Ultra-low sulfur fuel linked to heater issues

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

A mysterious black gunk has been clogging fuel screens on Monitor and Toyo heaters on the lower Kenai Peninsula. Boiler systems also have been affected. Since last fall, numerous customers from Ninilchik south have been complaining loudly, as at 2 a.m. when their heater shuts down.

In a winter that might see a half-dozen calls for clogged filters, repairmen are getting hundreds of calls. They're working seven days a week to catch up.

"I've basically been on the front lines of this," said John Ferrell, "The Toyo Man," who repairs Toyo brand heaters out of his Anchor Point shop.

Mark Vial of VBS Heating Products, who sells and repairs Monitor heaters, said he's had 20 times the number of calls for clogged screens.

"And I'm not liking it none," Vial said.

Repairmen and fuel distributors are baffled as to what's causing filters to clog, but they all link it to a new product sold on the lower Kenai Peninsula this winter: ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel number 1 made by Tesoro Alaska at its Kenai facility. Jet-A diesel fuel, also sold for home heating systems, has not been reported to cause problems.

Petro Marine began distributing ultra-low sulfur diesel last fall. In response to customer complaints, Petro will pump out tanks with ultra-low sulfur and replace it with Jet-A at no cost to the customer.

"It's been misery for us," said Smokey Norton, director of marketing for Petro in Anchorage. "The challenge of these stove issues is something that totally blindsided everyone. Blindsided us. It's totally unintended consequences."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated ultra-low sulfur fuel be sold starting in 2006 to meet the needs of new diesel engines using the less-polluting product. The old diesel had a sulfur content of 3,000 parts-per-million, compared to 15 ppm for ultra-low sulfur. Tesoro Alaska began making and selling ultra-low sulfur diesel in 2006, and brought its Kenai desulfuring plant on line in May 2007, said Kip Knudson, external affairs manager for Tesoro Alaska.

Last week, Tesoro tested the ultra-low sulfur distributed by Petro Marine. Tracy Thoreson, a Tesoro quality assurance manager from San Antonio, Texas, met last week with Petro Marine officials and local repairmen to discuss the fuel problems.

Knudson said the Petro ultra-low sulfur was "on spec" meaning, it meets the American Society for Testing and Materials standards for motor vehicle use. There have been no reports in Alaska of ultra-low diesel causing problems in motor vehicle engines, he said.

"We're making good fuel to those specs we make it to, but why we have the issue down in Homer, we don't know," Knudson said.

Norton said before Petro Marine began selling ultra-low sulfur for heating systems, its Soldotna manager had the fuel tested by a stove manufacturer he didn't know which one and it was reported it should work fine.

The problem reported by local repairmen is with small screens on the stove units. A larger filter on the tank screens particles coming from the fuel tank into the heater. Smaller filters screen the fuel before it hits the fuel pump.

The mysterious gunk clogs those smaller filters, starving the heater for fuel. It also can get into the fuel pumps and cause pumps to fail. Too much fuel also can get into the unit, flooding a tray to catch fuel drips. All of that can lead to expensive repairs.

While some filter clogging can be linked to not changing tank filters, Vial and Ferrell reported problems with completely new systems. Ferrell put in a new system last fall for a woman in Ninilchik.

"It didn't make it through Thanksgiving," he said.

Tanks that had a mixture of old high-sulfur and new ultra-low sulfur diesel didn't have as many problems. Fuel with 30 percent ultra-low did OK, Ferrell said. Vial said his own Monitor has 50 percent ultra-low sulfur also has worked fine.

When ultra-low sulfur was introduced in Canada, heater users reported problems with it there, too. The Yukon News in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, reported in June 2007 that a black gunk showed up in Toyo and other brands of heaters. Even when owners switched suppliers, they still had problems. Like the U.S., Canada also has low-sulfur requirements for diesel fuels.

Plumbing & HVAC Product News in its April 2007 issue also reported heating pump failures linked to ultra-low sulfur. In the May-June 2007 issue of Plumbing & HVAC Product News, a maintenance coordinator from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada, reported similar problems with ultra-low sulfur diesel.

The Canadian fuel came from different sources and companies.

For now, Tesoro and Petro Marine are trying to figure out the cause and the solution to the problem. Norton said tests are being done on samples of the black gunk, but he doesn't have results yet.

"The mystery of the black muck is yet to be determined," Ferrell said.

Norton said Petro and Tesoro will try to figure out how to market ultra-low sulfur diesel so it can work in heaters. Norton said the less-polluting fuel should be desirable in an environmentally conscious community like Homer. One solution might be to put in additives, something Vial said he's researching through Monitor repair companies in Canada.

"There's no way in the world we can continue to put this product out there and address these kinds of issues unless there's some additive that can work," Norton.

"We don't have an answer for it," he added. "Our answer has been to say 'Let's go back to Jet-A."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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