Every year the 200 million vehicles in the United States generate approximately 1.35 billion gallons of used oil. What happens to it? Tragically, estimates indicate that as much as 400 million gallons are released into the environment through improper disposal. The remainder is hauled off-site by a licensed hauler and stored for refining or burning. Most plant managers and others responsible for the disposal of this seemingly useless waste product consider it a major liability. However, some have discovered an amazing afterlife in this liquid gold.
Since 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency recognizes used lubricating oil as a non-hazardous waste and considers burning it in approved furnaces as safe. What does this mean? For any plant with an auto or fleet maintenance center, it means a source of free heat.
Burning is the safest, most efficient, economical and environmentally-friendly way to dispose of #2, #4 and #5 fuel oils and crankcase oil, automatic transmission fluid and hydraulic oil that vehicles generate. An EPA-approved furnace or boiler gives any bottom line a boost by eliminating hauling fees and heating shop bays and offices and making hot water for vehicle cleaning. Compared to other energy sources such as standard fuel oil, natural gas and coal, only used oil delivers a one-two punch of savings.
Burning used oil saves from five to 25 cents per gallon in hauling and disposal fees while greatly reducing the risks associated with cradle-to-grave Superfund liabilities. The fact that the used oil is then burned to provide essentially free heat compounds these savings. With the average payback on the furnace or boiler as little as 12 to 18 months, this "useless" liquid quickly becomes a lucrative asset.
Adding fuel to the fire
Many industries and applications demonstrate the benefits of burning used oil, but few do it on such a grand scale as the federal government. One National Guard maintenance shop repairs and maintenance its fleet in a 10-bay, 100-foot by 200-foot building. As with any facility of its type, this shop needs an economical way to dispose of used oil plus an efficient and effective means to heat the building.
Before installing a used-oil fired furnace, the shop relied on natural gas radiant heaters that were only effective in keeping immediate work areas warm. At times, repair technicians were barely able to keep the temperature above freezing. Now a used-oil furnace keeps the work areas at a comfortable 55 to 60 degrees. Since the heat is free, guard personnel keep the furnace running overnight so the shop is warm in the morning. The furnace also increases productivity because no time is lost waiting for the area to warm up. Burning 4,500 gallons of used oil between October and March, the shop not only completely consumes its own waste oil, it also accepts more from other sites.
When wood wouldn't
Like the EPA, the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment states that each year 250 million liters of used lubricating oil, including engine oil, transmission fluid and gear oil, enters the Canadian environment.
A logging company in British Columbia is not exempted from the rules governing used oil. Generating approximately 15,000 liters of used oil each year, this full phase "stump to dump" contractor was paying dearly to have its oil hauled away. Trying to trim costs, the owner sent the used oil to a nearby used-oil fired furnace. He soon realized the benefits of the furnace and investigated a similar system for his company. The furnace operates ten months per year and burns 7,500 liters of oil for heating the 40-foot by 60-foot by 16-foot shop.
Before purchasing the furnace, the logger burned waste wood that cost $70 to $80 per cord. Obviously, burning waste wood at a logging company was cost-effective because the wood was free. What was not free was the time and attention the wood burning stove required. Keeping the shop warm throughout the day required someone to be available to regularly stoke the stove. Initially, the company had two seemingly unconnected problems — the cost of hauling oil off-site and the difficulty of heating the shop — both of which came to the same solution — a used-oil furnace.
Oil and water do mix
Another bonus to burning used oil is heating wash water, something a fleet of 60 dry bulk tanker trucks incorporated successfully. With typical cargoes including sawdust, molasses and other sticky substances, not to mention the accumulation of road grime, the company needed a hot water pressure washer and a boiler specifically designed for vehicle washing. Shop personnel now burn used oil the fleet generates while supplying 200-degree water to the pressure washing system for cleaning the tankers.
The company also operates two similar boilers that provide radiant, in-floor heat to the 153-foot by 83-foot office building and shop. On the coldest day, the shop burns 36 gallons of oil. If the value of used oil is 30 cents per gallon, heating on the coldest day cost less than eleven dollars.
The auto care industry finds using waste oil for heat and hot wash water to be exceptionally lucrative. The trendy marriage of quick lube and car wash is a direct result of today's fast-paced lifestyles and an increased focus on customer service. The days of do-it-yourself are fast declining. A small plot of land can mean big profits for the quick lube/carwash combo. Burning used oil helps these businesses drive in more customers while driving out hauling fees.
One such center in Berwick, Pennsylvania burns used oil for hot wash water and heat that supplies two quick lube bays and four car wash bays. The estimated annual cost savings of $5,000 doesn't include additional savings on hauling fees or liability avoidance.
Properly handling used oil is everyone's responsibility. Environmental damage, fines and accidents that improper practices cause don't have to occur. All it takes is communication and education. Here are a few key points about used oil burning you may want to share with your co-workers when considering whether a used-oil fired furnace or boiler is right for your plant:
- Used-oil fired furnaces and boilers burn used oil completely, leaving no residual oil behind to harm the environment.
- Generators that burn used oil do not have to pay a hauler to remove the oil from the premises. Generators that elect to have their used oil hauled away for disposal are liable from cradle to grave for environmental damage an accidental spill or improper handling causes. Costs to repair damage caused by oil can run into the millions.
- Burning used oil for heat allows generators to drastically reduce overhead since heating bills are reduced or eliminated.
Used oil is a valuable resource. As more and more industries look for ways to be a friend to the environment, taking an active role in this pursuit not only adds to the plant efficiency, it also makes you feel good about doing your part.