A Brief History of Heating Oil
High consumer demand for kerosene and Bissel’s new drilling method combined to set off the first rush for “black gold.”
Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861 and the conflict surprisingly led to increased demand for and utilization of oil—North-bound shipments of turpentine from the Confederate States were halted, reducing the production of camphene and making kerosene the new top light source in the North.
From Light to Heating Fuel
There was home heating before fuel oil, it was just a heck of a lot more inconvenient. For the first 100 years, home heating in a heavily forested America was dominated by wood—it wasn’t until about 1885 that the United States would burn more coal than wood. Prior to 1885, the bulk of homes in America were heated with wood burning brick fireplaces and offshoots of the cast iron stove invented by Ben Franklin in 1742. At the end of the 19th century, however, the invention of low cost cast iron radiators would bring central heating to America’s homes with a coal fired boiler in the basement delivering hot water or steam to radiators in every room. Around the same time in 1885, Dave Lennox built and marketed the industry’s first riveted-steel coal furnace. These early furnaces transported heat by natural convection (warm, heated air rising) through ducts from the basement furnace to rooms above. Homes heated by coal, however, meant each household had to have room for a large coal bin and a steam boiler. This came with the added chore of shoveling the coal, as well as cleaning up the copious amounts of soot and ash it produced. Fuel oil, however, changed all of that. According to Energy and Society by Harold H. Schobert, the arrival of the oil burner in the 1920’s, as well as the invention of the thermostat led homeowners to put aside their shovels and greeted heating oil with open arms. The thermostat allowed totally automated home heating, controlled to a specific temperature. They received a clean, even heat with fewer drafts. Oil furnaces offered essentially instantaneous on/off control, eliminating the laborious task of building a coal or wood fire then waiting for it to give off abundant heat. Further, the temperature was controlled by a light touch to the thermostat, rather than the heavy haul of a shovel.
WWII to Today
In the early 1900’s, at the urging of John Arbuthnot Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Royal British Navy, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to convert the British Navy from coal to oil fuel for the strategic benefits of greater speed and more efficient use of manpower (no one needed to constantly be shoveling coal). Churchill’s decision thrust oil onto the world stage for the first time and cemented its position as an integral part of international politics.
A clear peak can be seen in consumption of fuel oil during the latter half of the First World War, with an increase in 3.3 million tons from 1916-1918. In 1918, fuel oil accounted for over 65% of total consumption of petroleum products.
Kyle Macdonald-Wallis and Marin Young note in “UK Oil Over the Past 100 Years” that over the last century, there have been two main uses for fuel oil that have significantly increased its demand. The initial significant use was as marine bunker fuel (fuel that powers the engine of a ship or aircraft) for shipping. This is still a significant use, but not included within inland demand. The other significant use was for electricity generation in power stations. From 1950-1973, fuel oil consumption grew in line with rising overall product demand. However, usage has fallen significantly since the 1973/74 oil supply crisis, with a temporary bump during the 1984 miner’s strike in the UK. Since about 2000, its use has tapered off to about two million tons in the UK.
During WWII, allied oil had been diverted to the war effort, powering tanks and submarines. After WWII, oil once again became readily available to the American public, and oil pipelines spread through the United States. Distillate fuel accounts for almost 25% or a barrel of crude, most of which is made into diesel fuel for ships and trucks. Heating oil is a distillate fuel that is chemically identical to diesel—together, heating oil and diesel (distillates) account for the second largest portion or “cut” of a barrel of crude after gasoline. Even in the heart of coal territory, such as the mining region of northeast Pennsylvania, it became a status symbol in the 1950’s to tear out one’s old coal furnace and replace it with an oil burner. Companies turned their attention to developing better heating systems. They added electric blowers to boilers as systems, creating the first “forced air” systems. In the 1950s and 1960s, as new suburban communities were developed, builders installed hot water pipes in concrete floor slabs, calling it called radiant heat.
By the middle 1960’s, the new trend was electric coil heating. It was clean and cheap and didn’t take up much room. Then suddenly electricity, which was created by mostly oil-fired plants, saw its prices skyrocket at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Price incentives then drove people to natural gas or oil as the fuel for their furnace.
With the lifting of U.S. price controls on heating oil in the mid 1970’s, the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) began developing a heating oil futures contract and, in 1978, introduced the world’s first successful energy futures contract.
According to the American Petroleum Institute new oil heating systems boast energy efficiency ratings ranging from 83 to 94 percent, and over 8.5 million American households, mostly in the Northeastern states, rely on heating oil to keep warm in winter.