This article is about something I keep hearing about and most of what I'm hearing is really upsetting to a lot of people, creating more urban legends and really messing things up for some of us. In addition, the people screaming the most about this stuff just shouldn't be because I really believe most of it is just a lot of ruminations. I know, it's tough out there for all heating men, and overall it's only getting harder to be an oil man, but do we really need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water?
My gripe is about OEM Burner Specifications. I keep getting questions about just how valid these OEM Setup Specifications are supposed to be and if they are the bottom line. What happens if you change the nozzle or orifice sizes, gas and oil pump pressures, head settings and last, but not least, something that will have to be changed 99 percent of the time; the primary, secondary and tertiary air settings?
In my opinion, the OEM Specifications have been made way too, too much of. Most are not even close for many of the applications I see and hear about. I truly feel that they have been totally overhyped to death and in this day and age have just escalated to becoming a poor fitting screen door in a submarine. I've been on too many jobs and seen too many varying ambient and environmental conditions to consider these of any real value beyond an initial fire and start parameter. Quite simply, on too many jobs totally useless when used as “the gospel.” Some days I wish they had never been created.
One of the biggest problems out there for oil burners is fuel quality and the diversity of heating oil in the marketplace as you move from area to area. Of the three major brands, one oil burner company builds and tests in the Midwest, another is in Canada and finally one in New England. What is the true Btu content, composition and stability of the fuel they are using?
Years ago no one gave you much info to setup any burner after initial installation. On oil they might have given you a nozzle cone type (H, SH, SS, S) and an angle range (45 to 90 degree) for that nozzle. Most gave you a minimum draft requirement and that left you to do the rest correctly! Many also gave you chamber dimensions and a Useable Tube Length (UTL) and that is important. Beyond that the OEMs relied on a “qualified person” to get it right. With gas you got an orifice size and a recommended minimum/maximum gas pressure, an “ideal” draft condition and that was about it.
You took your knowledge, your education and your expertise, added in a ruler, a good set of pump gauges for oil and a gas gauge for gas, a flame mirror and your combustion test kit and you setup a burner so that it ran correctly, not so that it ran by a bunch of irrelevant numbers developed in a laboratory. In other words burners were setup by “experts,” not book reading, autocratic, robotic burnermen so afraid of a lawsuit that they can't go to the bathroom without the written instructions for flushing a toilet.
I know there are fuel quality issues and that they are increasing. They have for 80 years. We need to face those issues, fix them or fight to make them right. Many in this industry asked for much of this fuel quality disaster with oil, so to those of you who you asked for it, live with it. To the rest of you, my sympathies. Some are still trying to get by with one 50 micron filter when many of us are using one or two 5 micron filters in series and have since the 1980s. You have to face reality, fuel quality is deplorable and in my opinion only going to get worse. Many have fought for the changes in heating oil and yet are surprised by the fuel stability issues. Promoters of the bio-fuels have continued to flip-flop on the issue of solvency, but trust me this stuff breaks everything loose, everything! When oil goes into a residential oil tank looking great like cherry Kool-Aid™ and comes out looking like used, sludged up motor oil, something's going on in those tanks (sic) and anyone who has seen it will tell you.
I've been preaching multi-staged, tiered filtration for over 30 years along with additives and chimney liners and a slew of other stuff nobody wants to do or hear anything about. Then you hear the gripes and complaints about the lousy results after the “typical” install. Think all your problem jobs haven't come back to roost? They sure have, they are called gas conversion cradles and in some cases have also led to very costly litigation.
People are converting to gas in droves, I'll come back to that, but it's not just because of price, it's because some of us have lost the basics and the good things we were taught and we're taking the easy way out crying all the way that it's their fault. Who are “they,” by the way, if not us? Many consumers are simply not impressed with some who do half hour rag and tag cleanings and leaving oil burners running at other than true zero smoke. Add in some sloppy in and out service procedures that create lots of callbacks and you have a fiasco in customer relations. Oil heat consumers were taught to expect more from the oil industry, and in the past, they got it.
In my opinion the only correct way to setup any burner, gas or oil, is after installing the heating appliance to the OEM's guidelines, in regards to mounting, piping and wiring. Go back to doing it as experts and use instrumentation, education and knowledge to setup the burner. The setup tables so many are in love with are just that, “initial setup starting points” emphasis on the starting point, they are not where you will probably end up, and that's just my point.
A good technician knows what I'm talking about and knows that although those charts may get the burner to initially fire they are in many cases not even close to where you will end up. Some are worried about the legal ramifications of not setting it “by the book.” The issue, my friend, depends on what book you are talking about, and that's just my point. If you use those charts as the gospel and can't verify that the burner was set to the actual job parameters, you did it wrong, not right!
Most of us feel that the first truly organized, cohesive, factual, groundbreaking oil burner text ever written was The Handbook of Oil Burning. That book was originally published in 1931 and again in 1951 by the Oil-Heat Institute of America. The authors were actually the forerunners to all of the oil heat trade associations of today. The editors were a who's-who of oil heating industry experts at the time who worked for equipment manufacturers, oil refiners, suppliers and installation and service personnel. The chief editors were Mr. Frank Faust of General Electric and Mr. G. Theodore Kaufman of Petroleum Heat and Power who were two of the most knowledgeable oilburner experts of the day.
The most current oil burner text is my own, Advanced Residential Oilburners, recently updated last year and you know what those two books and dozens others published over the last 100 years have in common? They all stress that the only correct way to adjust an oil burner for correct, reliable, efficient and most importantly safe operation is by using instrumentation in the hands of a “qualified, and if necessary, licensed service technician,” not an in the ballpark chart. There are just too, too many variables, from my favorite, draft, to fuel quality, fuel content and heating value, air quality and the temperature of everything involved. It may not be rocket science, but it does require more than good intentions and a piece of paper to get it right.
As I've already stated, another thing that bugs me about the OEM tables is what they were based on. What was the fuel stability and Btu of the fuel used for testing at the factory? What's in the on-site tank now and what's coming in? Some pretty good questions and in most cases one has nothing to do with the other.
As to legal precedence and that's the point of this article, those industry texts are what make combustion testing essential. If you do it right and use instrumentation, you can't do it wrong. For the record, every manufacturer of gas or oil equipment expects you to test and set the burner to the actual job environment, FACT!
Sorry to be so cynical and sarcastic, but many fuel based companies are trying to evolve into heating companies and that's not only essential, it's good business and common sense. We must all work together and work on whatever the future brings – gas, oil, energy – because in the long run we must become heating men, not oil or gas men.
*George Lanthier is the owner of Firedragon Academy, a Massachusetts Certified School and a publishing and consulting firm. He is the author of over 50 books and manuals on gas and oil heating and HVAC subjects. He is a CETP, NATE, NORA, PMAA and PMEF Proctor and a Massachusetts Certified Instructor operating NORA and State recognized school. He can be reached at 608 Moose Hill Road, Leicester, MA 01524. His phone is 508-421-3490 and his website can be found at www.FiredragonEnt.com.