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LIQUID FUELS dominated home heating through the mid-1900s, pushing coal to the sidelines.

Market forces and regulations didn’t
slow oil’s role in automating heating

1. Caricature of Marc Lalonde, minister (1980–81), Energy Mines & Resources

1. Canada’s energy minister in 1980,
Marc Lalonde, came under a lot of
criticism for his government’s “off-oil”
program. Click the image for more

“For much of the 20th century, it was oil that was the fuel of choice for heating — and for most inventors of boiler and furnace technologies that paved the way for gas equipment to come. While it replaced coal and wood until the oil crises of the 1970s, it was a federal ‘off-oil’ program which really ended its reign.

The controversial federal ‘off-oil’ program was announced October 28, 1980, legislated by the Liberal government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Marc Lalonde, minister, Energy Mines & Resources. Officially called the National Energy Program (NEP), and the Canadian Oil Substitution Program (COSP), it had as its goal the 20 percent reduction in Canadian oil consumption by 1990 — and specifically limiting the residential and business sectors to a maximum of 10 percent oil use!

While it died by 1986, following a severe recession, the slump in oil prices, and a change to a Conservative government in 1984, the damage to the oil heating industry has never been forgotten. The Home Energy Group, now the Canadian Oil Heat Association (COHA), was born in 1983 to fight the off-oil program and the bias to gas. Federal incentives to consumers to convert from oil to other fuels started at $600 and rose to $800.

Oil heating never recovered from that combined assault. Where oil had a 57.9 percent share of the Canadian household heating market in 1970, by 1980 that had fallen to 37.3 percent as world oil prices escalated. Natural gas rose from 33.4 percent to a leading 40.1 percent share and electricity to 19.5 percent. A decade later, in 1992, the COSP subsidies put national market shares at 45.3 percent on natural gas, 34 percent on electricity and oil had plummeted to a 16 percent share.

But by the 1980s, all the primary innovations in hot water and forced air heating had been created, tested and marketed. Oil had completed the industry’s transition from solid to liquid fuels and from manual to fully automated heating systems, as this exhibit records.

Factually Speaking

In the 1840s, Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, developed a fractional distillation process to produce kerosene from coal.

How oil is refined for the boiler and furnace

1. Diagram of a fractioning tower that separates the components of crude oil

1. A fractioning tower for crude oil distillation.
Click the image for more information.

Finding crude oil is rather simple compared to refining it into usable products. In the early refineries kerosene was the only saleable product and the rest was considered waste and dumped into the nearest body of water. This would send today’s pollution groups into a screaming frenzy of protest. Today thankfully there is very little wasted in refining crude oil.

There are basically two types of refined oil products, petroleum distillates and residual fuel oils (RFO). Distillates include such products as gasoline, kerosene, home heating oil, diesel fuel. RFOs include what is left over in the refining processes that are incapable of being distilled. They usually resemble sludge like thick oils, asphalt, and tar.

The heart of the refining process is the fractioning tower. It is a tall narrow tank shaped structure set vertical. Inside it are many temperature controlled levels where the distillates are cooled and collected. The separations of products are determined by their specific boiling points.

Crude oil is heated by a furnace to over 400° C and fed into the bottom of the fractioning tower where all the distillates boil off. The distillate flashes off into a vapour and proceeds up the tower where it is systematically cooled at very tightly controlled temperatures, condensed into a liquid and piped away to be further refined. The thick RFOs are left on the tower bottom and pumped away into their specific product streams.

Fuel oil used for home heating makes up about 25 percent of a barrel of crude oil. It became much in demand once consumers realized space was no longer needed to store coal or wood and there was significantly less mess. Oil was handled by gravity or was pumped eliminating the need to manually work grates, rake, handle and dispose of ashes. This new fuel lent itself well to automation and drudgery free operation.

Factually Speaking

An asphalt producer by the name of James Miller Williams was digging for water in 1858 near a small Ontario community called Black Creek, but he struck oil instead. The incident triggered an oil rush that saw the Black Creek's population swell to more than 4,000 and gave the town a new name, Oil Springs.

Government regs should boost “bioheat” fuel

1. Image showing a flask of used vegetable cooking oil

1. Used vegetable cooking.
oil. Click the image for more

Canadian homeowners have been using a more “green” fuel oil for space heating in at least three provinces in the early 21st century. That should increase in the future as Natural Resources Canada plans regulations to catch up to this global trend and require at least a 2 percent addition of fat and vegetable oils with methanol in “bioheat” fuels, particularly bio-diesel.

There is no Canadian standard for bio-furnace fuel oil as of 2010, but at least three fuel oil distributors in British Columbia (Columbia), Nova Scotia (Wilson) and Quebec (Sonic Petroleum) have voluntarily offered bio-heating oil for several years. Although bio-diesel is a fuel for diesel-powered vehicles, “it is suited as a blending component in furnace fuel oil,” a 2009 study reports. As a result ASTM (American Society of Testing Materials) in the US approved 5 percent bio-diesel in heating oil to its ASTM D396 Standard (2) in 2008. Bio-diesel must meet ASTM D6751 Standard (3). Canada often adopts such standards in its harmonization program.

A Canadian test of base furnace oil with B5, B10, and B20 percentage levels of bio-furnace fuels studied long term performance for furnace efficiency and their impact on a range of components. The results “showed there was negligible impact on late model residential furnace operation and performance” with furnace fuel up to B10 bioheat oil. However, “the bio-furnace fuel should not exceed a B10 blend to be compatible with existing seals in the fuel pump,” the study reported. Also, the saturated monoglycerides (vegetable oils) should be limited to avoid being deposited in the drain lines of fuel tanks and causing “potential field issues.”

Burner and boiler, furnace and stove manufacturers and combustion test labs will continue to respond to this issue as regulations and materials change to ensure there are no “field issues.”

Article Sources

Market forces, regulations didn’t slow oil’s role in automating heating

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #44, HD1005J)
  • Heating-Plumbing Air Conditioning, A Southam Business Publication, Toronto, December 1980.
  • 25th Anniversary Canadian Oil Heat Association, 2008, Markham, Ontario.
  • Canadian Gas Association, Canadian Gas Facts 1993, September 1993.

How oil is refined for the boiler and furnace

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #048).

Government regs may boost “bioheat” fuel

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #112)
  • Natural Resources Canada, via
  • Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, via


  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #044, DCSB #048, and DCSB #112).
  • Canadian Oil Heat Association, COHA Connector, December, 2010, via .

Factually Speaking

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #044, DCSB #048, and DCSB #112).
  • Centre for Energy : History : About Energy, via

Image Credits

Market forces, regulations didn’t slow oil’s role in automating heating

  • Heating-Plumbing Air Conditioning, A Southam Business Publication, Toronto, December 1980.

How oil is refined for the boiler and furnace

  • By Users Psarianos, Theresa knott on en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Government regs may boost “bioheat” fuel

  • Public domain.