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Bioheat gaining steam as home-heating option

SANDWICH -- Although a typical oil truck delivers to Charles Kleekamp's home on a typical schedule, it doesn't leave the typical fuel behind. Mixed in with his hydrocarbons, Kleekamp is using vegetable oil to stoke his furnace.

That puts Kleekamp in an emerging group of New Englanders who are committed to using the blend, called bioheat, even though it costs about 10-20 cents more per gallon than regular heating fuel.

''I feel very strongly about what I'm doing. About 20 out of every 100 gallons of bioheat goes to American farmers and producers instead of unstable foreign countries," said Kleekamp. ''That's significant to me."

Kleekamp, a retired engineer, also believes strongly in the environmental impact of using bioheat. ''By getting into the practice of growing our fuel rather than taking something out of the earth that can be depleted, we're helping to establish sustainability for the future," he said.

Although the use of vegetable oil in home heating is a fairly new trend, a petroleum-free formula has been used as diesel automobile fuel in Europe for more than 20 years, and its use here began in the early 1990s. Known as biodiesel, it is most commonly made from soybeans and rapeseed (canola), but can also be made from sunflower oil or even fryer grease. Compared with petroleum fuel, biodiesel is better for the environment because it is made from renewable resources and has lower emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. It is biodegradable and less toxic than table salt.

According to Jenna Higgins, director of communications for the National Biodiesel Board, the trade association representing the biodiesel industry, about 30 million gallons was produced nationwide in fiscal 2004, and very little of it went for home heating. ''However, within the last several months, we're starting to see more people use bioheat blends," she said. ''This surge has been primarily in the Northeast, because most of the nation's homes that use heating oil are located in the region."

A downside to biodiesel is that in its purest form, it degrades four times faster than regular diesel fuel. It also tends to thicken in cold weather. So, while biofuel is operable in its purest form, it's most beneficial as heating fuel when used in a 10 percent or 20 percent blend with standard heating oil, known respectively as B10 and B20 blends. Through a subsidiary called Mass Biofuel, Bob Warren, owner of Fisher Churchill Oil Co. of Dedham, distributes a B10 bioheat blend. He said it ''helps to improve combustion and produces less soot that will ultimately require less maintenance to your heating equipment." Warren, who uses bioheat in his own home, says that the alternative fuel can be used in almost every home without any modifications to its current system. He added that while it's difficult to ''see" the benefits of using bioheat, in time customers will notice that their fuel system is cleaner and that the cleaner-burning blend will have less of an odor than standard heating oil.

For now, bioheat does come at a premium. Warren said it costs more because use of the mixture hasn't caught on yet, and because distributors must go great distances to get it; New England distributors get their biofuel from Florida manufacturing facilities. Kleekamp, who's been using a B20 bioheat blend from Loud Fuel of Falmouth since last fall, acknowledged that using bioheat costs more, but he said he is confident that the long-term benefits outweigh the extra cost.

''My heating system performs exactly the same as it did with traditional oil. There's no difference with the equipment," he said. ''Paying the higher price is worth it to me because by using biofuel, I feel I'm taking my step to energy independence."

Warren said he has fewer than 50 bioheat customers so far, but said the number is growing. He said his goal is to be able to offer bioheat at the same price as standard oil.

''Replacing even 5 percent of regular heating oil with biofuel plays a huge part in lessening our reliance on foreign oil imports, which in turn helps give us a little bit more stability with the fluctuating prices," he explained.

Loud and Mass Biofuel started distributing bioheat to area homes last fall, after several years of laboratory tests and field trials. According to Richard Lawrence, education coordinator for Cape & Islands Self-Reliance, a non-profit group that supports sustainable technologies, the tests proved ''that biodiesel works well in a variety of boilers and furnaces. Heating oil is very similar to diesel fuel. They're basically interchangeable products, so biodiesel works very well blended into heating oil." The field trials were conducted in a sampling of New York households, at the mansion of Maine Governor John Baldacci, and in Warwick, R.I., schools. Bob Cerio, the schools' former energy manager, instigated the use of bioheat in his school district after being approached by the Rhode Island Department of Energy.

''We were the first in the US to use biodiesel as heating fuel," he said of the trials, which took place at four school buildings in 2001-2002. ''We carefully monitored the whole process, we sampled the heating tanks every month," he said. ''We had no problems. It was a very positive experience."

In 2003, there was only enough money available for the school system to use bioheat in one building, so Cerio continued to use a B20 blend in the building that had been heated with it the previous two years. In addition to the environmental benefits of using the fuel, Cerio said that there was big difference in the cleanliness of the building's oil burner.

''You usually need to clean an oil burner every year. In the three years we used bioheat, we didn't have to clean the burner once," said Cerio. ''There was virtually no soot in it. That's a big deal, it saves us money. We didn't have to send guys in to do the cleaning, which can be a nasty job."

Although the school system didn't have funding to use bioheat in any buildings for 2004-2005, Cerio said the school department has expressed interest in using B20 in all of its buildings next winter.

Cerio currently works as energy manager for the Hudson Cos., a Providence-based asphalt supplier. He said the company is planning to build a biodiesel production facility in Providence within the next year.

''It will be the first biodiesel production facility built in the Atlantic Northeast," he said. ''We hope to produce between 1 [million] and 3 million gallons of biodiesel each year.

''Now, we're having to get biodiesel from Florida, which makes it more expensive to us. If we can produce it in the New England area, the cost should go down significantly."

Jaci Conry can be reached at jconry77@aol.com.

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