Oil: Its History and Role in Home Heating

Oil: Its History and Role in Home Heating

Oil has, over the last few decades, become one of the most highly debated fuel sources on Earth. However, while we think of oil as being a purely modern phenomenon, human beings have actually been using the raw components of oil (such as bitumen) without issue for millennia. Today, oil retains an important role in our society because it is relatively inexpensive, very efficient (fossil fuels are the most efficient fuel source in the world), and relatively easy to transport.

What is Oil?

Oil is the remains of ancient plants and animals that were compressed over time by geological forces. Eventually they transformed into liquid strings of hydrogen and carbon, and this viscous liquid started to bubble out of the ground in various locations around the world.

How oil heats a home
Oil makes a long journey from deep in the earth to the tank in your home. It begins when crude oil is turned into a series of products, including gasoline, jet fuel, and heating oil. Oil is extremely stable, and must be heated above 140 degrees before it will begin to burn. Inside your furnace or boiler, your oil burns extremely hot – 400 degrees hotter than natural gas or propane – and is extremely efficient in heating your home!


A Brief History of Oil in Society

The use of naturally occurring bitumen coincided with the building of the earliest cities; bitumen was used to create asphalt near the Euphrates river in Iraq as early as 6000 years ago. From there, its use spread to Europe and throughout the world. It was the Ancient Greeks who gave it the name we use today, petroleum, from the Greek "petra" meaning rock, and "oleum" meaning oil.

The modern history of oil began in the 1840s, when a Canadian geologist discovered that crude oil could be distilled into kerosene to light lanterns. The invention of heating oil happened soon after, when M.A. Fessler invented the oil burner to take advantage of the crude oil discoveries in California. The company he founded, Fess System Co., eventually became Petro. From there, the oil industry grew and spread around the world. Scientists are still discovering previously unknown reserves of oil in remote locations, such as above the arctic circle and deep below the ocean. This is why we did not in fact hit “peak oil” by the year 2000 as researchers once predicted. The wealth of the Earth’s oil reserves has surpassed our expectations, meaning that oil will remain a viable fuel source for decades to come. In fact, in recent years, the oil industry has produced a surplus of oil—hence why prices remain so low.

Today, more than 3/4 of the oil used in the U.S. comes from outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); our supplies often arrive from Canada, Mexico, or Venezuela. As the country's leading supplier of home heating oil, our resources are unmatched and we've never run out of oil.

How Oil Heats a Home

Oil makes a long journey from deep within the earth to the tank in your home. It begins when crude oil is turned into a series of products, including gasoline, jet fuel, and heating oil, which are then transported around the world via ships, vehicles, and pipelines. This is possible because oil is extremely stable, and must be heated above 140 degrees before it will begin to burn. Unlike other highly combustible fuels, oil can be shipped long distances without there being a significant risk of explosions or other human health hazards.

While oil heating works similarly to gas heating in principle (hot air is created via combustion, then circulated around your home), it’s much safer. Once it’s inside your furnace or boiler, your oil burns extremely hot – 400 degrees hotter than natural gas or propane – and at cooler temperatures it will not ignite. This is why some homeowners prefer oil to natural gas or propane; unlike gas, an oil leak cannot disperse into the air and become ignited by, for example, a match or lighter. Accidental explosions are therefore extremely unlikely when using oil heating systems.

Oil heat is also the most efficient way of heating your home; because it burns at such a high temperature, oil produces more heat from less fuel. Oil can create about 140,000 BTUs of heat per gallon while natural gas usually produces about 100,000. Moreover, oil furnaces typically last longer than gas furnaces—about 30 years vs. 14 years for a gas furnace. In fact, the myth that oil is less efficient than gas largely stems from the longevity of oil furnaces. Many people who buy homes with oil heating find a 20 year old furnace in place and decide not to replace it as it’s still in perfect working order. However, modern oil furnaces (like modern gas furnaces) are far more efficient than the furnaces of the 1990s. If you buy a home with oil heating, it’s therefore a good idea to consider upgrading your furnace.

Once you have a modern oil furnace installed, you’ll be able to enjoy all of the unique advantages offered by oil heat: Safety, efficiency, and affordability.

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Click on the links below to find additional insights and information:

Oil heat - what you need to know ›

How your oil-fired heating system works ›

The facts about oil vs. gas heating ›

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