When it comes to heating your home during the cold months, heating oil provides the most heat per gallon of any fuel. However, when it comes to withstanding cold temperatures, heating oil doesn’t do as well. In this guide, we’ll show you what to do if your heating oil freezes and how to prevent it from freezing in the future.
Yes, although perhaps not in the way you would expect. When heating oil experiences low enough temperatures, the oil’s paraffin content will start to gel. This begins to happen just above the standard freezing temperature of water, and at this point, the oil will condense and cloud, although performance will not be affected. However, once temperatures sink to around 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the paraffin separates and crystallizes, turning into a kind of gel.
If your heating oil gels, it may start clinging to your tank’s sides and may gum up your entire system, drastically altering your heating system’s flow rate. If this happens, you will effectively have no heating source, which is why preventing this situation is so important.
Gelling can negatively affect your heating system through:
Gelling and waxing can be used interchangeably. What happens when your heating oil begins to gel — and before it becomes so viscous that it can’t flow through your piping — is that wax platelets, or wax crystals, have started to form in the fuel.
These wax platelets first form from the long hydrocarbon chains, a primary component of heating oil. These waxy particles clog oil lines, furnaces, and water heaters. When people talk about heating oil “freezing,” they are referring to the gelling of wax platelets — oil does not freeze in the same way that water does.
Heating oil gelling is a naturally occurring process that starts at the molecular level. Heating oil comes from crude oil, which is composed partially of long hydrocarbon chains, groups of carbon and hydrogen molecules. These chains form wax platelets in the heating oil tank or oil, and as temperatures start to drop, these platelets crystallize.
The gelling or waxing of your heating oil changes your oil’s viscosity, making the oil waxier. When this happens, it increases the chances that your system’s lines or atomizing nozzle will clog. The oil eventually becomes so viscous that it simply becomes stuck in the line.
Heating oil providers and oil heater manufacturers often use the term “wax point” or “gel point,” which refers to the range of temperatures within which the heating oil becomes so thick that it is no longer usable. While we can approximate this temperature, waxing doesn’t occur instantly once a certain temperature is reached — instead, it gradually thickens as it cools.
For this reason, the length of time that the oil stays at this colder temperature is a factor as well. It’s safe to say — the colder the temperatures are and the greater length of time the oil is exposed to those temperatures, the higher likelihood that your oil will gel.
If you suspect your oil heater has already clogged due to gelling, you should immediately contact a heating specialist and have them perform an emergency repair service. Although the professional will come as quickly as they can, it may be a little while before they arrive, so you should have an alternative way to stay warm in the meantime. Some good ideas include:
You can also be proactive and make things easier once the technician arrives by melting the wax clogging the tank. You can take a hairdryer and blow hot air onto the tank. Be careful if there is ice or snow in the area, as water and electrical appliances don’t mix.
While a professional can get your clogged system back up and running again, keep in mind that emergency service is quite costly, which is why you should do all you can to prevent this situation from happening in the first place. Taking a few simple steps like storing your oil indoors and insulating the fuel lines will help you stay warm throughout the winter.
While no one tip guarantees that your heating oil won’t freeze, if you combine a few strategies, you can minimize the chance of this happening. Useful tips include:
Speak with your oil dealer, and they may be able to help you prevent this issue. If not, speak with another dealer and find out what types of solutions they have. The most common way to prevent this issue is with a liquid additive made to minimize or eliminate gelling when it’s added to your tank, which ideally should be done right before refilling.
Dealers will either sell these additives for you in 16-oz containers or premix the additive with the fuel before delivering it to you. If you can’t find a dealer who offers an additive, you may need to solve this problem by yourself, in which case you’ll have to be sure you’re getting the right formula. Keep in mind a wide range of additives that serve varying purposes are available, so make sure you pick an additive that is specially formulated to prevent the gelling of fuel oils. Read the labels and follow the directions carefully.
Wax crystals can quickly clog an oil filter’s felt filter media if it’s located outside, so we recommend moving your oil filter indoors. To do this, just install a new filter housing and filter in the indoor location, then take out the filter media from the filter housing outdoors. For the outdoor location, you can leave the filter housing as is without a filter.
Another good idea is to wrap your fuel lines with insulation that doesn’t absorb moisture. Ensure very little pipe is exposed to the cold by insulating the pipes completely or moving the pipes indoors if possible. All seams and openings in the insulation should be carefully sealed so that the lines are not exposed. Another option is to install your heating oil pipes underground, which provides insulation from the cold air.
Pipes with a larger diameter won’t clog up as quickly, so consider installing ones that are larger than the standard 3/8″ — this lets your oil flow for longer than it would through a pipe with a smaller diameter. This additional time is often long enough to make it through an extremely cold period.
Adding K-1 kerosene to your tank is another possible strategy. This substance mixes with your oil, lowering its freezing point, as K-1’s freezing point is roughly 20 degrees Fahrenheit. K-1 burns well in practically any type of home heating oil furnace. However, this solution comes with a higher cost.
Installing an electric oil tank heater is another way to reduce the likelihood of your oil freezing. You can also customize drum heaters and sheet-type heaters to be used on the exterior of your tank. They’ll be most effective if they’re installed on the lower side or bottom of the tank, and you should secure them using RTV adhesives rather than clamps and straps. When installing, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions.
By installing the heater below the tank, you help distribute the heat as it rises up and around the tank. Be sure that the heater you chose is suitable for the tank’s location if it’s outdoors or exposed to wet conditions. Operating this type of heater increases your electric bill and, for this reason, should be considered a last resort.
If your heating oil tank is outdoors, building a room around it might be a better option than trying to move it indoors. Although building a room around your tank is costly, it’s nearly certain to work. Install a small heat source, or, if the room connects to your home, allow some airflow between the room and other areas of your home.
Shipley Energy offers several protection plans, including a heating oil tank protection plan. For a monthly fee, you can get everything from priority service, refills, and inspections to a tank replacement for the life of your tank. Depending on your plan, you can receive discounts on repairs and equipment for your whole heating system.
With such a plan, you can rest assured that a qualified technician inspects your tank and takes measures to prevent your heating oil from freezing each winter. And if you do run into any gelling, you’ll get priority service to get your heating system up and running when you need it most. Plus, you’ll receive regular maintenance and prompt repairs for any other issues your tank or heating oil might experience. After winter, a technician can check your tank for any sludge that built up over the colder months to prevent future clogging.
Maintaining your heating oil system provides many benefits, with the most obvious benefit being fewer furnace failures. Heating oil systems can fail at the most inconvenient times, so to minimize the chance of this happening, you should have your system inspected and regularly serviced to ensure it is clean and functioning properly. Technicians can also detect minor issues before they turn into bigger ones that could lead to system failure. The quicker you have a small problem fixed, the less likely you’ll need to bring out a service technician on a cold winter night.
Other benefits of preventive heating oil system maintenance include:
At Shipley Energy, we make buying heating oil simple and convenient. Speak with our friendly team of helpful representatives, and we will provide you with fast, personalized assistance.
You can also use our user-friendly online system to make a one-time order. Or, sign up for our automatic delivery service and get our no run-out guarantee. We’ll use some basic information about your heating needs to estimate when you need a fill-up and schedule service at your convenience.