|Here’s an article that I wrote back in 1992. It never goes out of date and after many requests, we have decided to give it another run. We’ve updated it, brushed it off, and here’s the 2008 version. By the way, the material is also in our publication, Advanced Residential Oilburners with more information on oil burner troubleshooting than anywhere.
After spending 42 years in the oil business, I am still amazed that many of the service problems that continue to plague us are the same ones that have plagued us all along. Over the years I have worked as a manufacturer’s rep, a wholesale salesman, a service manager, a teacher and a self-employed contractor. Currently, I work as a consultant and teacher, and again it’s the same old problems, over and over.
I guess the thing that’s the most amazing to me is that the single biggest problem I had as a serviceman and have heard about throughout my career is directly related to one of our primary sales products — fuel oil. After all, the only two products that consumers call on retail oil companies for is fuel oil and burner service, so this does create a serious problem. What about burner equipment sales, you ask? They don’t need you; ask any plumber or HVAC contractor. Maybe that’s why your equipment sales are off. In the past I had started to look into all kinds of remedies and solutions, but I never found one that did it all in one magic step. I have still not found that magic pill, and I am not really sure that it exists. I will, however, offer to you in this article a few solutions I have stumbled upon while discussing service problems with oil men from Canada to the Carolinas. Most of these solutions are based on a lot of personal experiences and most have worked for me.
Before we get into possible cures, however, let’s look at the sickness. We are an industry that is now over 100 years old, and with age comes part of the problem — our storage tanks. This has to be recognized as a problem, like it or not. Not admitting it is stupid. In general, most of the fuel oil sold today is in fact superior to the fuel oil of years ago and is safer to our environment, but it does have one serious drawback — the sulfur level has been reduced. This is not only true of No. 1-K, the blends and No. 6, but also of No. 2. The greatest disadvantage to this sulphur loss is that we have seen the increase in algae levels rise. We still get the occasional “bad load” and some “off spec” product still seems to sneak through every season. I think most oil dealers have learned that after all of the service problems that come with this, good oil is always worth a little more (keep in mind these comments were made 15 years ago and fuel quality has in fact has worsened since then). Now I do not want to get all the oil suppliers mad at me, and I don’t want OPEC or somebody putting a contract out on me, but why is it that whenever a bad product gets through, nobody admits to having sold it. So where did it come from?
I know one thing from experience — when it’s really cold out and oil gets a little tight and the price goes up all of a sudden, some supplier has this great deal on oil and has plenty of it. If you believe you are having problems with the fuel oil you buy, have it tested, and if it is bad, change suppliers. Forget price, this is your survival we’re talking about. Just remember that the suppliers are in gasoline too; fuel oil is not the only product they sell, unlike you. And to all you technicians who service burners for the guys who buy this stuff, my sympathies. I’ve been there.
I will not enter into the continuing debate about tank truck pumping speeds. But I won’t shrug aside the fact that as the pumping speed of tank vehicles went up, the problems in the fuel oil tank increased proportionally, and that is a fact. Ask anybody who has been in the business over 30 years.
Back to tanks; for the sake of simplicity we will confine this discussion to the staple of the Northeast oil industry — the in-basement tank. But most of the concepts I will outline also apply to the outside or underground tank.
Over 40 years I have spent numerous hours on the problems with fuel oil and will make one statement that I would bet the bank on — old oil tank bottoms are the dirtiest places on earth. One burner manufacturer has even stated that there is normally two to six inches of sludge at the bottom of the average tank.
So what do we do? Well, we could start an aggressive campaign to replace the few million tanks in use, but many of us in the industry believe that might cause customers to convert to gas. Let me tell you, if we don’t keep our customers happy, they are going to leave us one way or another. If we don’t fix the service problems with those tanks, they are going to go to gas for sure. So, what’s the difference? How about a retrofit of the storage and delivery systems?
In the field, every company has an ideal location for a tank retrofit. Don’t know of one? Just ask your service technicians; they have those service problem jobs memorized.
Let’s go through the retrofit step by step:
1. Thoroughly clean the tank. If you are not convinced and are not ready to set up a tank-cleaning truck or purchase a tank-cleaning machine, try it the easy way. Contact a local company to do one tank cleaning. Or, get one for free by having a demonstration of a tank-cleaning machine done for you. It may also surprise you to find out that a friendly competitor owns one and may let you borrow or rent his. It is very important that you have easy access to this tank to perform steps No. 3 and No. 4. Still can’t think of a problem tank? How about the one outside your office window or the one below you in the basement?
2. Provide for proper and adequate filtration. Aha, the real meat of this project, which we will look at later in detail.
3. Monitor the retrofit. This is very important so that you can prove to yourself that you are making progress. Before you do anything, take an oil sample at a couple of key points: (a) at the tank and get a sample of that sludge and (b) at the entrance to the burner pump (or get the oil in it).
4. Analyze and respond to the results. Take the samples and have them tested. I won’t tell you what you will find because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It is also a part of convincing you that all of this effort is worth it.
Once you find out what is in the oil besides the tank (iron oxides and such), you can now contact someone to see if any further action is required, such as a chemical treatment or finding a new supplier. It is important if large concentrations of water or water-related agents are found that all piping and the tank cylinder are thoroughly checked. Chemicals do work, but like everything else should be the correct one, used as directed and in moderation. More importantly, they must combat the specific problem.
Filtration is probably the most important thing that can be done to insure that constant operation is achieved at the burner once the other work has been done. Some people who have tried some of the ideas I will suggest on filtration have found them so effective that they now do them on every job.
I first started advocating the concept of dual filtration while teaching a burner product line back in 1980. Since then, many people have written or spoken on the concept. They usually stop at the filtration point. This is something I do not always agree with because it does not address the source of the sludge already present in the system. I will offer one basic plan of attack, but remember that you may modify the plan according to your needs and conditions. Before we get at it, let’s look at a few facts:
• A filter will only filter its rated capacity in gallons per hour.
• With a two-pipe system, a residential pump may move up to 25 gallons per hour, and all of this oil must be filtered. In my opinion we don’t need 90 percent of the two-pipe systems installed.
• Commercial pumps (35 gph firing rate) can move up to 100 gph on a two-pipe.
• On a single-pipe operation, a filter only needs to be able to filter the firing rate.
• A filter has three ratings — gallons per hour to be filtered, the filtration range in microns and square surface area.
• One micron is a particle one millionth of a meter in diameter. One meter equals 39.3700787 inches. Expressed another way there are 25.5 microns in one thousandth of an inch.
• The lower the micron rating of a filter, the better its ability to filter the fuel; i.e. a 5 micron filter will filter smaller debris than a 20 micron filter.
• A filter with a large square surface area is better than a smaller one.
So, there are three things you need to know about that filter you’re going to buy: flow rate in gallons per hour of flow; the micron range; and the square surface area in inches.
A little more about these facts — all filters are not created equal, and they won’t do their job properly if they are not sized right. In Figure 1, we see an example of a single-pipe system. The filter here has only to be sized to the firing rate. The pump is set at 140 psi, and we have an orifice size of .85 gph resulting in a one gph flow rate (approximately). The filter is sized for a flow rate of one gallon per hour (gph).
In Figure 2, we see the same pump example, but it now is in a two-pipe operation. The pump in use has a 20 gph total gear suction capacity (TGSC). So we have 20 gph passing through the filter with one gph leaving the pump to the nozzle and 19 gph going back to the tank. What you need here is a 20 gph rated filter. By the way, consider this — if you feel that the filter being used will plug after filtering 1,000 gallons of fuel oil per season on a one-pipe system than on a two-pipe system, this same filter will now plug after only 50 hours of operation, all things being equal. O.K., let’s look at some options:
Option 1: Use an existing primary filter located at the tank as well as a secondary filter at the burner (see Figure 1). This works very well and has the ability to be sized for the gallonage being drawn from the tank(s).
The key here is to use a lower micron rated filter at the burner. Some people are using, at smaller firing rates, filters that are rated as low as five microns. This will have an impact on pump and nozzle life. Oh sure, you’re saying to yourself, but these things cost more money and they plug up faster. Right! Now you’re getting it.
First, they should cost more; they actually do more. Second, it will be better that they plug up rather than the more expensive pump failing due to contamination. Contamination is still the number one killer of pumps.
By the way, the tank filter was only supposed to filter the oil leaving the oil tank to begin with, so let it do its job. The second filter is the key to success. What is your firing rate? If you are above one gph, you will probably be fine if you use a secondary filter of at least 10 microns. If you are firing below a gallon, I strongly recommend a filter of at least five microns or less.
Option 2: Recently small in-line filters and strainers have been introduced. These units have proven to be very effective, while being low in cost, Figure 3. They are available in many sizes, both for gph flow rate and micron filtering range. These devices can be effectively used as a part of a dual filtration system and have a very good success rate. You may also want to keep the environment and disposal costs in mind; consider permanent, washable-type, mesh-screen filters and strainers.
Option 3: This is the most effective option in my opinion because it is a triple filtration system. It provides three levels of filtration and takes into account the removal of all debris regardless of micron range. As an example, Figure 4, let’s say that the firing rate is one gph and that the supply system is a one-pipe design. At the tank, locate a filter bowl of at least three inches in diameter by at least three inches deep. We install this filter utilizing the bowl only, removing the filter element. This device is our “sludge pot.” These sludge pots first appeared on older gravity fed burners of years ago, like the vertical rotarys and low-pressure burners. These burners had no pumps and no filters. They relied on clean gravity flow through nothing but a couple of screened strainers.
The use of the sludge pot is to allow the larger pieces of sludge, mud and debris to be collected in a place other than in the filters. Within three to six inches downstream of the sludge pot, locate a filter that has at least a 25 micron rating and that will filter one gph. At the burner, place a strainer or filter of at least 10 micron range. This solution can also be used below one gph, but the final filter should be upgraded to one of at least five micron range. This three-pronged attack plan would be used where there is a severe tank problem and nozzle usage is very high and contamination is the culprit. As we have seen, there are many ways to correct the problems we are facing, but it does require some work, imagination and expense. The real issue here, however, should not be what it takes, but rather one of keeping customers satisfied with oil heat into the year 2010. Holy cow, what am I talking about? I have to make it to the year 2013. What about you? And by the way, before I hear from any of those oil suppliers, does anybody want to start my car every morning?
I would like to dedicate this article to an old friend, John Gates (JCG), who created one of the first Web sites to share information for oil burner techs. Although John is gone from us, his spirit still lives on a special section of Oil Tech Talk at www.oiltechtalk.com/justforteks.shtml.
George Lanthier may be contacted at Firedragon Enterprises, 508-421-3490 or through his Web site at www.FiredragonEnt.com