As a Buyer’s Agent selling homes in the Boston metro for over 15 years, I have been to a great many home inspections and toured innumerable properties with home buyers. Occasionally we come across a boiler that is fueled by home heating oil. Most folks raise their eyebrows and ask me, “oil is really bad isn’t it?” The answer is undoubtedly, YES.

There’s really nothing good whatsoever about any fossil fuel. I’m not getting into a debate about that here. Feel free to lay some opinions down in the comments section and I’ll take them on one at a time.

Until we can transition completely to renewables, we will need to find some ways to bridge between older, fossil fuel burning systems and modern, wind, solar, geothermal or other environmentally friendly options.

One such bridge fuel is Biodiesel. Technically a fatty acid, methyl ester, biodiesel is made by reacting a wood or grain alcohol, such as methanol or ethanol, with vegetable oil or animal fats. With the help of a sodium hydroxide (lye) catalyst, the reaction produces two products: biodiesel and glycerine. The process is relatively simple, although the chemicals required are caustic and need to be handled carefully.

Efficiency of biodiesels vs fossil fuels

Diesel is not a new idea. It first became known as a fuel when peanut oil was used by Rudolf Diesel to power his engine at the 1900 World Exposition.

Rudolf Diesel at the 1900 World Exposition

It can also come from a source called “brown grease”. If you’re eating dinner, save this for later. Brown grease is pretty much everything that goes down your drain from making food.

Municipal pipe clogged with "brown grease"

It is a really big problem for the waste water treatment sectors and costs taxpayers a lot of money each year. Basically, if we could get better at removing it from our municipal plumbing and waste water systems, we could remove the brown grease, turn it into biodiesel and return the byproduct to the water treatment plants to actually assist in the process, rather than hinder. Lots of folks have been burning “waste veggie oil” in their vehicles for years. This isn’t something new. It’s not as popular in Boston because of the cold winter temperatures (makes the oil viscous and requires a preheater). Actually,my dream car is a Mercedes Gelandewagon GD300, which can burn biodiesel like a champ. You might remember it as the predecessor to the Popemobile. Can you imagine driving through Boston, the smell of french fries wafting from your tailpipe?

There are many benefits to burning biodiesel over heating oil.

  • Can be produced exclusively domestically. No need to depend on foreign oil, or the wars we fight for that oil. Did I mention domestic job creation?
  • Virtually sulfur free – burns cleaner with far fewer particulates.
  • Biodiesel is biodegradable.
  • Its lubricity actually improves the mechanical longevity of oil burners on home heating systems.
  • Acts as a solvent and improves the function and efficiency of home heating systems.
  • It can be blended with conventional oil at any percentage.
  • Provides a sustainable solution to surplus crops, waste restaurant oils, animal processing, etc.

Obviously, as it is much less known as a fuel source the cost will often be higher, (though not as much as you might think) especially when you factor in the long tail expenses of burning fossil fuels, like, um, the end of the world as we know it. The costs for various biodiesel blends track nicely with home heating oil costs.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that low-sulphur biodiesel can compete with natural gas financially. As of today, it can’t. But what cost is our environment paying? I will make the assertion that if your home has an oil burner, there is a solid alternative to using heating oil and you should consider it. The New York Public Interest Research Group agrees with me. Read their white paper, “A Smart Choice for New York.”