The Darker Side of Heating Oil

In the last few posts, I’ve talked about the pros and cons of using oil for home heating in Boston. In addition to the rising cost of heating oil, and the issues that arise as a chimney deteriorates, there are some environmental issues that are unique to heating oil that homeowners should think about when considering a switch.
In terms of carbon emissions, heating oil is about as environmentally friendly as natural gas but that’s about where oil’s environmental friendliness ends. When you look at the larger picture, heating oil has some significant drawbacks that you need to consider. It’s these larger environmental concerns that make home heating oil a growing challenge for homeowners and heating professionals alike.

Home heating oil is stored on the premises in a tank. Whether the tank is stored inside or outside, above ground or below ground, the possibility of deterioration and leaking is real. When the storage tank leaks, it can leave a big, expensive mess behind. Spills can also occur during refilling operations, flooding that knocks over the tank, or as a result of accidental damage to the tank or oil lines.

Heating oil spills involving outdoor tanks can cause significant environmental damage to the ground around the spill. Spilled heating oil can contaminate groundwater and underwater reservoirs, storm drains, sewer systems, surface water and drainage systems like drywells and drainage ditches.

When the contamination is severe or widespread, the clean-up costs can be overwhelming. A study done about ten years ago showed that most home heating oil spills in Massachusetts took about four months and $20,000 to clean up. Typically, spill recovery costs ranged between $20,000-$50,000, but when the spill involved soil and groundwater, the cleanup costs zoomed to about $90,000. Remediation costs for some spills exceeded $300,000. (Keep in mind that was 10 years ago!)

Further, exposure to heating oil (whether indoors or outside) can cause significant health problems in humans and house pets. Oil is a highly toxic substance and short-term exposure can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritations, nausea, headaches, dizziness, rashes and other problems. Long-term exposure to heating oil vapors can cause liver and kidney problems, problems with blood pressure and other more serious health conditions.

What should you do if you experience a spill? Homeowners who have indoor storage tanks can successfully clean up only very small oil spills. A small oil spill is one that involves less than one gallon of heating oil. If you experience a small oil spill in your home, call your local fire department immediately and inform them of the accident. You’ll also need to inform the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) at (888) 304-1133. Don’t skip this step; Massachusetts law requires it.
To clean up a small oil spill, put on protective clothing, including gloves, eye protection, respiratory protection and shoes with oil-resistant soles. Use cat litter or sawdust on the spill. You can also use Oil-Dri, a very absorbent material designed especially for absorbing oil. (If you use heating oil, it’s a good idea to have some of this on hand for emergencies.)

You should also immediately vent the spill area with fresh outside air. Close doors and vents that lead from the spill area to the rest of the home. Eliminate any ignition sources while the spill cleanup is in progress.

When the absorbent material is saturated, sweep or shovel it into heavy-duty plastic bags. Continue to vent the area and spread absorbent material on the spill until no more oil is absorbed. Do not store the absorbed oil in your home or garage. Move the bags outside until you can dispose of them properly. Consult your sanitation department for proper disposal procedures.

If you experience an oil spill of more than one gallon of heating oil from either an indoor or outdoor tank, you cannot clean this up yourself. Immediately, call:
• Your local fire department
• The DEP’s 24-hour oil release reporting line
• Your heating oil service company
• Your homeowners insurance company
Do what you can to capture leaking oil, but do not try to work in the spill area until the fire department has assessed the explosion/fire risk. This is only the first step in a long clean-up process, but the cleanup costs alone far outpace the cost of converting from heating oil to natural gas.

If you’re interested in converting from heating oil to gas, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation. There are some very attractive programs available through MassSave to help reduce the cost of conversion, and 0% financing is also available for qualified conversions.

Tis The Season To Stay Warm! Boston Home Heating Tips

Boston winters can bring surprises, including heavy snows and winter storms. Making sure your home is ready for winter before the snow flies is the key to staying comfortable all season long. If you’ve had your furnace or boiler inspected and all is well, here are a few more tips to keep your Boston home heating properly during the winter.

If you have a furnace, change your furnace filters regularly. Most manufacturers recommend changing furnace filters once per month. The furnace filter accumulates dust and other air particles that can reduce the air quality of your home. Changing the furnace filter keeps your home air quality higher, and improves the efficiency of your furnace. You can get reusable filters or paper-based filters. Reusable filters can be washed out and returned to service. Paper filters are used once and discarded.

If your furnace has a belt-driven motor, keep a spare belt handy. Usually, you don’t need special tools or training to replace a broken drive belt. If the belt breaks during the winter, you can quickly replace it and get your furnace back into service without a service call.

For boiler systems, make sure your radiator valves are open and adjusted properly to prevent parts of your home from becoming too hot or too cold. Test the valves to ensure that you can completely open and close them. If a valve is difficult to turn, or just plain stuck, it may need to be replaced.

For boilers, you can also consider installing an outdoor reset control (ORC). This handy little device will help your boiler maintain a comfortable temperature inside your home, and will help you reduce your energy expenditures. An ORC acts like a middleman between your boiler and your thermostat. By keeping track of the outdoor temperature and the indoor temperature, the ORC – not the thermostat – decides whether the boiler should fire up or not. When installed, an ORC can help prevent your boiler system from turning on too frequently and making your home uncomfortably warm.

Boston Standard Plumbing can help you with all of your heating and cooling needs. Contact us at (617)288-2911 and schedule an appointment today!

Snow Could Deliver Heating Problems To Your Home

Boston dodged a bullet with last week’s snowstorms, but this week brings another opportunity to experience the joys of winter. Heavy snow can also create problems with your Boston home heating equipment. Boston Standard Plumbing does more than just take care of your pipes; we also offer full-service heating and cooling maintenance and repair services for boilers, radiators, hot-water heaters and even gas-fired heating equipment and appliances.

Here are a few tips to keep your home in good shape for the rest of the heating season. Remember, if you experience problems with your home heating, give Boston Standard Plumbing a call at (617) 288-2911.

Check your thermostat for proper operation. If you use a programmable thermostat, check the batteries to make sure they’re still in good working order. Whether or not your thermostat is programmable, don’t set the thermostat below 62°F. Your heating system will need to work much harder to bring your home back up to a comfortable temperature, and you run the risk of freezing pipes in areas of your home that are not well-heated or insulated.

If your home has radiators and you find that one area is too hot, while other areas are too cold, try adjusting the heat flow from the offending radiator, rather than adjusting the thermostat. Radiators can be noisy and difficult to work with, but when they’re properly adjusted they can keep a home quite comfortable even during the coldest months. If you have a radiator that produces no heat at all, or produces far too much heat, you may have a broken or stuck valve. The experts at Boston Standard Plumbing can help you with this kind of repair.

For gas furnaces, change the air filter monthly to ensure adequate airflow and to reduce the amount of dust and debris that circulates in the home. Choose a date on the calendar and replace your filter regularly. You can find disposable filters at any home improvement store. Inspect your filter to determine what size your furnace needs.

For high-efficiency furnaces that vent directly to the outside, it is imperative that you keep the fresh air intake and exhaust ports clear of snow, debris and ice. Improper ventilation of a high-efficiency furnace is dangerous and may also cause the furnace to shut down or operate inefficiently. Remove slush and ice build-up and avoid placing objects in front of the exhaust port. Also be sure that the fresh air intake is not recirculating exhaust back into your heating system.

If, at any time, your furnace suddenly stops working, you could have a mechanical or safety problem. Do not attempt to heat your home with a fuel-powered space heater or a generator located inside the home. These devices are meant to be used outdoors and must be properly vented to ensure your safety. If you use gas-fired appliances, install carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs rapidly and without warning.

If your home heat suddenly stops working, and you cannot determine why, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing. We can diagnose and repair all heating, cooling and plumbing problems in your Boston-area home.

High Efficiency Furnace Maintenance Can Save Service Calls

In the past, the efficiency of a home’s heating system wasn’t considered much. The most popular Boston home heating systems were (and still are) powered by natural gas or electricity. Steam or hot-water heat systems, fuel-oil systems and natural gas forced air are commonly found in Boston-area homes. Within the last couple of decades, however, replacement furnaces and those used in new construction are likely to have been labeled “mid-efficiency” or “high-efficiency” furnaces. These designations refer to the ability of the furnace to convert fuel into heat. Some modern high-efficiency furnaces can convert as much as 95% of the fuel they use into heat.

High efficiency furnaces will reduce the amount of money you spend on heating your Boston-area home, but this high efficiency doesn’t come without cost. Typically, a high efficiency furnace may cost between $1,500 and $3,500 depending upon a number of factors. If you’re accustomed to an old furnace, the high efficiency model may come with a few surprises. Older gas furnaces draw air from inside the home back into the furnace to be heated and forced back into the living space. The products of combustion (including a lot of relatively wet air) were sent up the home’s chimney.

For newer furnaces, the addition of a fresh air intake and an exhaust line may be somewhat new. In many installations, the products of combustion are no longer routed up the chimney, but instead exit the house through a PVC line about 3″ in diameter.

The furnace relies on both fresh air intake and its exhaust port to work efficiently and safely. Should either of these lines become clogged with debris, the furnace will shut down. Debris can come in a variety of forms: trash, leaves and similar organic buildup can clog these lines. More likely in the winter, however, snow, ice and frost will plug these pipes, reducing the efficiency of the furnace or shutting it down altogether.

These intake and exhaust pipes should be placed on a side of the home that is sheltered from the wind. This will help reduce the amount of debris, snow and ice that may accumulate as the result of air movement around the home. Likewise, the intake and exhaust pipes should be separated from each other by at least 12 inches, and no objects should come within 20 inches of the pipe’s opening. This will help ensure that airflow into the intake the pipe will not be reduced and exhaust will not be reflected back toward either the intake or exhaust pipes.
Boston Standard Plumbing can assist you in maintaining your high-efficiency furnace throughout the heating season. Contact us today for more information about how to care for your high-efficiency furnace or to diagnose and resolve heating problems.