Monday, March 28, 2011

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Oil-mist system may burn less cash
Entrepreneur’s idea is simple: Get the soot out

Eric LaVoie invented the Burner Booster, a pump and valve system that helps oil burners work more efficiently.

HOLLISTON — Eric Lavoie’s idea was simple: Turn heating oil into a mist, providing more surface area to burn, and it will generate heat more efficiently. For consumers, that would mean using less fuel and spending less money to heat their homes.

Lavoie’s idea has become the basis of a new system, called the Burner Booster, being tested in a handful of New England homes and government buildings, including a minimum security prison in Plymouth.

Company tests, backed by independent analysts, show that furnaces with a Burner Booster use as much as 35 percent less oil to generate the same amount of heat, while producing less soot and reducing greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions by 30 percent or more.

The invention could have interesting implications for New England, which depends on heating oil to keep warm. In Massachusetts, nearly 40 percent of households heat with oil, according to the US Department of Energy. In Maine, it’s 80 percent. Nearly 60 percent of homes heat with oil in both New Hampshire and Vermont.

The price of heating oil has soared and plunged and soared again in recent years, in parallel with dramatic fluctuations in the price of crude oil, driving many households to seek lower cost alternatives, from pellet stoves to natural gas. Crude and heating oil prices have spiked in recent weeks as unrest rages through oil-producing regions in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Lavoie said the Burner Booster could make heating oil competitive with natural gas again. His start-up, Energy Efficiency Solutions LLC of Holliston, is beginning to sell the system in New Hampshire, with units starting at $5,900. At today’s home heating oil prices, averaging $3.89 per gallon in Massachusetts, and assuming 30 percent better oil-burning efficiency, it would take a little over two years for the system to pay for itself for a consumer who now uses 2,400 gallons of oil each year.

Natural gas conversions cost $5,000 to $10,000 — if service is available.

All of this has the state Department of Energy Resources looking closely at Burner Booster. State energy officials are awaiting more results from Burner Booster demonstration sites to decide whether Lavoie’s system is something that might work in other public buildings.

"So far, from everything we can see and everything we’ve heard, it looks like a promising technology," said Eric Friedman, director of the Leading by Example program, which promotes emissions reductions and energy efficiency at state facilities. "It looks like a fairly inexpensive way to get quickly at reductions of oil usage."

The idea for the Burner Booster came to Lavoie five years ago, as he waited at a Medfield gas station for his annual vehicle inspection. A former industrial engineer, Lavoie noticed the station’s heating system — fueled with waste motor oil — had too many electrical components and left the place sooty. He figured he could help.

He talked to the station owner about replacing the setup with something simpler, then began tinkering in his garage on a high-pressure pump-and-valve system to burn waste motor oil more cleanly. A stream of oil mist, he thought, might do the trick. It took about a year to come up with the first Burner Booster, a box in which fuel travels through a pump and out a nozzle as mist.

"If it works," he told the station owner. "I want free inspection stickers for life."

He hasn’t paid for a vehicle inspection since.

Lavoie’s father-in-law then convinced him to adapt the system for heating oil furnaces. After a good deal of experimenting, the Burner Booster worked well enough — almost too well to believe — that Lavoie had it tested at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Fire Science Laboratory and at an air-quality consulting company.

Today, the Burner Booster is undergoing pilot tests. At the state’s minimum security prison in Plymouth, a Burner Booster installed in a dormitory last year cut fuel use by about 35 percent, or 1,800 gallons, said Jeff Quick, director of the division of resource management at the Department of Correction.

At $3 a gallon, that’s $5,400 in savings.

Tom McColl, who spends about $4,000 a year heating his Natick home, began using a Burner Booster three or four months ago and has cut his fuel use by about 20 percent, he said. That’s $800 a year in savings.

"My house is kind of a sieve, and when it’s cold outside you’d think my old chugalug furnace would have to work harder," he said, but "we’ve used less oil than last year."

The promise of such savings is also sparking interest among advocates for the poor.

With Congress considering cuts in the federal program that helps low-income households pay heating bills, anything that might help families lower fuel costs is intriguing, said John Drew, head of Action for Boston Community Development. The nonprofit agency assists families applying for home heating aid. An estimated 270,000 across the state were expected to request assistance this winter, up from 250,000 last season.

"Yeah, I can get excited about that," Drew said. "We’ve got so many people in need."

The big question, Drew said, is whether poor families could afford a Burner Booster without subsidies.

Michael Ferrante, head of the Massachusetts Oilheat Council, a heating oil dealers trade group, said he has not heard much about the Burner Booster and is withholding judgment.

"If the Burner Booster can reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Ferrante said, "hats off."

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