There’s something rotten in the state of northern heating-oil systems.
However, homeowners and technicians alike are having trouble pinning down why so many home-heating systems have been failing in the past year.
You’d think it was rocket science.
Earlier this year, home-heating system owners Vince Slotte and Lisa Snyder noticed their Toyo stove was clicking. Then it shut down altogether.
“We were one of the early ones to start having trouble,” Slotte said recently.
Over the winter and spring, the Marsh Lake pair swapped out both burner units in both their two-year old Toyo stove heaters, after repeated attempts to clean and replace the filters.
Griffiths Heating and Sheet Metal replaced the burners.
It took weeks to get the second one into town — they were in hot demand.
“It’s a very nervous time to live without your heat in your house, waiting for a shipment of new pumps to arrive because they’ve been going through so many of them,” said Slotte.
Slotte and Snyder also decided to switch fuel providers, just in case their problem was a batch of bad fuel.
But months later, now in the summer, one stove started acting up. Once again, it was clogged.
“The fuel filter at the tank comes out crystal clean, but the micro filter on the in-feed to the house — well I just cleaned it the other day because it got plugged solid again,” said Slotte.
“It was all black, and then gets a silvery glaze over top of it,” he said.
“We suspect that it’s the fuel,” said Snyder.
Believing there was something wrong with the oil — they had read about problems in Hay River with old equipment adjusting to new low-sulphur diesel — in February they wrote MP Larry Bagnell and MLA Patrick Rouble to ask if there were similar problems in the Yukon.
Bad fuel, suggested Bagnell in his response.
“I am told by heating specialists in the Yukon that some nozzles, filters and screens involved in the motor operation of a heating unit are getting gummed up,” he wrote.
“There is also a consensus that this problem might be a combination of a bad batch of diesel fuel and extreme cold temperatures,” he added.
The problem might be low-sulphur fuel, said Rouble in his response, citing a letter from Environment Minister Dennis Fentie.
If so, the Yukon government has no authority to amend the federally legislated sulphur content in on-road diesel, which is the same oil used for heating homes.
In 2006, most of Canada’s diesel went ultra-low-sulphur.
The Canadian Environmental Protection Act set out regulations for diesel fuel in 2002 to reduce the solid particulates that come out with exhaust as a result of combustion in the presence of sulphur.
These regulations were amended in 2006, and set limits for sulphur in diesel fuel for use in on-road vehicles, off-road engines and rail and marine vehicles, and timelines for compliance.
As of October 15, most on-road diesel sold in Canada contained less than 15 parts per million of sulphur.
Prior to that, the maximum allowable sulphur content was 500 parts per million.
Because the regulations do not apply to home-heating fuel, those systems were not tested.
However, in remote and sparsely populated areas, on-road diesel is often distributed and used as home-heating oil simply because it’s easier and cheaper to distribute one type of diesel in bulk.
Environment Canada is aware of anecdotal reports of low-sulphur fuel causing equipment problems in home-heating systems.
Fuel suppliers are investigating the issue, said Environment Canada via e-mail.
A known problem with switching to low-sulphur diesel in home heating systems is o-ring failure.
The sulphur in now-retro diesel causes rubber seals to swell.
Removing the sulphur from the mix allows the parts to shrink back.
Deformed, they can either lose the seal, or even crack.
A second problem is lubricity.
The cheapest means for extracting sulphur from diesel is known as hydrotreating, a hydrogen-based reaction that removes additional lubricating molecules.
The resulting diesel is much more abrasive to some metals.
Though Environment Canada admitted that decreased lubricity could have “impacts” on some systems, it still believes that “lower levels of sulphur in fuel would not cause equipment problems.”
It may be right.
“We did a survey recently that will be released to the public that suggested that every installation had either an installation or maintenance problem of some description,” said Doug MacLean, a technical consultant with Yukon’s Energy Solutions Centre.
“The reality is, we’re finding in general there were more problems than there should be before the low-sulphur came along, and the low-sulphur is being used as a scapegoat,” he said.
McLean cited six possible causes that could explain the constant breakdown of home heating systems in the Yukon in his report to the Energy Solutions Centre.
Most of the recent fuel problems appear to be due to wax precipitating out in the home heating fuel; a black sludge forming in some new tanks; a super-fine powder forming more quickly than expected on filters (cause unclear); varnish forming in some smaller pumps (such as those in Toyo stoves); dirty or contaminated fuel; and water trapped in heating oil tanks, creating an organism- and corrosion-friendly environment, wrote MacLean in his brief.
Shell Canada, which provides North 60 with “unbranded” diesel, did its own tests on fuel samples and malfunctioning stove units turned in to North 60 by disgruntled home heating customers this winter.
Shell didn’t find anything that suggested low-sulphur or fuel-quality issues as the culprit.
“We have heard of a very small number of customers (two to be exact) using stove oil who are experiencing stove filter plugging,” wrote Shell’s spokesperson Jana Saunderson.
“We tested two samples of fuel and filters received at our research lab in April. Our testing showed no fuel-related issues affecting filters. Testing of both furnace oil and arctic stove oil samples confirmed that the fuels both meet Canadian General Standards Board specifications,” Saunderson wrote.
In the course of the Yukon News’ investigation, a heating specialist directed us to an article by Simon Blake in the current issue of Plumbing & HVAC Magazine.
In the piece, Blake suggested that a number of equipment failures could be blamed on extremely low temperature or bad batches of fuel.
He even speculated that a low sulphur content could be allowing organisms to grow in the fuel.
However, he noted after speaking with a few Whitehorse-based contractors that one particular popular model of fuel pump became problematic this year.
“Contractors have seen seized shafts, shafts that pulled out of the pump when the cotter pin broke, and solenoid failures, primarily with Suntec oil pumps on Beckett Clean-Cut equipment,” Blake wrote.
Slotte and Snyder don’t use a Beckett system, so can’t just switch-away from the potential problematic Suntec pump.
Whatever the cause, Slotte and Snyder have a working system for now — they had a technician replace a filter last week — but they’re still wary about the upcoming winter season.
“At the rate it was going it would be $3,000 next winter for repairs,” said Snyder.
“I don’t want to think about winter today,” added Slotte. “It’s a beautiful day. But we kind of need to think about winter now so we’re not pulling our hair out again next year,”
If you’ve had inexplicable home-heating problems, contact the Yukon News about it.