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Oil Boiler Manufacturers are working to clean up oil heat with high-efficiency boilers, but oil drilling and transportation remains a dirty business. Oil heat may have a cleaner future with blends of petroleum and vegetable oil, and eventually, forest-based energy produced in biorefineries. Brand shown: Buderus


 


How clean? One way to measure the risk to human health is with particulate matter. The EPA relies on a “PM 2.5” air quality standard. It’s a reference to concentrations of particulate matter in the air below 2.5 microns, small enough to lodge deep in the lungs.


In 2007, Brookhaven National Laboratory conducted a landmark study of the emission characteristics of gas, oil and wood pellet heating systems, focusing on the PM 2.5 standard. Using a gas furnace with an 81% AFUE (annual efficiency), researchers recorded only tiny amounts of fine particulate emissions.


Today, consumers can easily find boilers with AFUE ratings well above 90%. The most efficient units feature sealed combustion, and they condense flue gases in a second heat exchanger. For room additions, or in well-insulated new construction, vent, direct-through--wall space heaters can do the job for less money. Typical AFUE ratings for direct vents are in the low 80% range.


On the downside, natural gas is a non-renewable resource with a big environmental footprint on the production side. Recently-discovered deposits in the Northeast locked up in shale deposits are released through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which has been tied to local ground-water pollution. In terms of global emissions, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with the ability to trap heat 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.


People living away from natural gas lines may also consider a cousin of natural gas, propane. Compressed to a liquid, propane is a by product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining.


Propane shares similar clean-air characteristics with natural gas, but its connection to oil refining, and the need to transport the product by rail and truck, give it a larger carbon footprint. Propane warms only 7% of American homes. Penetration is likely to rise in the Northeast, however, where many rural residents want to move away from expensive oil heat.


Green Oil Heat?
It seems unlikely at first glance. Heating oil has been losing market share for years, and now warms roughly 9% of American homes. But the industry has been working hard to clean up its act, and is developing cleaner fuels and more efficient burners to rival its arch enemy, natural gas.


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