, you need to be sure what you purchase has been formulated for your specific application. Folks out there often get this wrong. Not all fuels are created equal—that is correct—and neither are additives. Believe me, in the last 25 years, we’ve seen just about everything.
Cough syrup can’t fix a broken bone, and an arm cast is never going to cure a headache. Medical anecdotes aside, the world of middle distillates isn’t all that different. Application is key and remedying an aching and complicated fuel problem often takes a professional diagnosis.
Education is also key and there are professionals in our industry willing and able to help you navigate your specific business goals. Examine your fuel quality program, think conceptually and ask yourself why you are using what you are using. If the answer is I don’t know or I’ve always done it this way, it might be time to pick up the phone.
Finally: square-peg meet square-hole. ICM
Barry Aruda is the Northeast Territory Manager for Advanced Fuel Solutions. An admitted “fuel quality fanatic,” he spends his time testing fuel for analysis, recommending preventative defensive strategies and working with dealers to overcome the challenges of housekeeping and changing technology.