Confessions of an Oil Man

disadvantages of fuel oil

Editor’s Note: This post was written by a former oil technician who prefers to remain anonymous. Everything herein is true. 

Each year, millions of households across the U.S. burn home heating oil to stay warm during the winter season. I’m writing this blog post to tell you why you should stop. 

Who am I? I worked for nearly 10 years as an oil technician at a “downstate” NY HVAC company. That’s about a decade’s worth of time spent servicing thousands of furnaces and boilers. I got my hands dirty — literally and figuratively. 

The heating oil industry is known for being “dirty” and old fashioned. The last actual innovation in combustion technology (ie burning fuel to create heat) was the development of a flame retention burner in the 1960s. Over the last 50+ years, technology seems to have transformed every industry except oil. Consider 2-day shipping, smart phones, the internet. And it isn’t like homeowners haven’t noticed exactly how antiquated their heating systems are. The vast majority of customers I interacted with lamented their oil furnace. They just didn’t feel they had a choice.

Now, you might be thinking: what’s wrong with oil? Besides the cost (expensive) and the environmental impact (bad), it’s just not that great of a way to heat your home. Below, check out some of the main fuel oil disadvantages I’ve seen firsthand.

3 Fuel Oil Disadvantages

Frequent System Maintenance

Oil-fired boilers require frequent maintenance because heating oil is inherently unstable.
Heating oil sits idly in its storage tank when it’s in-between oil deliveries. Over time, it becomes contaminated by water and bacteria until it breaks down into thick sludge.

This sludge makes its way from the oil tank into the fuel lines, the filter, and eventually the burner itself – causing the heat to go out (and necessitating a service visit). Continuous maintenance is unfortunately the only way to prevent sludge from clogging up these critical components. This usually means an annual visit or two for the sole purpose of replacing all filter elements, pump strainers, and burner nozzles to ensure your system works during heating season. 

Oil Leaks

Underground and external oil tanks tend to rust and rot because they’re constantly exposed to the harsh elements. I received near-constant customer complaints and service calls about oil leaks. 

You know the signs – an empty 550 gallon tank, a large patch of dead grass on the lawn, the overwhelming smell of oil. Sadly, these indicators were usually the only way to know if an underground tank had sprung a leak, and by then it was too late. 

An oil leak is every homeowner’s worst nightmare because the yard needs to be dug up, the oil tank removed and replaced, and the soil remediated — all at an exorbitant cost. What else are you going to do except pay the bill?

Other sources of oil discharge inside the home include ruptured oil lines and filter gaskets. These can result in anything ranging from a small puddle of oil to gallons pooling around your basement. The potential property damage is unimaginable. Even after extensive clean up efforts, your house will still reek of oil fumes.

Oil Deliveries

Let’s say your furnace or boiler is working exactly the way it’s intended. Your oil tank still needs to be filled for it to function. Unfortunately, I know automatic fuel deliveries often arrive too late, causing the heat to go out when it’s needed the most — in the dead of winter. To make matters worse, once an oil tank is empty, a service call is always needed to prime the system. A diligent technician will be sure to also replace the aforementioned filter elements. Otherwise, they’ll likely become clogged with freshly stirred up sediment and sludge from the bottom of the oil tank. And if your technician forgets to replace these components? You can count on another service visit (and another service bill). 

What’s The Alternative To Oil?

No one likes fuel oil. It’s dirty, it’s inefficient, and it can wreak havoc on your home. Thankfully, heating alternatives do exist, and they’re gaining popularity. Check out options like natural gas, air-source heat pumps, and geothermal systems. I’m bullish on geothermal systems because they’re just about the exact opposite of oil-based systems.

  • They use energy from the ground to heat and cool, not combustion.
  • They’re low maintenance and last a long time.
  • There’s no risk of leaks or spills.
  • They’re hyper-efficient.
  • They save homeowners a ton of money on energy bills (and service visits).

Take it from a reformed oil man. Oil heating is essentially the same today as it was in 1960. Start heating like it’s the future, because it is.

Geothermal isn’t right for everyone. Click the button below to find out if it’s right for you.

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