Soybeans. When I think of them, I think of Chinese food or my first job as a reporter covering a beat called Oils, Fats, and Waxes. I don't think about heating our house. But, that's exactly what I found out that soybean oil is being used for—to supplement our fuel oil.
You may have some in your heating oil too. But, don't panic. It won't cost you any more and it won't make your house smell like Chinese food. If you have oil heat, and your oil contains some biofuel (most likely soybean oil), you'll actually be contributing to a cleaner environment and a reduction in dependence on foreign oil—all at no cost to you.
Our local supplier, Mitchell Supreme, ran an article in its newsletter touting the use of biofuel in their heating oil. The idea of biofuels peaked my interest, so I gave them a call.
My first question was what the heck is biofuel? I was told by Louis Bassano, the Biofuel Account Executive at Mitchell Supreme, that it could be either animal fat (Ever heard of people fueling up at the local McDonalds?) or soybean oil. It turns out that our supplier uses soybean oil. Mr. Bassano filled me in on some of the details.
Mitchell Supreme, which has about 6,000 residential customers in Northern New Jersey, has been putting 5% soybean oil into the heating oil it delivers to its customers since October. He said the soybean oil has the same heat content as residential heating oil and that the company has not had any complaints about the quality of the mix.
What are the advantages to the consumer, you might ask? In terms of cost, it's a wash. At least for our supplier, who says that they have a contract with a soybean oil distributor in Newark, New Jersey. They pay the same price for soybean oil as for heating oil, and so their heating oil customers pay the same price for the bio blend as for straight fuel oil. Some customers, he said, really only care about the cost. But there are others who are enthusiastic about doing something, even passively, to reduce dependence on petroleum and improve the environment.
Biofuel is cleaner burning than petroleum-based heating oil in a traditional furnace, and no equipment conversion is necessary to use it. So, at no cost to you you're also doing something good for the environment. According to one article I read, if everyone in the Northeast used a blend of 5 percent biofuel and 95 percent heating oil, at least 50 million fewer gallons of heating oil would be consumed. That would make a significant contribution to lowering harmful emissions.
Also, since the fuel is coming from soybeans, it's a renewable source of energy that can be produced domestically, potentially limiting our reliance on imported oil. And it only takes a growing season to produce a hearty crop of soybeans as opposed to millions of years to make the barrels of the fossil fuel many of us burn in our furnaces.
So, why isn't Mitchell Supreme using more than 5 percent soybean oil in their heating oil mix? Mr. Bassano explained that biofuel is a solvent that can dissolve the sludge that coats the inside of fuel tanks, especially older ones. If large-enough quantities of sludge dislodge, the result can be a clogged fuel filter or burner head that may prevent the oil burner from operating when you need it. Higher levels of biofuel may end up in our heating oil, but companies using the additive are taking a gradual approach to make sure no problems arise.
It's not a bad idea to ask your heating oil supplier if they're using biofuel. The quality of your heat won't change, but the quality of the environment may improve, at least a little!