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Equipment makers are rolling out condensing boilers and furnaces with AFUE ratings in the mid-90% range. These units include burners with multiple firing rates, outdoor temperature sensors and stainless steel heat exchangers.


On the fuel side, several Northeast states have begun phasing in ultra-low sulfur heating oil. The testing done at Brookhaven National Laboratory showed a linear relationship between sulfur content and particulate matter. When the lab burned heating oil with a sulfur content below 15 parts per million, emissions were about the same as with natural gas.


Oil heat’s future, though, seems tied to backing out of petroleum and into biofuels.


Many dealers now carry a blend of low-sulfur petroleum and vegetable oil, typically from 5% to 20%. Burning B-20, as it’s called, can cut sulfur emissions by 80%, and CO2 by 20%, according to testing done by the National Oilheat Research Alliance.


In time, the greenest oil won’t come from the ground, but from trees. Several startup companies are working to find an economic way to make cellulosic ethanol, and turn forests into biorefineries.


But oil production today remains a dirty business. Last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the methods used to extract oil from tar sands in Canada, are extreme examples, but they serve as reminders of oil’s broad impact on the environment.


Wood: It Depends
Wood is probably the most popular alternative heating fuel in cold climates. It’s not a climate change villain. It’s renewable, and tends to be locally available and plentiful.


Unfortunately, wood smoke contains particulate matter. How wood is burned— and in what device—makes a big difference in whether it’s a green alternative or a big polluter.


Burning logs in a standard fireplace, where combustion is uncontrolled, is not a clean form of heat. Neither are older, smoke-belching outdoor wood boilers. Some newer outdoor boilers, certified under a voluntary program with the EPA, are designed to emit less than 0.60 pounds of particulate per 1 million BTU of wood burned. Some states have even stronger regulations, and the EPA plans to tighten federal limits in the near future.


 


Wood Stove
Wood heat is a popular alternative, but wood burned in an open fireplace or old-style stove or boiler generates enough smoke to cause health problems for some residents and neighbors. When buying a new wood stove, look for low particulate emission levels, as measured by the EPA.



Corn Stove
Shelled corn has become a clean-burning alternative heat source in farm country, similar to wood pellets in the forest belt. Try to buy corn raised with sustainable agriculture techniques.


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