Waste Oil Burners, Heaters and Boilers

From tasty to toasty: Used cooking oil heats a diner

Owner of Watertown eatery rebels against fuel costs

By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff

Like every small business owner, Don Levy was eager to escape crushing increases in the cost of energy this winter.

The owner of Deluxe Town Diner found a way to slash his fuel bill for heating and hot water to $0 during some weeks this winter: a new system that runs on the 30 or 40 gallons of vegetable oil he uses every week for cooking fries, plus oil he collects from a nearby pizzeria and a pair of Chinese restaurants.

While hundreds of Boston-area restaurants sell or give their used cooking oil to companies that reprocess it into motor and heating fuel, Levy is one of the few who has cut out the middleman and become his own heating supplier. Besides curbing heating costs, Levy is also saving the $100 or more he used to pay a sanitation company to haul away used oil every month.

"I'm saving money, and I'm saving the planet, too," Levy, 61, said yesterday.

Although his self-contained approach seems to be unique, Levy has plenty of company among Hub businesses looking to chop their heating expenses. This month, the first wave of natural gas bills is hitting mailboxes, reflecting price increases of 30 to 50 percent over last winter. Users of heating oil may be getting their next delivery and finding prices here now average $2.38 per gallon, up 46 cents from the same time last year and double 2002 levels, according to a weekly survey by the state Division of Energy Resources. Utilities such as KeySpan Energy Delivery New England and NStar are reporting some of the highest numbers of calls for energy efficiency advice since the 1970s energy crises.

Using 100 percent vegetable oil as Levy does requires a special boiler. A blend of fossil fuel and vegetable oil can be used in a conventional boiler. Over the last two years, several hundred homeowners and many businesses in Massachusetts have begun buying so-called bioheat fuels. These fuels typically blend 80 percent conventional fuel oil and 20 percent vegetable oil or 90 percent conventional and 10 percent vegetable fuel, and usually cost 10 to 20 cents a gallon more than fossil fuel.

"That's got to be a great deal for him," said Phil Lindsay, oil program manager for the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, a Jamaica Plain fuel-buying cooperative that has 200 members buying bioheat fuels. Lindsay, who is in his second winter of heating his Dorchester home with fossil fuel supplemented by vegetable oil, said the blended product has been well received. "I haven't gotten one complaint," he said.

However, Lindsay warned homeowners not to go pouring vegetable oil from their favorite neighborhood restaurant into their home heating system because stray food particles can create a serious smoke problem.

To burn his cooking oil, diner owner Levy bought a special burner made by Econo Heat Inc. of Spokane, Wash., which cost $20,000, including installation. In the basement of his 86-seat diner, Levy first pours waste oil through a big sieve into a 55-gallon drum to catch food fry remnants. The used oil is then passed through a special filter that can trap particles as small as 5 microns — the period at the end of this sentence is about 300 microns in diameter. To keep from clogging, the system also requires pre-heating oil before burning it, using heat from the boiler after it has been manually warmed and started. But after that, residual heat from the boiler keeps oil flowing.

Angelo Pistoftzian, owner of Therm Oil, a Watertown heating oil dealer which had been Town Diner's supplier for several years, installed the vegetable-oil system during Thanksgiving week. "It was very easy," Pistoftzian said. "It's the same setup as a regular boiler, with just some extra components."

Maintenance requires more attention than a standard burner. Levy has to change the $4 filter roughly every week. Instead of just "calling Angelo," he has to worry about coming up with his own steady supply of vegetable oil. So far this winter, he's had to buy about 100 gallons of fresh cooking oil at $2.80 a gallon to supplement the used oil supply, which has not kept up with his burner's needs.

But overall, Levy is satisfied he will recoup his investment within five years, and he will feel like a good citizen of the world in the meantime. The 800 or 900 diners who come through his restaurant every Saturday or Sunday will never have any reason to know that the cozy warmth inside the 1947-vintage diner, which Levy bought in August 2001 after a long career owning clothing and gift stores, is coming from the oil that cooked last week's hash browns.

"Why should we drain the planet's resources by burning up expensive heating oil," Levy said, "when we have our own supply of oil right here in the restaurant?"

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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