Biodiesel, a renewable fuel made from new or used natural oils, acts as a solvent—so homeowners will want to start with around 5 to 20 percent biofuel (which would be referred to as B5 or B20), and increase the ratio of biofuel to traditional fuel from there, Robock says. This will gradually clean out the tank and help avoid clogs. “When you first use biodiesel in a car or furnace it will clean the system out by attracting and dissolving any sediment that might be in your tank,” he says. “So the first year you need to make sure you get an extra filter cause it will get clogged with all the stuff that’s cleaning your system out. The good news is that your system is now optimized, but you have to be aware initially and take care to make sure that you don’t have any problems.”
Robock also says that outdoor tanks can cause issues. “If you have an outdoor tank and you go to a higher percentage of biodiesel your fuel may gel, and you won’t have fuel,” he says. “So there’s things you have to be aware of if you want to switch.” Robock uses an in-ground tank, which regulates the temperature of the oils and prevents gelling. Outdoor tanks also carry the possibility of sucking in moist air that can lead to algae or fungus growth in the fuel, which will clog filters and have to be remedied by a technician.
Biodiesel offers an array of benefits, from its low toxicity to its domestic production, but if it’s purchased from a home heating oil company, it can often cost more than traditional fuel alone. “My recommendation is for people to call home heating oil and ask if they offer bioheat, and if not ask why not,” he says. “Unfortunately the price of bioheat is almost always more. Especially now with $4 a gallon prices—it’s already astronomical, why pay an extra 10 cents? Most heating companies aren’t offering it because there’s not a market for it.”
The savings come in when individuals produce their own biodiesel at home, like Robock, or join organizations like the Hudson Valley Biodiesel Cooperative, where he is also involved. Both options provide an alternative to reliance on the home heating companies for biofuel. Members of the coop (who pay a one-time $50 membership fee and log hours working for the coop—picking up used vegetable oil from restaurants, running the biodiesel processor, and distilling the biofuel—to earn the right to purchase the biofuel) of the coop can currently purchase a gallon of biodiesel for about $2—a significant savings if used to replace portions of traditional heating oil. While 100 percent biodiesel would certainly run in a furnace, Robock says, “Unfortunately no one is selling 100 percent biodiesel in bulk. It would be very hard to find and very expensive to buy.”
HEAT PUMPS: GEOTHERMAL AND AIR SOURCE
Paul Tesoro, the director of corporate communications for Central Hudson Gas & Electric, says that geothermal heating is gaining widespread acceptance and has become a viable industry. Geothermal heat pumps are installed underground to absorb energy from the sun that’s stored in the earth. “[The pump] extracts cool air out of the earth to air-condition a home in summer and the system reverses to heat the same space during cold weather,” says Tesoro. “No fuel is burned, but it does operate electrically, so there is some impact at the power plant. For the individual homeowner there is no environmental impact at the home. It’s a very efficient, very environmentally preferable option.”